Crossroad puzzle

Will this season be head coach Phil Jackson's last with the Lakers? Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

He has most often been a guide, a leader of men. Coaching, cajoling, sometimes even coddling them into a greatness buttressed not by id or ego but selflessness.

It is Phil Jackson's unique way, refined through reflection from a life around the game.

Each championship season is a new journey, though the end remains the same: A sticky celebration in the middle of June, those few fleeting moments inside the locker room when it is all done, before the world is allowed inside to watch, when a group of men laugh and cry and rejoice, knowing they have given of themselves, for each other, to become greater together than they could have been alone.

Victory is not enough. It must come with honor and from sacrifice.

Ten times Jackson has coached a team to a championship, a mark greater than that of any peer's, which can be challenged only by posterity.

"What makes basketball so exhilarating is the joy of losing yourself completely in the dance, even it it's just for one beautiful, transcendent moment," Jackson wrote in "Sacred Hoops," his ode to his first dynasty in Chicago.

When it all comes together, finally and fruitfully at the end of a long season, as the Lakers hope it still might, that moment is entirely enough. A satisfying end that makes everything that came before it seem weightless.

It's what comes next that always feels ponderous.

In most years, Jackson has decided what comes next by checking first with his doctors, then with his heart. If he felt able and excited to continue, he would head home to his lake cabin in Montana for the summer, then return refreshed in the fall.

But the choice is complicated after this season. It is not entirely his choice to make.

His fate and future rests first in the will of Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who has indicated he does not want to continue paying Jackson at his current salary of $12 million a season.

The world has changed since that contract was signed. Banks have fallen, nations crippled. The NBA's fortunes have faded. A lockout looms. All the while, the Lakers' payroll has swelled as Buss sought to keep together the players Jackson forged into a championship core.

So Jackson has come to an unfamiliar crossing, forced not just to choose between leaving the game on his own terms and his passion to keep chasing those transcendent moments, but to look within and decide how much pride he might be able to swallow to pursue that glory again.

His body has betrayed him for years, placing the onus of whether to continue on his spirit. Now his body is healing, thanks to good fortune and a new knee brace, just in time for circumstance to betray him.

Retire unsated on principle? Start over in wealthier pastures, feeling more appreciated but with a longer road to travel? Or accept a compromised return, choosing his passion over his pride?

It is a choice only he can make, without a guide.

Mitch Kupchak will wait like the rest of us. Whatever decision Jackson makes, whether he stays with the Lakers or goes, will greatly affect Kupchak's offseason plans. A new coach would mean a coaching search, then potentially a new system requiring different types of players. But Kupchak says he isn't going to think deeply about that unless he has to.

"You know something, I'm not planning for Phil not to be here," Kupchak said between Games 4 and 5 of the Finals. "If in fact he chooses in July not to be here, then we'll launch a search or sitdown with a short list with ownership. I don't think it would be hard to find a coach to take this team on. I would think it'd be considered a very attractive job.

"We'd find somebody. Certainly we wouldn't find somebody as good as Phil. But that's not really something we're planning for right now. That's something we feel we do have time on.

"In my heart I really believe, unless there's a medical reason, I really believe he will be back next season."

Kupchak gets paid mostly to evaluate players, but he's always known what he had in Jackson.

"He is, in my opinion, one of the all-time coaches," Kupchak said. "And you could argue that he is the all-time coach."

As men, they seem dissimilar. Kupchak is usually portrayed as serious and guarded. Jackson is the guy wearing flip-flops to practice and guiding meditation sessions before games.

But there is a bond of understanding between the two men, who both scrapped their way to successful NBA careers without the athletic gifts of some of their peers.

Whatever they achieved in this game was earned, not given. The game is a privilege to be embraced, not a right to hold on to.

"He and I had a conversation about a month ago," Kupchak said. "There were a couple things in the paper about some of the opportunities [he might have], or that maybe he wouldn't coach, and we kind of joked, 'Well, like, what would you do? Just kind of hang around the house?'

"In the serious vein, I don't think there's anything he'd rather do than being in the trenches with our team. But he's not a prisoner of the game. He's had great success with the team and financially, so he can make choices that other people can't make.

"I don't think he wants to coach longer than he feels is necessary. This is something that he feels a lot of great players and coaches go through, whether to stay a year too long or leave a year early, I think everybody grapples with that. But it's an easier call when you have all your ducks in a row, so to speak, in terms of what you've accomplished. He's had unparalleled success, and financially, that's not a concern.

"So he's in a position to make a choice for the right reasons, and I think that's why he takes time at the end of the season to do so."

Jeanie Buss tries not to worry. It's just that while Jackson has his Zen philosophy and the playoffs to take his mind off what may or may not happen next season, in her role as the Lakers' executive vice president, Buss is paid to think about what may or may not come next season every time she deals with the team's corporate partners. They want to know who the coach will be next season just as badly as anyone else. The Lakers, after all, are a more valuable corporate partner with Phil Jackson as their coach.

Then there is the personal component. Buss and Jackson been together long enough to have fallen into a happy comfort zone, and she's determined not to let Jackson's status with the team affect their relationship. But saying that and actually not worrying aren't two different things.

"Phil doesn't dwell on things like that. I worry about stuff like that, not him," Buss said. "Of course I want to see the Lakers repeat as champions, which would lead to hope to keep the team together and to go for a three-peat. But that is out of my hands, and I need to stop worrying about things that I have no control over."

Buss has found herself feeling sentimental on several occasions during these playoffs. Like the night before Game 5 of the first-round series versus Oklahoma City, when it occurred to her that if the Lakers lost Game 5 in L.A. and Game 6 in Oklahoma City, that trip to Staples Center might be the last time they would ride together before a Lakers home game.

Earlier in these playoffs, Buss publicly raised the possibility of Jackson coaching elsewhere next season if he was not back with the Lakers. It was a startling thought. Phil Jackson with another team? After 10 titles? After three straight trips to the NBA Finals?

Jackson later said he "can't see that as an image, or even as a prospect," but he noticeably left the door ajar, saying "I'd say it's 90 percent that if I'm coaching it'll be here," and then fielding questions about other potential openings throughout the playoffs.

Still, Buss said she can't see Jackson retiring after this season for two reasons: He loves it too much, and what else would he do?

"I know Phil will be coaching next year somewhere. Whether it's here or some place else, I don't know," she said. "I know that he can't just like retire. I'm like, 'Honey, what are you going to do? Are you going to help your kids go change diapers and stuff?'"

A few months ago, Buss made a decision: If Jackson does leave, she is determined to find a way to make their relationship work. She's seen first-hand how her best friend, Linda Rambis, has maintained a happy marriage with Kurt Rambis while he was away coaching Minnesota this year. Long-distance may not be the best option, but it can work.

"I do not have any problem if he goes to another team. We will work it out," Buss said. "As a matter of fact, I have the perfect role models in Kurt and Linda Rambis. She traveled back and forth to Minnesota while keeping her job working with me. So my point is, Phil's relationship with me will not affect his options if he decides to continue to coach."

Frank Hamblen stays away from breaking news. He doesn't check the ticker or the crawl. If something's important, he'll find out. No use worrying about it until then when you've got the Boston Celtics to scout.

Hamblen has been scouting since his playing career at Syracuse ended in 1969. The tools of his trade are simple: Watch, study, listen, look for patterns, read between lines and, above all, trust your gut.

Jackson's decision about his future is as important to Hamblen as it is to all the Lakers' assistant coaches. Their futures are tied to his. But while Brian Shaw and Jim Cleamons would likely land elsewhere if Jackson were to leave, Hamblen isn't sure he'd want to start over somewhere else.

That's a decision he'll make if or when the time comes, not before. And yet, as heavy as that looming decision might seem, Hamblen shows no signs of worry. He's scouted Jackson.

"I think we've all been with him so long we know how to read him," said Hamblen, who began coaching with Jackson in 1996. "I'm getting close to retirement age also, and I'm not going anywhere else. … But I think he's going to come back, I think he feels well enough to come back. And I think he'll wonder, 'What will I do if I don't coach?'

"So I think he's going to go at least one more year. He knows he has a good team, but it's still a challenge to take that good team and win a championship.

"Plus, he loves it too much and he's too good at it to retire."

You wonder if he envisioned this all along. If, in addition to being successful, he might also be prescient. Because when Phil Jackson returned as the Lakers' coach in 2005-06, after a contentious one-year separation, he had little outside of Kobe Bryant's prime years to work with.

The team around Bryant was young and inexperienced. It had little form or definition, having been cobbled together from the best Kupchak could fetch and repackage for Shaquille O'Neal. Yet Jackson seemed excited by the challenge of molding and shaping this sort of team in the autumn of his career.

If there had been a criticism of Jackson in the past, it was that he did his best work with almost-finished products. Taking championship-caliber teams and making them champions. Now, at age 60, he was supposedly excited about teaching a bunch of kids how to box out or run the pick-and-roll?

He took a moment to explain things, during that first year back, when he affixed a new prologue onto the latest print edition of "Sacred Hoops."

"'Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms. Peaceful dwelling as change itself liberates all suffering sentient beings and brings them great joy.' I'm working through this saying attributed to The Buddha," Jackson wrote. "It's the 'peaceful dwelling' that often gets to me as I squirm under the changes, rather than embracing them.

"This work-in-progress is a terrific challenge for me as I get a chance to allow players to develop at their own rates, to accept defeat with victory, and to allow the peaceful dwelling to bring great joy."

It took three years to arrive back at the threshold of a championship, and another year to reclaim it. And still, there was work to be done.

There are a few pointers that can help when you begin to ask Phil Jackson a question. First, know that he might answer a completely different question than the one you asked, but it might be a better answer. Second, listen carefully in case he makes a joke. Third, understand that even when he's making a joke, he's not always joking. And finally, never assume he's actually talking to you.

It's easy to forget, because the beginning of the playoffs feels like so long ago that Andrew Bynum's ability to play through an injury was once in question. In addition to missing large chunks of the past two seasons with knee injuries, he missed the final month of this season with an Achilles injury, leaving his status for this postseason very much in doubt.

Jackson has always pulled his punches when it comes to Bynum, admitting that his young star still had much to learn, but never questioning his will to do so. He's also always tempered his praise for the 22-year-old center, saying he'd have a good game here or there or that his presence helps the team, but rarely speaking of his character.

Jackson has always been careful not to make too many drastic moves with Bynum, believing self-discovery is ultimately the best way to create lasting change.

Last season Bynum began to work more with Jackson and then-assistant coach Rambis, and less with his previously appointed mentor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Now with Rambis off to Minnesota and Abdul-Jabbar's role lessened, Jackson's bond with Bynum has grown. In practice, he's often the one working with Bynum on footwork or technique. Teaching up close instead of from the sideline.

The two men share little in common, with Jackson a 60-something with a counterculture bent and an affinity for Zen Buddhism and Native American spirituality, and Bynum a 20-something from New Jersey with a mechanical-engineering bent and an affinity for fast cars. But somehow through their close work together this season, respect has grown. Each man hearing the other.

On the eve of the playoffs, I asked Jackson whether he'd noticed a change in how Bynum was responding to his injuries this season compared with last season.

"Oh sure," Jackson said, pausing to set up the punch line. "He's a real veteran now."

The media room dutifully guffawed. Not his best line, but pretty good for a Saturday morning. Except Jackson wasn't laughing or basking in the glow of a well-delivered line. He was still talking.

"This is a real different young man than he was last year when he was really into his best season up to that point [when he got injured]," Jackson said, stepping back for a moment, sounding more proud than wry.

"This year he's had a real veteran kind of year. He's had a lot of experience, he knows what's going on, he knows what he can do and he knows what he can't do, also. So I think he'll play within his capabilities."

It was an answer, but it wasn't for me or my question. It was for the kid who'd already sped away from the Lakers' training facility in El Segundo wondering whether he'd be able to give enough this time.

Ron Artest is still learning to fit in. Nothing about this year has been easy for him. Not learning the triangle offense, not finding his place on the team, not hanging his offensive game at the door of the locker room because the Lakers really don't need him to score. But by far, Jackson has been the biggest mystery to Artest.

"That was the hardest part for me, just learning exactly what type of person he is, what exactly does he want," Artest said. "I want to know he wants what he wants or he says what he says.

"When I first got here I didn't play in the fourth quarter [for] like 30 games. I'm like, 'What the heck is going on?' Then eventually, because I knew I wasn't going to play in the fourth so I wasn't preparing myself to play in the fourth. … then all of a sudden, soon as I do that, he puts me in in the fourth."

The more you know Artest, the more sensitive you realize he is. He wants to be liked and appreciated. He wants to do well and fit in. Not with everyone or in any setting. But with those he admires. On this team, that list includes every player or coach with a championship ring.

Jackson has sensed this from the beginning. Above all, Artest needs approval. Deep, abiding approval, not simply a pat on the back. So Jackson has made him earn it.

Earn his right to take 3-point shots, earn his right to play in the fourth quarter, even earn his right to speak on his own behalf.

"He's a naive, innocent lamb," Jackson said. "I think he's mistaken in a lot of ways, put in the same category as Dennis Rodman. There couldn't be a bigger disparity between people."

Jackson has never been afraid of players with a reputation. He likes the challenge of taming the souls others give up on as too wild. Not to prove he can, or to show off another horse that he alone has learned to whisper to, but because with every wayward soul he tames by appealing to that need to belong and become part of something greater than yourself, he affirms his belief in the redemptive power of selflessness.

Victory is not enough. It must come with honor and from sacrifice.

The issue with Artest this season has never been about willingness to sacrifice. If anything, Artest has been too willing to sacrifice. He's been timid and uncomfortable, trying so hard to fit in that he can't help sticking out.

It's obvious, yet Jackson rarely singles Artest out as the source of the Lakers' clunkiness on offense. Knowing how much pressure Artest is putting on himself, Jackson deliberately lays the burden of integrating the short-fused small forward on the entire team.

"Instead of having a play call, you have a reactive quality to your game," Jackson said. "It's been a strength to our game, really, over the years, but this team still has some issues. It's still developing. I told them the school's still out on them in that way."

Defending a title is difficult -- summoning the same energy, finding the same cohesion and selflessness, all while taking every other team's best punches every night.

During the Lakers' previous run of multiple championships, from 2000 to 2002, they never came close to matching their 67-win regular season in 2000, winning just 56 regular-season games in 2001, 58 in 2002. This season followed a similar pattern, with the Lakers dropping off their 2009 65-win pace early and finishing with 57 wins, including a thudding 4-7 skid to end the regular season.

The root of the problem was hard to define. Was it complacency? Injuries? Distractions? Chemistry? Or perhaps this particular team, though it looked so similar to last season's championship team, just wasn't the same?

Jackson has always been something of an alchemist: his ways mysterious; his results magnificent.

But as these Lakers began their title defense in mid-April, the equations seemed unbalanced.

"I think there's some biology instead of some chemistry to this one," Jackson said. "I think sometimes that we're just not on the same wavelength on this team.

"You talk about speaking and acting with one mind -- I'm not sure we all have that commitment to being able to get there in one mind. I don't think it's out of lack of want, I think it's out of lack of ability at some point.

"That's one of our difficult things throughout the year, and now we're coming up to the spell where we're really supposed to know how to do everything and we're still kind of reviewing what we have to do to get to this spot."

It was a worrisome disconnect, yet none of the Lakers players seemed as worried as Jackson. Somehow they trusted he'd help them find their way to balance.

"This is now eight or nine times down the road with Phil and each year you start to see why he's been able to lead his teams to championships," said point guard Derek Fisher. "He's proven that he has almost an instinctive, intuitive feel for how to do things in the postseason.

"You see all the little fundamentals and the little boring things that he's trying to teach you in November or December, how they all come back into play when the postseason starts. And all of a sudden, just one little tweak of something you've always done changes the whole thing."

He has again been a guide. Leaving little trace of his skilled work while taking the Lakers to the precipice of another championship.

They are all close enough to visualize another champagne shower, but still far enough away to stare into the face of a painful summer. Jackson has said in the past that there is no hurt greater than getting to the NBA Finals and leaving without the crown.

You wonder if his decision to return or retire would be made for him if the Lakers lose this series to the Celtics, if he could leave the game with such a bitter taste in his mouth. Or if maybe that is the only way he could leave it.

He had an opportunity last season to leave with a poetic flourish: riding back home to Montana after passing Red Auerbach with his 10th title, retiring to his peaceful dwelling under big, cloudless skies.

Instead, he chose passion. His passion for the game, and the pursuit of another transcendent moment.

This time the choice may have changed, influenced by market forces and circumstances unrelated to his performance.

It seems unfair to ask such a question of such a man so late in his career. Yet this is the unfamiliar crossing he may arrive at.

If he is asked to take less, would there be honor in his sacrifice, or insult?

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.