Phil Jackson hasn't said much publicly since he was passed over for the Lakers' coaching job in favor of Mike D'Antoni. And he did not use a 60-minute conversation over breakfast last week to launch fusillades against the Lakers. But he did have some comments about the Lakers and a few other things, too.
Some of Jackson's comments appeared in a Sports Illustrated story running this week. (Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)
Jackson wasn't wearing any of his 11 coaching rings on this morning (he also has two as a player from the Knicks), but the subject came up because his book coming out in May is titled Eleven Rings. His favorite, incidentally, is the 1996 ring, the first one of the Bulls' second three-peat, not because of anything that happened during the season, but because it is "the least ostentatious," with a simple four trophies on it.
Note that the interview took place while Dr. Jerry Buss was still alive and in the hospital. Certainly I would've asked Jackson something about the legacy of Dr. Buss, who hired him (twice) and is the father of his longtime companion, and now fiancée, Jeanie Buss, who runs the Lakers' business operations.
One final thing: Jackson has seven grandchildren, from two other marriages, and gave up the fact that Jeanie now allows herself to be called "Granny."
SI: Do you watch a lot of games? Do you have the NBA package?
Phil Jackson: I just got it last week at Jeannie's insistence. She didn't want people thinking that her boyfriend is so poor he can't get all the NBA channels.
SI: Do you take notes in case, you know, future jobs arise?
Jackson: I sometimes take notes. I have some people who have come to me and ask, "Would you watch my team, see if you can pick anything up?" Four or five teams, plus the Lakers. [He wouldn't identify the other teams.] So while I'm not officially in the consulting business, it might come in handy sometime.
SI: You've been away from the game for two years. Do things change quickly in the league?
Jackson: Not really. It's a mimic league. It has been for a long time. Coaches see something and say, "Oh, that's hard to defend. Maybe we'll run that." Screen-roll. Three-point shooters in the corner. Bigs that can roll and pop. San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.
SI: How does the game look to you? Similar from team to team?
Jackson: Yes. Basketball is a simple game. Your goal is penetration, get the ball close to the basket, and there are three ways to do that. Pass, dribble and offensive rebound.
The easiest one is -- or should be -- the pass. But the new rules allow you to throw more people at post-up players. NBA basketball is a big man's game, and in the past they protected that aspect of the game. Well, those rules went out the window and what they didn't do was consider this: If they're going to continue to allow zone defenses to work and shut down the paint, then they have to put six more seconds on the shot clock. A 30-second clock. But they're so attached to the idea of the 24-second clock that it doesn't happen.
SI: Did you bring it up when you were coaching?
Jackson: All the time, all the time. But general managers always dominated those competition committees. Anyway, it [allowing limited zones] has eliminated some of the post passing and made dribbling a major part of our game. As a result, I think people forgot that there are still ways you can get the ball inside rather than just standing there and throwing the ball in. You have to have a system that makes all things work. Pop [San Antonio's Gregg Popovich] has that.
SI: How would you describe that system?
Jackson: Popovich made significant growth 10 years ago or so after David Robinson left. It had been pretty stilted. You know, two big guys. A lot of stuff he does represents the triangle offense. They flow into it a different way. Strong-side triangle. Pinch-post action. Some of it may have come about because we were going at each other all the time in the playoffs and he had to defend against it.
SI: When you won three consecutive titles [2000-02] with Shaq and Kobe, you ran the triangle. But didn't you also get a lot of screen-rolls out of that?
Jackson: Yes, and it came naturally out of the offense. Or it might be a "special." We always had some of those.
SI: When you look at the Lakers now, considering that they've had a lot of personnel changes and injuries, what do you see?
Jackson: They just don't put the ball in the post. They'll use a screen-roll to get the guy in the post. But there's no consistent plan to do it. Yes, Kobe will go in there. But Dwight [Howard] just doesn't get any touches. They've basically eliminated his assets.
SI: But wouldn't his assets be rolling off the screen-roll, with either [Steve] Nash or Kobe?
Jackson: You want the ball 10 feet away from the basket. Throw it into the post, make them double-team and have everybody around to make shots. That's what Shaq could do. That's where you have the Robert Horrys, the Derek Fishers and the Rick Foxes sitting out there getting wide-open jumpers.
SI: But Dwight is not Shaq in that aspect of the game, drawing the double team and finding people. Isn't that true?
Jackson: I think he can be. But he is not where he needs to be physically because of the back surgery. He needs a year to recover from something like that. He's starting to come around, but he has a massive upper body to carry around. He's a terrific athlete, but he still has to get all that back. He's looking better all the time, but his problem right now is turnovers. He's got to have a little better recognition, and that will help him gain the confidence of his teammates and coach, which he does not have now.
SI: How about when Pau Gasol comes back? There seemed to be some problems when they were out there together.
Jackson: Well, what is the problem? We won two championships that way [with two big men]. Pau is one of the best big men in the game. I mean, Pau Gasol is going to be in the Hall of Fame.
SI: Hmm, I love his game, but I don't know about that.
Jackson: He has won European titles with Spain, [he won] two NBA championships. I think he will.
SI: As far as the Lakers go, haven't they been improving?
Jackson: Yes, I think they are finding a way to play. And that's nice to see. Steve has had to sacrifice because Kobe is dominating the ball, but Kobe is showing he can be both playmaker and scorer. Now it's about defense. And I think that's coming around. They make the playoffs, I think they've shown they're going to be in it with every team.
SI: Do you ever feel compelled to catch a game live at Staples Center?
Jackson: I haven't yet. I'll probably go when Shaq's number is retired. [That is scheduled for April 2.]
SI: There's little doubt you had a good run in this town, even after not winning it in, say, 2004, which may have been your toughest season, the one when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined on.
Jackson: I did have a good run. There were always people who didn't like the triangle, thought it was too methodical, too unlike Showtime. But I was always astonished about how well I was treated. When I came back [in 2005] and took the job, people actually thanked me. They didn't say, "Good luck." They said "Thank you." I never forgot that.
SI: The $12 million question -- and I'm just throwing out a number -- is: Are you going to coach in the NBA again?
Jackson: I'm not coaching. I told Mitch [Kupchak, Lakers GM] that back in October. So when we sat down in November [to talk about taking over after Mike Brown was fired], he brought that up and I said, "Well, this isn't about moving or going somewhere else and learning new players. It's different. So I'm ready to think about coming back, but I still have to think about it."
But I do hold out the idea that there's still influence in the game I could have. Red Auerbach, Pete Newell, Wayne Embry, guys like that have had ... a number of people have had considerable influence and haven't been coaches per se.
SI: So ... a GM job?
Jackson: I don't like that term. Vice president of basketball operations/director of player personnel is more like it.
SI: Vice president ... that doesn't sound like the boss, but the guy who would report to the owner.
Jackson: No, that guy would be the boss. He would be the president of the organization.
SI: What else do you do with your time besides surf the NBA channels ... now that you have the package?
Jackson: I'm a sports-watcher. I played football and baseball, coached baseball. So I watch those things. I watched rugby last weekend. I played hockey in North Dakota growing up and watch a lot of that. We watched Homeland.
SI: You seem like you might be a Breaking Bad guy.
Jackson: I'm not. One of my friends, John Lithgow, was on Dexter. So I watched that until it got too dark. Same with Breaking Bad and Weeds, shows like that. I can't take those shows where the premise is the good guys are breaking the law.
SI: How is your physical condition? [Jackson has had two hip replacements and one knee replacement.]
Jackson: Working out, rehabbing is almost like a job. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, several hours a day.
SI: A final obvious question: What do you miss about coaching?
Jackson: What you might expect. Being around the other coaches, being around the guys. It's what I talked about in my book [Eleven Rings]. Coaching is about, "How do I get these people to play at their peak level?" Yeah, the X's and O's mean something, but you can get people to do that. And a lot of those guys have been hired. The Lawrence Franks and the Frank Vogels. Mike Brown was one of those guys. That's not a knock. Those guys know how to coach the game.
But coaching is much more than that. It is a spiritual quest. And if it's not that, you don't have a challenge, you don't have a mission. Forming a brotherhood and trying to move it forward, that's the part that I miss.
Jack McCallum is the author of Dream Team and the Sports Illustrated Book of the Apocalypse.