Phil Jackson Returns to Coach NBA's Lakers

Phil Jackson is back as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson and the Lakers parted ways a year ago after Jackson feuded publicly with star Kobe Bryant. Before that, Jackson won three NBA titles as Lakers' coach. But the team he inherits is not as strong as the one he left.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in Los Angeles, the Lakers have reclaimed one of their superstars and he doesn't wear shorts and sneakers. Head Coach Phil Jackson is back a year after being fired by the Lakers. Following his dismissal, the Lakers traded star center Shaquille O'Neal and the team had a dismal season losing more games than it won. Now hopes are high that the man called the Zen Master can return the team to greatness. There is some skepticism, however, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

He is almost as famous for assigning his players books to read as he is for winning a record-tying nine NBA titles. Phil Jackson, it's said, is the thoughtful coach, the spiritual mentor for millionaire basketball players. And now add this to his resume: Master of surprise.

Mr. PHIL JACKSON (Coach, Los Angeles Lakers): Well, this is something I never thought could possibly happen.

GOLDMAN: Indeed, less than a year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers hardly were in Phil Jackson's future. The massive talent and egos of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Jackson had blended well enough to earn the Lakers three straight championships from 2000 to 2002. But then it came apart with O'Neal and Bryant squabbling over top-dog status, and after the Detroit Pistons dismantled LA in last year's NBA finals, it was over. Bryant was the victor, if you can call it that, the man left standing in LA. But it hardly was enough. He often was criticized for being too selfish on the court and the Lakers failed to make the playoffs. Jackson seemed relieved when he left the team yesterday having signed a three-year contract reportedly worth up to $10 million a year. Jackson was characteristically Zenlike when asked why he came back.

Mr. JACKSON: I can't think of anything more intriguing that was offered to me. It wasn't about the money, it was about the intrigue of this situation, and it's a tremendous story. It's a tremendous opportunity. It's a story of reconciliation, redemption. It's a story of reuniting.

GOLDMAN: And there's no more important reunion for the Lakers' success than the one between Jackson and Bryant. In a book he wrote about his last difficult season with LA, Jackson called Bryant uncoachable. How will he repair that rift with his best player?

Mr. JACKSON: You know, I think it's a matter of trust and a matter of rebuilding the trust that we've had and yes, I have talked to Kobe. And he called me this morning and congratulated me on the job. And I felt confident that he's confident that we can go forward.

GOLDMAN: Certainly Lakers' fans have a new sense of confidence after going through last year's forgettable season. Jackson said yesterday he's not the panacea for the Lakers and that the team may not be poised for another NBA title even at the end of his three-year contract. But 44-year-old LA resident Donald Curreo(ph) doesn't buy that low expectations stuff.

Mr. DONALD CURREO (Fan): I think he'll take us to the playoffs next year and then from there on we'll see what he does. But I'm pretty sure we'll be in the championship.

Mr. IAN O'CONNOR (Sports Columnist, USA Today): Phil Jackson is going to be painted in that market as a savior.

GOLDMAN: Ian O'Connor is a sports columnist for USA Today.

Mr. O'CONNOR: As a guy who rode back into town to save Kobe from himself without Shaq being there.

GOLDMAN: And Kobe Bryant will resent that, says O'Connor. He thinks as a result whatever relationship Bryant and Jackson patch together will ultimately break down. O'Connor, author of a new book on the NBA called "The Jump," calls Jackson's return to the Lakers a Hollywood-sized disaster in the making. The quickest route Jackson could have taken for a record 10th NBA title, O'Connor says, would have been with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were interested in having Jackson as their coach. Jackson would have inherited budding superstar LeBron James and lots of money to pay top free agents who'd want to play with the unselfish James. Despite his skepticism, O'Connor acknowledges Jackson could prove him wrong. After all, O'Connor still remembers the column he wrote in 1995 saying it was a huge mistake for Joe Torre to sign on as manager of the New York Yankees. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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