Jackson leaning toward retirement

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 17, 2004

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Phil Jackson stood at the podium in the interview room with four of his five grown children and said there was a "pretty slim chance" he'll coach the Los Angeles Lakers next season.

Then he said it again.

"I've had a lot of persuasion given to me by these kids. They were hoping I could win the 10th and retire, but maybe losing this one, this opportunity is enough for me to say that it's time to give it up," he said. "But right now I'm not ready to make that decision or give that statement."

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So while Jackson wouldn't commit, it certainly appeared to be a farewell - at least for the time being - from a 58-year-old coach whose perfect record in the finals was spoiled by the Detroit Pistons, leaving him tied with Red Auerbach for most titles by an NBA head coach (nine).

Jackson said he planned to meet with members of the Lakers' organization in the days ahead to discuss a future that promises to be filled with changes.

Question No. 1 will be whether the franchise still believes Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant can coexist. Bryant plans to opt out of his contract and become a free agent, although he has said he wants to be "a Laker for life."

Team owner Jerry Buss has given every indication he wants to keep Bryant, whose fractured relationship with Jackson and O'Neal could be one of the driving forces behind an offseason of change around the league.

Not only will Bryant be a free agent, but Gary Payton and Karl Malone also can opt out of their contracts. O'Neal - already angry that the Lakers wouldn't give him a contract extension - could demand a trade if he decides the time has come to end his association with a team that failed in its quest for a fourth title in five years.

"This summer is going to be a different summer for a lot of people. Everyone is going to take care of their own business and do what's best for them, including me," O'Neal said. "I'm not sure really where the organization wants to go from here."

Change will come to other NBA franchises, too, beginning next Tuesday when the Charlotte Bobcats select 14 players from other teams' rosters in the expansion draft.

In addition to deciding between Emeka Okafor, Dwight Howard and other potential No. 1 picks, Orlando must figure out what it plans to do with Tracy McGrady, who will be a free agent a year from now and does not plan to stay with the Magic through a rebuilding process.

The champion Detroit Pistons also have some uncertainty to deal with, beginning with the question of whether Rasheed Wallace plans to re-sign.

"I'm going to bask in the glory for the moment. I probably won't have a decision for a couple of weeks," he said following the Pistons' decisive Game 5 victory. "I have to talk that over with my wife and kids and get their input. If it's a situation or something here that they don't like or they see shaky, I have to take all that into consideration."

Free agents can begin signing with teams beginning in the middle of July, and Bryant will be the biggest prize on the market if he decides to start anew elsewhere.

Other top unrestricted free agents include Wallace, Steve Nash, Marcus Camby, Mehmet Okur, Vlade Divac, Stephen Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu, Bob Sura and Brent Barry. The list of restricted free agents includes Kenyon Martin, Quentin Richardson, Manu Ginobili, Darius Miles, Morris Peterson and Jamal Crawford.

Players who can opt out of their contracts include Antoine Walker, Latrell Sprewell, Nick Van Exel, Payton, Malone, Derek Fisher and Bruce Bowen.

The Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams with the most salary cap space, and each would jump at the opportunity to sign a player of Bryant's caliber.

"I loved playing for Phil. I learned so much playing for Phil and playing with Shaquille, too," Bryant said. "I think we've got a lot of great things accomplished despite our differences we've had in the past. We've played extremely well together. We've had an incredible run. So I would not be opposed to playing with them forever. It's just not up to me."

Bryant's most immediate concern is his freedom. He is scheduled to go on trial late this summer in Eagle, Colo., on a sexual assault charge, and a conviction would render moot any decision he makes regarding his future with Los Angeles.

Malone, 40, also has some soul-searching to do. A badly sprained knee forced him to watch Game 5 from the bench in street clothes, denying him a chance to earn the title that has eluded him throughout his career.

"I've never been a guy who wanted to jump from team to team to team, but I will say this: If I meet with my doctor in the next couple of days and I can't be 100 percent by training camp - not 95, not 99 - then I'll make that decision," Malone said.