LOS ANGELES - Phil Jackson stepped back into the Los Angeles Lakers' soap opera yesterday, agreeing to return after a year's hiatus in which he caught lobsters off the coast of Australia, built a lakefront home in Montana and wrote a memoir in which he bared his ill feelings about the organization that dumped him.
Jackson, who guided the Lakers to three NBA titles in five seasons, ended a slow-speed courtship by signing the richest per-season coaching deal in U.S. sports history: $10 million a year for three years. He takes over a team that went 34-48 last season, finished behind the perennially low-achieving Clippers and failed to sell out many home games down the stretch.
At 59, Jackson is reunited with owner Jerry Buss, who jettisoned him last June - suggesting his methodical triangle offense had run its course - and star guard Kobe Bryant, whom he deemed "uncoachable" in The Last Season, his tell-all account of the 2003-04 campaign.
"It wasn't about the money, but the intrigue of this situation," Jackson said. "It's a tremendous story and a tremendous opportunity. It's a story of reconciliation, redemption, of reuniting - a lot of things in this make for a wonderful opportunity for the team, the Lakers and myself."
Jackson said his decision was influenced by his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter and the team's executive vice president of business operations. "I think Jeanie was the one person that was most supportive of this," Jackson said, adding that she had told him "I was perhaps too young to retire."
Jackson sought to lower expectations yesterday, saying that making the playoffs was an appropriate short-term goal.
"I'm not the panacea for this basketball club," he told a Staples Center news conference. "It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time. But we do think there is some hope and we can make some changes that will really benefit this team and we can get back into the playoffs again."
Jerry Buss, in a statement, said he was "pleased to have Phil return to the Lakers."
"His record speaks for itself and his success in this sport is unparalleled," said Buss, who is vacationing in Europe. "Quite simply, Phil is the best coach in the business and probably the greatest coach of all time. We feel that he is the best person to lead this team and hope that he will be able to lead us back to the point of being a championship-caliber team."
Bryant, in a statement yesterday, said Jackson's hiring was "something I support."
"When the Lakers began the search for a new head coach, I put my complete trust in Dr. Buss and [Lakers general manager] Mitch Kupchak to select the person they thought was best for the Lakers organization. In Phil Jackson, they chose a proven winner."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Tim Brown contributed to this article.