The perception is that Phil Jackson walked away from the Lakers' job two summers ago, and any chance to seek a 12th championship -- when, in truth, he hobbled.
His 67-year-old body and especially his legs, ravaged by years of travel and medical issues, turned the simple act of coaching into a chore. His posture was the same as an old cowboy who rode too many rodeos. So Jackson "walked" away from coaching the way a linebacker, fearful of what the next vicious hit might do, walks away from football.
That's the only issue facing Jackson as he and the Lakers do this dance, finalizing plans for him to serve a third tour of duty and salvage the lofty hopes of a remade team. Does he have it in his limbs to rise off his designer chair and scream at a referee, or rein in Metta World Peace? Can he take the long flights, the strange beds, the weird travel hours, the practices?
Everything else, said someone who knows Jackson, remains intact and ready, just as before. His desire, his confidence, his ability to connect with superstars, it's all there, and not in cobwebs.
"Phil likes the challenge and especially likes being wanted," the person said. "I know he got a kick out of hearing the fans chant his name the other day."
The person added that Jackson began to get the coaching urge earlier this calendar year, and that Jackson privately wondered why the Knicks didn't bother to contact him when Mike D'Antoni was fired in the spring. Jackson always had a soft spot for the Knicks, where he once played and won a championship, mainly to follow the path of Red Holzman, his former coach. But the Knicks went with Mike Woodson and Jackson settled into retirement, jetting back and forth between his homes in Montana and L.A. and writing another book on his career, waiting for the phone to ring. But he wasn't expecting to see the 213 area code on his caller ID.
Jackson will bring back the triangle offense and tweak it so it embraces Steve Nash. Jackson has never had a point guard with Nash's skills, not with the Bulls or the Lakers. So he'll need to make special provisions for Nash, who turns 39 in three months but remains in ideal shape (other than the slight fracture in his leg, obviously). What the Princeton offense under Mike Brown failed to do was utilize the point guard, who won a pair of MVPs by screen-rolling teams to death. The idea is to use Nash that way, but also as a spot-up three-point shooter in situations where Kobe Bryant runs the offense and sucks in the defense.
Dwight Howard would get his points mainly on screen-rolls with Nash and off the offensive glass. Jackson doesn't want to risk Howard being with the ball away from the basket, where he's often clumsy, and where he'd collect fouls and be forced to shoot free throws (which he doesn't do too well, either).
The person who'd benefit most, of course, is Kobe, who'd wear many hats: point guard, facilitator, shooter, scorer. But not in a way that would wear him out before the post-season. Kobe would have multiple responsibilities without the burden of needing to score constantly. In Jackson's final season, Kobe ailed from a troublesome right knee, but he has since undergone a radical procedure in Germany and now plays without experiencing any of the same problems.
"The one thing that's kind of always bothered me is that in his last year I wasn't able to give him my normal self," Bryant said. "I played on one leg and that's kind of always eaten away at me. The last year of his career I wasn't able to give him all I had. He's too great of a coach to have it go out that way. That's my personal sentiment. My knee was shot. That's always bothered me."
Another reason given for why Jackson left the Lakers after the 2010-11 season was the change in the ownership dynamics. Jerry Buss doesn't directly oversee the team anymore; that's done by his son Jim, and he and Jackson had disagreed on several issues in the past. One was money: Jackson was once making $10 million before being forced to take a pay cut. Jim Buss also purged anyone and anything in the organization that had to do with Jackson, including a refusal to give the coaching job to Brian Shaw, Jackson's top assistant, on Jackson's recommendation. That was widely seen as a slap at the triangle offense, although Buss recently told the LA Times he doesn't have any problem with Jackson. The two apparently settled their differences this weekend.
And so everything points toward another reunion and an official announcement within a few days, once the coaching staff is formed. The players, ownership and management are all on board with Jackson, and there's no sense in polling the fans, who already voiced their opinion Friday against the Warriors. As for the man himself, after spending the last 17 months on recharge, he's ready as ever.
But does the mind control the body?
Jackson had his knee replaced in March and was given a clean bill of health, but his body hasn't been tested by the NBA lifestyle. His agent Todd Musburger said last summer: "I think he would be very comfortable returning. There's a lot of frustration when you're sitting in your living room watching a team try to defend a screen and roll, and you can't put your hands on an organization."
It's not his hands that are in question. Other concessions must be made for Jackson to feel as comfortable as possible, and so the Lakers will bring along the big chair for the bench and any extra pillows for the long flights. Whatever it takes.
But nothing is more comfortable than winning and, in particular, a shot at another championship. If necessary, Jackson is willing to walk a mile to get it.