HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – If Phil Jackson heeds the “We want Phil!” chants dropped like an anvil by the Staples Center crowd Friday night, the Zen Master will follow again in the footsteps of that other multi-title-winning Lakers coach — Pat Riley.
Rewind to the 2005-06 season. Riley’s return to the Miami Heat bench 21 games in doesn’t mirror the current circumstance that has fallen into Phil’s lap, but it’s not all that dissimilar either.
No, Jackson isn’t the president of the Lakers organization as Riley was and remains with the Heat when the then-60-year-old Riley horse-collared Stan Van Gundy into resigning nine days before Christmas.
Still, Jackson’s aura eternally twinkles above the Lakers franchise like a magical puff of — oh, you get the picture. Seven years ago Riley couldn’t resist the urge to return to the bench and coach a team he built not only to contend, but to win. The question in front of Jackson, now 67, is does he have the irresistible urge to return?
The suspense is palpable as the stage is spectacularly set for a hero’s return to save the day.
In the summer of 2004, Riley acquired Shaquille O’Neal in his divorce from Kobe Bryant, seeking a championship companion for his own young star, Dwyane Wade. Van Gundy and the boys won 59 games and advanced to the East finals against Detroit, only to lose Game 7 at home.
When the Heat sluggishly opened the ’05-’06 season 11-10, Riley returned, and the rest is history.
His team won 41 of the next 61 games, knocked off the Pistons in six games in the East finals and then oversaw one of the more remarkable comebacks in Finals history, rallying from a near-certain 3-0 hole to beat the Dallas Mavericks in six games.
With Kobe running short on time to capture a sixth title and catch Jackson’s original star pupil with the Chicago Bulls, the Lakers seized the offseason, trading for the second coming of Superman, three-time defensive player of the year Dwight Howard, and sure-fire hall of fame point guard Steve Nash. With Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, the quintet is easily the most decorated starting unit in basketball.
The results, 1-12 counting the preseason, shoved the bespectacled, mouth-agape Mike Brown out the door before Veterans Day.
It’s seems apparent: the job is Phil’s if he wants it. Other candidates are out there. Mike D’Antoni changed the face of offense in the NBA and, if not for injuries and bad luck, just might have won a title or two with Nash in Phoenix. The great Jerry Sloan is also available.
Yet there is really only one man for this job. The only man with 11 rings. The only man larger than even the star-studded starting five he’d oversee.
Riley did what he believed he had to do, and he achieved the fairy-tale ending.
We’ll soon know if Jackson wants to re-open the book and begin a new chapter. He’s had a long and brilliant career.
Happy endings aren’t always guaranteed.