Jackson had no choice but to stay

LOS ANGELES -- In the end, the fly in the ointment was too big to ignore.

Near the end of Phil Jackson's meeting with the media last week, when he claimed he was leaning toward retirement, he smiled when the idea of completing his fourth three-peat of his career.

"My intention was that if we won the second time, to go for a three-peat would be natural," Jackson said. "It would be tough not to go for another championship in that three-peat realm, which is ridiculous. That's one of those things that's sitting out there that's still a fly in the ointment."

Well, in the end, the fly and the three-peat won. They were always going to win. Anyone who knows Jackson knew the ointment didn't stand a chance no matter which way he was leaning.

There was no way Jackson was going to pass up the symmetry of completing two three-peats with the Chicago Bulls and two more with the Los Angeles Lakers. How could he stop two-thirds of the way toward doing what has become his staple as a head coach -- winning championships in groups of three? Was the "Zen Master" really going to stop at an impressive, yet ominous-numbered 13 championship rings as a player and coach?

Jackson basically hinted at his return while giving a keynote speech in Whitefish, Mont., on Sunday, saying 13 "is a hard number to stop at when you think about it."

Pat Riley may have trademarked the phrase "three-peat" but Jackson patented it over the past 20 years, and it is one of the accomplishments he's most proud of in his career. If the run at a three-peat didn't mean anything to Jackson he would have already announced his retirement and extended his summer stay in Flathead Lake, Mont., through next season.

Just the idea of completing a fourth three-peat, a feat only accomplished by Jackson-coached teams since 1966, is the one stat on his resume that causes him to shake his head in amazement. "That would be ridiculous," he said last week.

Even when Jackson said he was leaning toward retirement last week, many within the Lakers' organization said they would be surprised if he actually retired, knowing how big the pull of winning a third straight title was to him. Only moments after Jackson spoke to the media, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak went so far as to say he would be "very surprised" if Jackson retired.

As much as Jackson's family wants him to retire and as much as his body is probably begging him to call it a career, he knows he can't now. And quite honestly the Lakers couldn't have afforded to see him leave in the midst of what could be another dynasty, because there probably wouldn't be one without Jackson.

The knock against Jackson will always be that he has been surrounded by some of the best players on the planet, so presumably any coach could win championships with talent like that. It's the biggest fallacy in sports, and the players and coaches around him know it.

"Don't talk to me about basketball. You don't know [expletive] about the game, obviously. We're done," Kobe Bryant said last week when asked how he responds to critics who say Jackson's record is entirely based on having the most talented teams.

The truth is Jackson may have had talented players, but he always took over talented teams that couldn't play together and didn't know how to win championships. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and John Paxson were together for two years and couldn't get past the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs with Doug Collins before Jackson was named head coach. Within two years, the Bulls swept the Pistons out of the playoffs and were on their way to their first three-peat.

The Lakers were destined to be overhyped underachievers when Jackson was named coach in 1999.
Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox had been swept out of the playoffs for two straight years before Jackson took over and led them to three straight championships.

The one season he left the Lakers, they missed the playoffs for only the fifth time in franchise history. The first year he returned, he had them one win away from upsetting the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. The Lakers have made the postseason, including the past three NBA Finals, every year since his return. You can give all the credit to his players, but they'll always credit Jackson, remembering how many titles they won without him sitting on the bench.

"He has a great knack for bringing guys together," Bryant said. "His message is always the same. He's not a rah-rah coach; rah-rah coaches lose the attention of the team quickly because they're always trying to pump guys up. He doesn't do that. He focuses on execution, on [the] triangle offense and us playing as a unit. That's it."

It took a playoff-less season of being without Jackson and years of maturity for Bryant to truly appreciate how much Jackson meant to him and his success as a player. That's why the first person Bryant talked to after signing his contract extension during the season was Jackson, basically pleading with his coach to stay for as long as possible.

"We're drastically different [without him]," Bryant said last week. "He knows that. I've stressed that to him over and over. The personality of our team is made up of his composure, his thought process of his philosophy. It changes things drastically [if he's not here], but I don't even want to think about that right now."

Luckily for Bryant and the Lakers, they don't have to think about that for at least another year now.

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.