LOS ANGELES -- Phil and Kobe, together again.
Phil Jackson is back with the Los Angeles Lakers following a
breakup that took a year to mend, and back to coaching Kobe Bryant
-- a player he once called "uncoachable."
"This is something I never thought could possibly happen,"
Jackson said Tuesday at a Staples Center news conference. "It's a
pleasure to come back."
Jackson, who won three championships with the Lakers in five
years, was let go last June 18 by owner Jerry Buss -- three days
after the team lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals.
The buzz about Jackson's possible return began almost
immediately after his replacement, Rudy Tomjanovich, left in
February, despite Jackson's book detailing the 2003-04 season in
which he made disparaging remarks about the franchise.
Bryant was at the top of that list.
"I think it's a matter of trust, a matter of rebuilding the
trust that we had," Jackson said of his relationship with Bryant.
"And yes, I have talked to Kobe; he actually called me this
morning to congratulate me on the job. And I felt confident that
he's confident that we can go forward."
Bryant's reaction to a possible return by Jackson seemed
lukewarm at best during the past several months. But Bryant
released a more positive statement through his agent Tuesday.
"When the Lakers began the search for a new head coach, I put
my complete trust in Dr. Buss and [general manager] Mitch Kupchak
to select the person they thought was best for the Lakers'
organization," Bryant said. "In Phil Jackson, they chose a proven
winner. That is something I support."
Jackson's latest deal is for three years. Terms were not
announced, but it's believed he'll be earning between $7 million
and $10 million per year, making him the highest-paid NBA coach
ever -- a fact confirmed by Kupchak.
The terms of Jackson's contract do not include specific personnel duties, team sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
One source, though, emphasized that Jackson has always had a strong voice in Laker personnel decisions since joining the club in 1999.
Which is to say Jackson doesn't need the formal front-office title to tell Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak whom to pursue in free agency, trades and the draft. It's believed Jackson will be more vocal than ever with regard to giving input on players.
Kupchak said other potential coaches were contacted to gauge
"Roy Williams turned us down for the third time," Kupchak said
of his attempts to talk with the North Carolina coach. "That's a
Los Angeles record."
But the Lakers' only offer went to Jackson, Kupchak said, with
the deal being finalized early Tuesday.
"I can see how thrilled he is to be back," said Todd
Musburger, Jackson's agent. "It was the right decision. In the
end, it came down to returning to the Lakers or taking another year
off. And here we are."
Jackson said he's been approached over the last three weeks by
fans and non-fans asking him when he was coming back.
"One of the reasons why I've returned is the support has been
so tremendous in this city," he said. "It is a town that truly
supports its team and has a tremendous amount of affection for
Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter and the Lakers' executive vice
president of business operations, publicly lobbied for months for
the return of Jackson, her longtime boyfriend.
She got her wish.
"We're very pleased to have Phil return to the Lakers as our
head coach," Jerry Buss said in a statement. "His record speaks
for itself and his success in this sport is unparalleled. Quite
simply, Phil is the best coach in the business and probably the
greatest coach of all time."
Jackson, who turns 60 in September, has had health issues in the
past and underwent an angioplasty two years ago. He told ABC-TV
before the opening game of the NBA Finals that he had a series of
tests showing he was "100 percent healthy."
Jackson's dismissal last year set in motion a makeover of
massive proportions that proved disastrous for the Lakers. Dominant
big man Shaquille O'Neal demanded a trade and superstar Bryant
opted out of his contract to become a free agent the same day
Jackson's five-year run as coach ended.
The following month, O'Neal was traded to Miami while Bryant
stayed with the Lakers.
"I want to congratulate Phil on returning to coach the Lakers," O'Neal said in a statement released through the Heat. "He is one of the premier coaches. I wish him the very best."
O'Neal's representatives did not return repeated calls and
e-mails seeking additional comment.
Tomjanovich succeeded Jackson, signing a five-year, $30 million
contract, but lasted barely half a season, citing health reasons
when he suddenly resigned Feb. 2.
With injuries playing a major role, the Lakers lost 19 of their
last 21 games under interim coach Frank Hamblen to finish 34-48 and
out of the playoffs for just the second time since 1976.
Jackson, who has never posted a losing record, has coached nine
NBA championship teams -- six with the Chicago Bulls and in his
first three years with the Lakers -- from 2000-2002. That ties him
with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most in
Jackson also has a record 175 postseason victories and is tied for 10th on the NBA's career list with 832 wins in just 14 seasons -- nine with the Bulls and five with the Lakers. He has a .725 regular-season winning percentage and a .717 postseason winning percentage.
The Lakers were 285-125 in the regular season and 68-28 in the
postseason under Jackson. But this figures to be his biggest
challenge since the current team doesn't appear to have what it
takes to return to elite status any time soon.
The Lakers are well over the salary cap, restricting their
ability to bring in high-priced free-agent talent for at least two
years. Their defense was abysmal last season; they had an
unbalanced roster with too many small forwards; they had virtually
no inside presence; and they were suspect at point guard.
"I'm not the panacea for this basketball club," Jackson said.
"It's going to take plenty of hard work and dedication over the
course of the summer to change the face of this team."
Jackson said winning a 10th championship is not a priority and
didn't sound like he expected that in the next three years.
"I would be most amazed if at the end of the third year we had
an opportunity to do that," he said.
"He said the same thing the first time we hired him. I hope the
same thing unfolds," Kupchak said.
Jackson spoke to several other teams, including the New York
Knicks. His decision to rejoin the Lakers should speed up the
process of filling other job openings around the league. There are
coaching vacancies in Minnesota and Portland, and Seattle coach
Nate McMillan's contract expires at the end of this month.
ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein contributed to this report.