LOS ANGELES -- Phil Jackson sat about 10 rows up from the New York Knicks bench on Sunday night as his team played yet another meaningless game against the Los Angeles Lakers. The game was ugly. Except for the back and forth between Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony and Kobe's former teammate Sasha Vujacic, it will be forgotten quickly. Neither team is going to the playoffs.
Whatever nostalgia may have been conjured up by seeing Bryant and the coach with whom he won five NBA titles in the same basketball arena one last time before Bryant retires was just a fleeting emotion. Mentally and spiritually, Bryant has already moved on and is just trying to enjoy his final 15 games for what they are.
Jackson is the one in transition, metaphorically and existentially as he sat above the Knicks' bench but still with the Lakers in the field of view. At the end of the first quarter, Lakers fans stood to applaud as Jackson was shown on the big screen and organist Dieter Ruhle played the theme from "Welcome Back, Kotter." Jackson waved and flashed his familiar wry smile. As always, as ever, he remains a key figure as the clock ticks down on the front offices of two of the NBA's marquee franchises.
With the Knicks, Jackson had a vision for the type of organization he had wanted to build, but it became clear in Year 1 that it was going to be a complete teardown. Year 2 had to be better. The Knicks had to start building and moving in the right direction, or at least look like they were. Jackson's first Knicks head coach, Derek Fisher, was supposed to be the vessel who articulated Jackson's vision to the Knicks' players.
Instead, Fisher was more like a glass wall. Jackson could see the team, but nothing was getting through.
Jackson would text Fisher observations and suggestions, and Fisher would respond in one-word answers. When the Knicks held a coaches' retreat at The Ritz Carlton in Marina Del Rey at the end of summer, a meeting that sources said was meant for bonding and philosophical discussion about the team, Fisher was unable to attend.
The lack of communication wasn't entirely on Fisher. Jackson was trying to give him space to grow and develop his own voice as a coach.
"Trying to create autonomy for Derek kind of separated me from direct contact," Jackson said last week in Los Angeles. "[General manager] Steve Mills was [in] closer contact with Derek than I was because of our relationship in the past.
"... You guys [in the media] want to harp in on the fact that he was a puppet perhaps. I wanted him to have the autonomy to make decisions on his own and not feel like I was an overload." Phil Jackson on Derek Fisher
"Also, you guys [in the media] want to harp in on the fact that he was a puppet perhaps. I wanted him to have the autonomy to make decisions on his own and not feel like I was an overload."
But that freedom may have been too much, and it manifested itself on an ill-fated trip Fisher took to Los Angeles in the fall. By the time he boarded a private charter late on Oct. 4, all Fisher wanted was to get home to New York. What was supposed to be a quick, quiet two-day getaway to Los Angeles to see his children and new girlfriend, Gloria Govan, one last time before the NBA season began had pretty much been a disaster.
On Saturday evening, the night before his return flight, Fisher was involved in an ugly altercation with Matt Barnes, Govan's ex-husband and Fisher's ex-teammate. Barnes felt Fisher shouldn't be spending time around the couple's two 6-year-old boys without his blessing. The cops were called. They asked questions. Fisher was going to have to decide whether to press charges, and then whether to tell his bosses with the New York Knicks what happened. They were difficult choices in their own right but even more complicated when you consider that Fisher hadn't told anyone from the Knicks he was even going to Los Angeles for the weekend.
Now, finally, he was on his way home. A private jet would have him back in New York by dawn, in plenty of time for the team's practice on Monday morning. That was the plan anyway. But shortly into the flight from Los Angeles, the plane developed mechanical problems. The decision was made to land in Las Vegas and swap planes -- but the jet was too heavy, having been loaded up with enough fuel to fly across the country.
For two hours, sources told ESPN, the small charter plane carrying the Knicks coach had to circle the Las Vegas airport to burn off fuel. When it was finally safe to land, those in the traveling party were told they would have to wait a few hours to get a new plane to take them the rest of the way. With nowhere to go, they grabbed some pillows and blankets and slept on the floor of the private terminal. At that point, there was no way Fisher would be back in time for practice. He had to tell the Knicks what had happened over the weekend.
The Knicks had essentially been just like Fisher's faulty plane, circling and trying to dump dead weight since Jackson accepted the job as president in March 2014.
In some ways, Fisher had bad luck. If the plane hadn't developed mechanical problems, Fisher likely would have made it back to New York in time for practice on Monday and no one would have known he had even been gone for the weekend. There would have been no need to explain why he had left town in the middle of training camp. No reason to question his dedication to rebuilding the Knicks after the worst season in franchise history. No uncomfortable questions about his priorities and whether Jackson could trust him to lead this team as a coach, as he once had led Jackson's Lakers teams as a point guard. No embarrassing tabloid stories about his altercation with Barnes and the trust issues that the trip raised for Fisher with his own players.
But uncomfortable truths have a way of coming out one way or another. If it wasn't the incident with Barnes or the mechanical problems with the plane, the issues revealed by the ordeal probably would have manifested themselves at another time or place.
On Feb. 9, with the Knicks rapidly falling out of playoff contention and heading into a downward spiral, Jackson finally fired Fisher. Perhaps in time the two would have found the right balance. But Jackson has a sense of urgency about this rebuilding project.
He and the Knicks have a mutual out clause after next season, meaning there is precious little time for him to start producing results.
Initially, sources said, Jackson asked for that out clause after the 2017 season because of the possibility of a work stoppage, as the players' union can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement after next season. But both sides understood that good intentions don't always lead to happy, long-term marriages. So they built a no-fault out clause into the prenup.
Thus far, the marriage has mostly stood up to the strain of losing. But no one likes losing. Not the Hall of Fame coach with 11 titles or the owner paying said Hall of Famer eight figures a year to resurrect his franchise. And so Jackson tabbed his trusted longtime lead associate head coach Kurt Rambis to take the helm in the interim in the hopes his message would get through -- or at least finally be heard.
If next season could be his last in this role, Jackson should at least say what he wanted to say. Rambis would let him speak and do as he pleased. There was no worry of stepping on toes or stunting a young coach's growth. In the month since he made the change, Jackson has traveled with the team and interjected his thoughts and opinions more than he did the entire time Fisher coached the team.
"It's great to have him supporting," Rambis said. "With [Phil] and Steve Mills and Allan Houston, we have a front-office staff with good basketball minds. It's great to get their perspective before games, after games, and sort of bounce basketball ideas off each other."
Those close to him say Jackson seems more energized these days. He has lost about 20 pounds of the 30 he gained during his first two years on the job. Even Kobe Bryant noticed, remarking after Sunday's game in Los Angeles that, "He looks great. Physically he looks good. I'm happy for him."
There's even talk Jackson could offer to coach home games next season, with Rambis coaching the road games. It's an offer the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss once flatly rejected, but it could be an interesting compromise to hiring Rambis as the head coach next season.
Golden State Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton will get a long look this offseason, but Walton is in no hurry to leave the Warriors. Not when they seem poised to contend for titles for years to come. After the job he did filling in for Steve Kerr at the start of this season -- when he went 39-4 while Kerr recovered from back surgery -- Walton can afford to be just as picky as Kerr was in choosing his first head coaching job.
Those close to the situation say it's hard to predict whether Walton would leave for the Knicks job or the Lakers job if both were to open this summer. Both franchises have much to prove, both in terms of talent and organizational stability.
In Los Angeles, the Lakers haven't yet decided whether to bring Byron Scott back next season. Sources indicate they intend to meet with Scott once the season ends, before deciding whether to retain him. While general manager Mitch Kupchak may have been noticeably unenthusiastic when asked to assess Scott's performance last month, sources indicate that was simply Kupchak's way of avoiding the question and not adding fuel to the speculation about Scott's future. It was clumsy, but it wasn't intended to be the damning indictment some read it as.
Then there's the question of how long Lakers president Jeanie Buss sticks with Kupchak and president of basketball operations Jim Buss. Both of them are on the clock.
Next year marks Year 3 of the self-imposed three-year deadline Buss gave himself for getting the Lakers back on track. There's some debate about what "back on track" means (Back in the playoffs? Back in the second-round of the playoffs? Conference finals?), but neither he nor his sister have ever wavered from that declaration, despite clamor from inside and outside the organization to speed up the timetable. Kupchak's contract extends beyond that deadline, but it's hard to see him continuing on in his role if Jim Buss were to step down.
If anything, Kupchak will be under just as much pressure as Jim Buss next season. Bryant will be retired, which could be a blessing or a curse. Bryant's farewell tour has blocked out the sun for everyone this season. In some ways, that has made it harder to see how the Lakers' young players are growing. But it's also been something of a shield, masking their flaws and the deficiencies in and around the organization.
Here's where the speculation starts about Jackson returning to L.A. to work for Jeannie, his fiancée, in the role he coveted before he accepted the Knicks job. But sources close to both Jackson and the Lakers insist that's unlikely. He likes his life in New York. He gets to see his lifelong friends and former Knicks teammates Clyde Frazier and Bill Bradley whenever he wants. He has got space and autonomy to operate. He loves the vibrancy of the city and his house on the Upper East Side.
Still, never say never. In typical Jackson fashion, he amused himself with a cryptic answer when pressed this week about his commitment to New York.
"Well, I'm in L.A. right now," Jackson joked as he fielded questions after the Knicks' shootaround on Friday at Staples Center. "I'm enjoying it. I went out and rode my bike yesterday, did some things that were really nice to do.
"... So far, it's been a challenge and I'm still in it, and I'm in it to win it, so to speak." Phil Jackson
"But this is another part of my life. The energy that I have is directed toward turning this team around and it's taken my full effort. So far, it's been a challenge and I'm still in it, and I'm in it to win it, so to speak."
It's never entirely clear when Jackson is kidding when he speaks like this. He's naturally mischievous. Half the things he says are meant to be inscrutable, just so he can see how people react to them. It's for information as much as his own amusement.
In this case, it's impossible to read. He's still unproven as an executive. Can he recruit free agents to New York? Can he build a winning culture? Or has the game changed too much since he retired as a coach in 2011? But his wry smile is indicative of something important. After two years of circling aimlessly, Jackson is back flying the plane.
Ian Begley contributed to this report