Their presence loomed large with any gesture Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss made.
Photographers continuously clicked their cameras as they stood on the blue carpet Wednesday at a Time Warner Cable Media sponsored event at the Vibiana in downtown Los Angeles that honored the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
Moments later, Jackson and Jeanie sat on a couch conversing with a handful of writers for more than 20 minutes. And in her first comments since her father’s passing at age 80 four months ago from an unspecified form of cancer, Jeanie Buss provided several revealing tidbits on the state of the Lakers’ franchise.
That started with the former coach and fiancée that guided the Lakers to five NBA championships.
“My message to Lakers fans is Phil is a part of the organization because of me,” said Buss, who’s the Lakers’ executive vice president of business operations and serves as the team’s governor. “He’s part of my life and part of my family. He’s always in Laker world, no matter if he has an official position or not.”
Would Buss want Jackson to have an official position with the team?
“I think we’re in good hands with our front office,” said Buss, referring to Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother, Jim, the team’s vice president of basketball operations. “Jim and Mitch know Phil is a phone call away. He’s always available. He would always do anything to help, support or listen. It’s like we’re all family.”
That has already happened with examples beyond Jackson speaking at Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey retirement at Staples Center two months ago.
Kupchak confirmed Jackson ‘s revelation that they talked “in the past couple of weeks” about unspecified issues concerning the Lakers.
“I’m not sure why somebody like Phil isn’t working for an NBA club right now,” Kupchak said. “He has so much to offer to any franchise. Even though he doesn’t have an official role with us, he’s a consultant of sorts.”
Jackson has said he would’ve had a front office role had Seattle investor Chris Hansen successfully brokered a deal to buy the Sacramento Kings. Jackson also became an advisor with the Detroit Pistons during their coaching search that ultimately resulted in the hiring of Maurice Cheeks.
What about the Lakers?
“It’s not something I expect them to rely on me for information. But I’m there to offer it,” Jackson said. “They asked if I can be of assistance. I said yeah, I’ll help in whatever area you need to have help.”
Jackson declined to specify those issues, but there’s one thing clear.
Despite the insistent “We Want Phil” chants permeating Staples Center, the Lakers won’t bring back Jackson to coach. Kupchak has already publicly maintained Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni will return next season. The Lakers’ front office also believes a full training camp and a healthier roster will ensure D’Antoni fares better than a first-round exit to the San Antonio Spurs.
“There are upsides and downsides to coaching the Lakers. The expectations are very high,” Kupchak said. “He was eager to take the job and was looking forward to it, but as the season progressed there was one injury after another. He would admit it was a tougher season than he thought.”
It doesn’t help Jackson reiterated, “I have no intention of coaching.”
But intentions can change, no?
“I know. Don’t they? What could I use instead of intention? No plans to coach? How about that?” Jackson said. “The physical nature of coaching has kind of passed me by.”
Still, Jackson has exerted his influence.
Jackson sent a few supportive text messages this season to Dwight Howard, who has left Kupchak uncertain albeit “optimistic” on whether he will resign with the Lakers once he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
“I just basically said let your play do your talking for you. You’ve come through a difficult operation. I went through that. It took me a full year to recover and more and you’ve done it in short order,” Jackson said, referring to back surgery. “’Remember defense and rebounding is the key to this game and the other stuff falls behind that.’”
Jackson also shared guarded optimism about Kobe Bryant returning possibly in November after having a season-ending left torn Achilles tendon only two months ago.
“Kobe’s got that determination and as long as he doesn’t over do it, he’ll come back,” Jackson said. “It’s hard for him not to. His goal is another championship. He also has a chance to replace Michael Jordan in the all- time scoring list. Those are two goals with the first one being a championship that Kobe would like to accomplish.”
Many believe Jackson would ensure that after the Lakers fired Mike Brown last season following a 1-4 start. Despite Kupchak and Jim Buss visiting Jackson at his Playa Del Rey home, the Lakers chose D’Antoni. Kupchak delivered the news in an infamous midnight phone call the evening before Jackson thought they’d meet again to discuss the coaching position.
“I think he was upset that I woke him up,” Kupchak said. “Other than that, I don’ think there’s anything there. When you get old you go to sleep a little earlier. I go sleep a lot earlier than I did 20 years ago.”
Still, Jackson grinned when Jeanie was asked if that affected her relationship with Jim.
“I was not happy with how things happened,” Buss said. “It was a difficult process to go through. I was disappointed, but I’m biased. I don’t think anybody would judge me to say (Phil) is the best coach in the entire world. That’s my prerogative to feel that way.”
Have Jeanie and Jim resolved their differences?
“It’s something I can always tease him about,” Jeanie said, smiling. “That’s what families do. You always bring up things. Everyone always has family issues and maybe that was something I can tease him about. It’s fine.”
Jackson also teased Jim about when he apparently traveled with the team during the Lakers’ 2001-02 season.
“Sometimes I’d leave him behind if he didn’t make the plane on time,” Jackson said. “But I’d do that to anybody who didn’t make the plane on time. He’s always wanted to come to Montana and join me. I’ve always had an open door for him to come and join me.”
Yet, Jeanie maintained that wouldn’t negatively affect she works together with Jim after her father’s passing.
The Lakers have set up a trust that will run by Jeanie, Jim and Johnny Buss. Buss’ other children – Joey, Jesse and Janie Drexel – also will have ownership stakes.
“I know my dad set things up for us going forward in a system that he felt confident in,” Jeanie said. “I have complete confidence in his will.”
But how much confidence does Jackson have that he will have a larger role with the Lakers?
“Jimmy obviously has a long term contract,” said Jackson, who added they have a “casual relationship.” “I don’t see any need to have a future role right now. There may be at some point, but at this point I don’t see it happening.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org