One of those rare you-can't-make-this-stuff-up moments occurred in the bowels of the Staples Center an hour or so after the Lakers beat the Suns 103-101 in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference final last Thursday night. Phoenix guard Steve Nash was conducting a quick post-game interview in a congested hallway when a golf cart, stymied by camera wires and other mobile equipment, tried to get by but had to stop. Nash politely stepped to the side, his small smile turning wide when he saw that the passenger was none other than Lakers coach Phil Jackson. The moment suggested the unwashed multitudes making way for the pope. (Note to the literal-minded: Nash had showered and was even wearing a sport coat and tie.)
Jackson, who uses this mode of transportation after almost every game to save wear and tear on the various surgically-repaired parts of his body, looked like he was born to be borne. Which led me to ponder how the possibility of pope jibes with Jackson's uncertain vocational future. He has been incredibly successful as a leader, more specifically within the kingdom of men that constitutes a professional sports team, so the College of Cardinals would be putty in his hands. Plus, he's already 6-foot-8, so think how grand he would look in the pope hat.
But at the end of the day we can probably rule out pontiff -- his Buddhist background suggests major confirmation problems.
At any rate, as Jackson gears up for his 13th NBA Finals as a coach, let us not forget that it could be his last. The uncertain economic landscape has forced even millionaire Lakers owner Jerry Buss into belt-tightening mode, and, according to my best information, Buss will offer the 64-year-old Jackson considerably less than the approximate $12 million he's paying him this year. There doesn't seem to be a rift between the men these days -- probably no more than the usual tension between sort-of-son-in-law and sort-of-father-in-law -- and Buss still wants him to coach. As does Phil's live-in companion, Jeanie Buss, Jerry's daughter and the team's executive vice president. But it will be up to Jackson, now in pursuit of his 11th championship ring, to decide if he wants to accept what would probably be at least a 50-percent pay cut.
If he does not, then he, like tens of millions other Americans, will be unemployed.
You may snicker since Jackson has made upwards of $100 million over the last two decades. But it's no joke. Every time an American joins the ranks of the jobless, a sparrow dies in Persia. I don't know what that means, but it sounds like something Phil might say.
I assume it's too late for Jackson to pursue what he always said was a long-ago career possibility: forest ranger. Years of living in Chicago and L.A. have no doubt dimmed his survivalist, woodsy inclinations. So in the spirit of helpfulness, I polled several Lakers recently to solicit opinions about what Phil should do if he finds himself with an undue amount of spare time when the 2010-11 NBA season rolls around.
"Maybe an advisor?" said center Andrew Bynum. I asked Bynum to be more specific. "Some kind of psychological advisor," said Bynum. "He likes that stuff."
Backup guard Sasha Vujacic suggests that Phil should do "something with Zen." That's not exactly a job, but, then again, neither was "webmaster" a decade ago. "Phil would be on a spiritual kind of journey," said Vujacic. "I could see him in India, taking some kind of voy-age." Vujacic accented the last syllable to suggest the airy nature of this endeavor. Jackson has suggested that if Vujacic were not so inclined to take mental voy-ages himself, he would get more playing time.
Jim Clemens, a Lakers assistant coach, points to Jackson's "New York connections" from his days as a Knicks player and sees a more nuts-and-bolts career. "I can see Phil in the corporate world," Clemens said. "Maybe some kind of think-tank position. He's a big thinker." That makes a lot of sense. Jackson could be one of those maverick, Ted Turner-like CEOs, mandate every day as Casual Friday, wear jeans, tie-dyes and sandals and ride around the office in a golf cart preaching things like "cerebral restructuring" and "metaphysical belt-tightening."
John Black, the Lakers director of public relations and a man who is often glued to Jackson's side, doesn't see his boss working at all. "If he doesn't coach, he'll be traveling, reading, gardening, kind of like a tourist of life just enjoying it," said Black.
But the man himself is sure that he would have a real vocation after his time on the bench is over.
"Mentor," Jackson said, answering immediately when I asked him about a second career. "I would like to mentor coaches. At all levels. There's a great need for that."
There is little doubt that Jackson would be good at it. He has proven to be a master at melding disparate personalities (Kobe and Shaq) and managing public-relations disasters (Dennis Rodman), not to mention drawing X's and O's on a blackboard. But I find the parallel move suggested by Frank Hamblen, Jackson's long-time assistant, much more fascinating.
"Baseball manager," said Hamblen with conviction. "Phil played baseball, loves baseball. He and I really tune in on the College World Series this time of year, watch it, talk about it, analyze it." The thought of Jackson (who pitched at North Dakota) and Hamblen (who played first base at Syracuse) exchanging thoughts about aluminum bats and 21-16 games does not compute for me, but Hamblen assures that it's true. "Phil knows the game inside and out," he said.
Cracking baseball's incestuous hiring system would be tough, but the establishment might make an exception for Jackson, arguably the greatest team-sport coach in history. My guess is that he would go back to the ConnieMack days and lose the uniform. I'd like that. But most of all, wouldn't it be cool watching Phil get driven to the mound in a golf cart to lift a struggling starter?