The first time a telephone call convinced Phil Jackson to reconsider his thinking on a coaching job, the team executive had fed coins into a pay phone inside an American Legion Hall in Lima, Ohio. Jim Coyne had a losing team and sagging attendance with the Albany Patroons in the winter of 1983, and ultimately sold the freshly retired New York Knick on his bush-league beginnings in the Continental Basketball Association.
“Had I not made [the call], who knows where his path would’ve taken him?” Coyne once told me.
For all the van rides to Bangor, the last-chance characters on his Patroons roster, the end of the greatest coaching career in NBA history had to feel strangely like his beginnings in the old Washington Street Armory. From Ron Artest(notes) to Lamar Odom(notes) to Andrew Bynum(notes), the Lakers had been reduced to the kind of low-rent, dirty tactics so often employed in the desperate circumstances of the minors.
Champions can get swept and still go out champions. The Dallas Mavericks dismantled the Lakers, a devastating 4-0 defeat in the Western Conference semifinals that reflected as much on Jackson than it did his undisciplined, unfocused players. Jackson’s instincts told him it was over a year ago, but he returned for a three-peat and a big bag of money. In the final hours of his Lakers dynasty, Jackson looked more like Bobby Knight berating Pau Gasol(notes) with thrusts to his chest than his mentor, Red Holzman.