The Toronto Raptors, emboldened by the news that the Sacramento Kings apparently won't be moving to Seattle, have ramped up their pursuit of Phil Jackson to be their new team president, according to sources close to the situation.
Sources told ESPN.com that the Raptors -- now being run by former Los Angeles-based sports mogul Tim Leiweke -- regarded the Seattle group that was trying to buy the Kings as the biggest threat to preventing Jackson from seriously considering their pitch.
But now that the Kings appear poised to stay in Sacramento instead of being sold to the consortium led by Jackson fan Chris Hansen, sources say that the Raptors will be pursuing Jackson aggressively this week, believing that they rank as Jackson's most attractive current option for a new career in management now that he can reunite with Leiweke.
One source close to the situation told ESPN.com that Hansen and Jackson have "hit it off," sparking league-wide speculation that Jackson would be offered the chance to run the new Sonics in Seattle in the Pat Riley-style role he craves. But with a 12-owner committee recommending Monday that the Kings' move to Seattle be blocked, Toronto's seemingly long-shot odds of winning the Jackson sweepstakes would figure to have received a boost.
That's largely because of Jackson's longstanding friendship with Leiweke, who was introduced Friday as the new CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which oversees the NBA's Raptors, NHL's Maple Leafs and Toronto FC of Major League Soccer.
One source said that Leiweke's "vision and energy" and history of shared success at Staples Center with the 11-time championship coach ensures that Jackson will give the pitch strong consideration despite skepticism around the league about his willingness to relocate to Canada.
Amid its pursuit of Jackson in the wake of Leiweke's arrival, Raptors president Bryan Colangelo is scheduled to meet with the MLSE board next week in hopes of convincing his bosses to pick up the option year on his contract. The 2013-14 option in coach Dwane Casey's contract was picked up by Colangelo before this season, but Leiweke's arrival has thrown both of their futures into some immediate doubt.
In an interview last week with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jackson said "three or four teams" have already expressed interest and that "none of it involves coaching."
"There are some interesting situations that are presenting themselves, but I really haven't made up my mind yet what I'm going to do," Jackson told the Chronicle.
Jackson also confirmed to the newspaper he's interested in a developing team "where you'd have the influence in [selecting the] coaching staff and the kind of culture that goes along with it."
A large segment of Lakers fans have been holding out hope that Jackson could be lured back to the bench for a third stint in L.A., but Lakers officials have been adamant for weeks that Mike D'Antoni will be back next season as head coach after beating Jackson out for the job in November when Mike Brown was fired and then enduring a season of non-stop injury woe involving all of the Lakers' key players.
That hasn't stopped persistent speculation that Jackson and fiancee Jeanie Buss are destined to assume control of the franchise, but to date there has been no firm evidence to suggest that such a shift is looming. The Lakers don't appear to have much of a role to offer Jackson with Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak running basketball operations in tandem and D'Antoni on the bench, giving Toronto further encouragement that it can tempt Jackson.
Although Jackson's willingness to take on the sort of challenge Toronto would present as a franchise after just five trips to the playoffs in its 18-season existence remains unclear -- as does the amount of money it would cost Toronto to pull off such a coup -- sources continue to stress to ESPN.com that the overwhelming likelihood remains that the 11-ringed coaching legend will be back in the league next season in some capacity.
ESPN.com reported earlier this month that Jackson, after two seasons in retirement, is itching to return to the NBA next season, preferably in a role similar to Riley's in Miami that allows him to oversee both the basketball department and the coaching staff or perhaps as a high-level consultant such as Jerry West in Golden State.
One source, while not specifically referring to the Raptors, said Jackson is approaching his future with far more of an open mind than has been portrayed and would listen to a pitch from just about anyone because he feels he still has a lot to offer the basketball world at age 67.
Among the bigger challenges Jackson would appear to face as he plots his return is the prospect of getting offers from teams, such as Toronto and Charlotte, that are well shy of title contention after coaching nothing but high-profile, big-market powerhouses in Chicago and Los Angeles once he graduated to the Bulls' bench from the Continental Basketball Association.
Another likely issue is the possibility that interested teams will inevitably want him as a coach, given that he's the most successful coach in NBA history with those 11 rings and has never held a prominent NBA personnel job. Earlier this season, Jackson resisted coaching overtures from the Brooklyn Nets in the wake of Avery Johnson's firing and told longtime confidant Charley Rosen in January in a SheridanHoops.com story that he "has no intention of ever coaching again."
Colangelo won the NBA's Executive of the Year trophy after his first full season in Toronto in 2007, giving the franchise a major boost in credibility after he left Phoenix to join the Raptors. As for Casey, it's not yet clear how a GM change would affect his status -- contract or not -- given that Toronto finished 34-48 after coming into the season with playoff aspirations and after acquiring Rudy Gay in January.
Leiweke was known as a big-idea man during his time in Los Angeles who wasn't dissuaded by the naysayers who said he'd never succeed in luring David Beckham to Major League Soccer. Less than a week into Leiweke's Toronto tenure, it appears that Jackson is his new Beckham.