LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers came calling and Phil Jackson was ready.
He said he was “physically much stronger,” having spent the last few months in daily workouts with a trainer at a high-end gym near his home in Playa del Rey. He could handle the grind of an NBA season, and he was intrigued by the “excitement and talent of the team, and the attraction.”
The Lakers, a team Jackson had coached to five NBA championships, had fired coach Mike Brown after losing four of their first five games this season. The fans were calling for him, literally, chanting “We want Phil!” at home games Friday and Sunday.
Did Phil want the Lakers?
Maybe he did.
Jackson said he vacillated over the question all weekend after meeting Saturday with team vice president Jim Buss and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who went to his home. He hadn’t solicited the visit, but he welcomed them. He was interested in talking about a third run with a team he’d coached from 1999 to 2004 and again from 2005 to 2011.
The meeting lasted about 1 ½ hours. Jackson told them he thought he could do the job. The chat concluded with a handshake and Jackson had the impression he had until Monday to come back to them with his decision.
He never got the chance.
The Lakers woke up Jackson with a phone call near midnight Sunday to tell him that Mike D’Antoni would be their coach.
“I wish it would have been a little bit cleaner,” Jackson said in a Monday night telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. “It would have been much more circumspect and respectful of everybody that’s involved. It seemed slimy to be awoken with this kind of news. It’s just weird.”
The Lakers explained their decision this way:
“After speaking with several excellent and well-respected coaching candidates, Dr. Buss, Jim and I all agreed that Mike was the right person at this time to lead the Lakers forward,” Kupchak said in a statement Monday, referring to Jim Buss and also team owner Jerry Buss.
That was a big switch that took place in a matter of hours.
On Sunday, a person familiar with the situation, speaking anonymously because the deal wasn’t complete, said the Lakers were 95 percent certain Jackson was their choice. By game time, the certainty had dropped to 70 percent, and the rest quickly disappeared in the next few hours.
Jackson laughed at media reports that said he had wanted to skip road games and demanded to have final say in personnel decisions.
“There’s nothing about that,” he said. “Jimmy (Buss) and I had an agreement when I came back for the second tenure that there would be complete transparency in personnel decisions. I did bring up there were a couple things that went by me that time and I would be part and parcel of such a thing this time.”
Jackson said Kupchak told him during the late Sunday phone call that the Lakers thought D’Antoni was the best coach for the team. Kupchak, Jim Buss and Jerry Buss were not available for interviews.
D’Antoni, 61, agreed to a three-year, $12 million contract at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, with a fourth-year option held by the team. The final negotiations were a closely kept secret that eluded, and stunned, many in the organization.
There were a handful of reasons for D’Antoni’s ascension, according to a highly placed person with knowledge of the situation who was not allowed to be identified.
Jerry Buss had been incredibly animated in discussing the immediate future of the team, knowing the contract for All-Star center Dwight Howard would expire next July and cognizant he needed to do something to keep Howard interested in the Lakers.
Buss considered D’Antoni’s high-scoring offense to be the wave of the future and perhaps a slight reminder of the Lakers’ high-scoring past, when the franchise earned the nickname “Showtime” with such players as Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the 1980s.
“Knowing his style of play and given the current makeup of our roster, we feel Mike is a great fit,” Kupchak said in the statement.
Even though Jackson’s “triangle” offense was the basis for five Lakers championships, the franchise considered it too closely related to the plodding “Princeton” offense that the fired Brown tried to employ this season. But the team agonized over the decision because it knew Lakers fans would clamor for Jackson and didn’t want to take a public-relations hit.
Jackson said he thought the Lakers had the personnel to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. But he wasn’t so sure they could handle the East champion. He also said no team but the Lakers would have piqued his interest in coaching again.
“It’s L.A. It’s the Lakers. It’s the players I’ve been with. It’s my partner’s team,” he said, referring to longtime companion Jeanie Buss, daughter of the Lakers owner. “It’s the family business. But I have no intention of going somewhere and starting all over and coaching a team from scratch.”
D’Antoni is known as a peacemaker, a non-confrontational type with a jovial, joke-telling personality. He preached an offense that scored at will, and used it in previous NBA stops in New York and Phoenix, but he was never courted by the Lakers until last weekend.
The team’s stars played no role in the negotiations but did have opportunities to state their opinions. Jackson’s championship success had Howard’s attention. Steve Nash, who was D’Antoni’s point guard in Phoenix when the Suns run-and-gunned their way to four consecutive seasons of 54 wins or more, was partial to him. Kobe Bryant was comfortable with Jackson but fine with D’Antoni.
The Lakers interviewed D’Antoni over the phone. He was in New York, unable to travel at the time because of recent knee-replacement surgery.
It is not known when he will start coaching the Lakers. Interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff will guide the team in its game Tuesday against San Antonio.
Lakers fans made a point of chanting “We want Phil!” during the team’s last two home games, both Lakers victories with Bickerstaff running things.
Instead, they got Mike.