WHITEFISH — Seeing Denver Nuggets coach George Karl sidelined last season with cancer will influence Phil Jackson’s upcoming decision on whether to return as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the legendary coach said at a meeting of Western governors on Sunday.
Jackson told reporters after his speech to the Western Governors’ Association that he’s waiting to hear from doctors on whether he’s healthy enough to make it through another 82-game regular season.
The 64-year-old said he wouldn’t want to leave his squad without a coach in the middle of the season, as Karl was forced to do earlier this year while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for throat and neck cancer.
“My concern to be quite blunt, is I don’t want to happen what happened to Denver and George Karl,” Jackson said.
Jackson has two replaced hips, a sore knee requiring a brace under his suit during the season and a previous heart problem.
He’s one of the most successful coaches in league history with a .705 regular-season winning percentage, a record 225 postseason victories and two more titles than Boston’s Red Auerbach. His Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA finals last week to claim their second straight title, and Jackson sounds increasingly interested in going out on top.
But he told the governors that his 13 total championships — two as a player — seems like an odd figure.
“Which is a hard number to stop at if you think about it,” he said to enthusiastic applause.
Jackson said he will be largely out of touch during his customary two-month vacation at his lakeside home near Glacier National Park, close to where he spent a good part of his childhood. His speech to governors Sunday was largely about growing up in the rural West.
The coach said he refuses to fly after the season. Instead he drives back to Montana. He found during his playing days with the Knicks that it is about 2,800 miles taking back roads from New York to northwestern Montana. Later he found it’s about 1,800 miles from Chicago, avoiding the freeways.
“Up here, this has been the recharging time for me,” Jackson told reporters. “I have said I have to have this because this keeps me going.”
Players like Kobe Bryant have openly lobbied for his return, and Lakers management are anxiously awaiting his decision.
Jackson’s career record is 1,098-460, winning at least 55 games in 15 of his 19 seasons.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.