He's not coming back, this much is clear. In fact, following Sunday's season-ending debacle in Dallas, Phil Jackson described how difficult it was just to get through this year:
"It feels really good to be ending this season, to be honest with you. I came back this year with some trepidation. Kobe's knee was an issue, and obviously our team was older. The thrill of trying to chase a three-peat is always an exciting thing. But yes, I knew it was a big challenge for this team to three-peat. We've gone to the Finals, and to go back twice and win it after losing in '08 puts a lot of strain on the basketball club from all angles. Personalities, spiritually, physically, emotionally. Getting charged up for game after game and assault after assault when you go in and play a team. So it was a challenge bigger than we could beat this year."
The relief he references comes not because Jackson didn't want to win, but in recognition of the strain and stress of the 2010-11 season for his team, along with his mind and body. This year, more than any in the recent Finals run, was a grind, an exercise closer to cat-herding than the slow building of continuity and cohesion for which Jackson had become so well known. There were sparks here and there, but no sustained fire. "The bond," as Lamar Odom called it, was lost. What was true of the players towards each other applied equally to the connection between Jackson and his players.
For a variety of reasons we'll dissect throughout the upcoming weeks, this year it was just too hard. Hindsight makes it less surprising, especially considering how last year's Finals required every ounce of will the team could muster. This year's title was never quite as much the Lakers' to lose as we all suspected.
Still, Jackson didn't regret giving it one more go: "As much as we struggled at certain points during the year, there was a real bond that was with these guys that was terrific. They worked real hard. They tried to do their best." Had he passed on the opportunity, there would have been regret, Jackson said, but he exhibited no such regret in walking away. "This is, in all my hopes and aspirations, the final game that I'll coach. This has been a wonderful run."
Jackson was supremely effective throughout the season at burying talk of his impending retirement, pushing what could have been the year's dominant story into the background. As a result, the team's spectacular flame-out in the second round, at least a week or two before most people expected it could come, killed any dramatic lead up to his last game. It was supposed to conclude with Jackson coaching against the Bulls in Chicago or meeting up with Miami's Big Three, a storybook ending with P.J. riding into the sunset with a 12th ring, helping Kobe tie Micheal Jordan in the process.
Reality refused to cooperate, as it generally does.
Fittingly, Jackson didn't leave without one more swipe at the league, who unburdened his bank account of $35,000 for criticism of officials at Saturday's practice. The NBA's charitable arm, Jackson noted, will need a new angel donor. "As Richard Nixon says," Jackson cracked, "you won't be able to kick this guy around anymore."
Click below for more from Jackson, including what he thinks he might do in retirement, his future connection to the Lakers, and more...
On why Game 4 broke down the way it did, his thought process as he realized this would really be his last game, the performance of Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, and more:
Following the game, Carlisle honored Jackson, calling him "the greatest coach in the history of our game." He wasn't so sure, however, Jackson would stay retired. "I don't know how long you can go to Montana and meditate, smoke peyote, or whatever he does there. I don't know. He's going to get bored."
Jackson, told of the comment, replied with a smile. "First of all, you don't smoke peyote..."
From there, he talked about what he'd miss about coaching in the NBA: