Jeannie Buss thought it was nearly a foregone conclusion that Phil Jackson would replace Mike Brown after Brown was fired just five games into last season. The job went to Mike D'Antoni, however, leaving Buss "stunned" and feeling betrayed.
Buss, Jackson's fiancée and the Lakers' executive vice president of business operations, recalled the saga in her memoir, "Laker Girl." The Los Angeles Times published an excerpt of the memoir, beginning with Buss' reaction to the Brown firing.
Jeannie talked about a conversation she had with her brother, Jim Buss, who came to her asking whether she thought Jackson would be a good fit back with the Lakers:
[That Friday afternoon] My brother walked into my private office a little while later and got right to the point.
"I feel really bad that I made this mistake in hiring Mike Brown," he said. "I've cost the family money. But I had to let him go and we are going to have to continue to pay that contract. What I want to know from you is, do you think Phil and I could work together?"
My brother really caught me off guard with that question.
"I have no idea if Phil is even interested in coming back," I said. "If you want to discuss it, Jim, it has to be between you and him. I can't be in the middle. The only way it's going to work is if I'm not involved." . . .
My brother's response was to repeat his initial question: "Do you think Phil and I can work together?"
"Jim, just look at your past success," I replied. "Andrew Bynum is a perfect example. You brought Phil a piece of raw talent and Phil helped develop him into what he became. He was one of the top two centers in the league. Of course you and Phil can work together."
Following this conversation, Jim called up Jackson and held a meeting along with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. There were no negotiations at the meeting, but it instead involved Jackson going over personnel and discussing potential issues with the team.
While Jackson was told the Lakers would talk with other candidates, he thought the meeting went "great" and seemed to get the impression the job was essentially his. Another meeting was set between Jackson and the Lakers, but it never happened. Instead, Jackson received a disappointing phone call late on a Sunday night:
That Sunday night, just before he started preparing dinner, Phil put on his Lakers Hawaiian shirt, the one he had often worn during the season. It was clear to me he was getting mentally ready to return to his old job.
Nothing was for sure, but things were moving in that direction.
After we went to bed, the house phone rang at 11:30. I heard Phil pick it up and say, "Okay, alright. Okay."
When he hung up, I asked him what that was about, and he said, "Mitch called to tell me they've hired D'Antoni. He said that they feel given the personnel they have that D'Antoni is a better fit. He said they know they are going to take a bit of a PR hit, but he thinks it will blow over in a month."
"He said it will blow over in a month?" I repeated in disbelief.
I was still trying to wake up.
I was stunned. I said to Phil, "They came to you. You were not looking for the job. I cannot believe this."
Jeannie went on to describe how she felt betrayed by the Lakers' decision to choose D'Antoni over Jackson, saying she was "devastated" by the news. She wondered if the courtship was just a PR stunt and didn't appreciate the Lakers wasting so much time with Jackson when he wasn't even looking for the job. She also claimed the Lakers never had any intention of hiring Jackson.
The selection of D'Antoni would have made plenty of sense if Jackson weren't involved, especially with Steve Nash in the fold. Nash won two straight MVP awards under D'Antoni with the Phoenix Suns and the Lakers were clearly trying to recapture that magic.
However, choosing D'Antoni over a guy like Jackson was and still is befuddling. Not only does Jackson's resumé speak for itself, but he also likely would have meshed better with Dwight Howard. Jackson himself said he would have been a better fit than D'Antoni with Howard, and considering how things played out for the big man in Los Angeles, it's hard to imagine that not being true.
Howard never embraced D'Antoni's pick-and-roll system and he reportedly insisted this offseason that the Lakers fire the head coach. The Lakers didn't, however, and Howard bolted to the Houston Rockets.
There was already a ton of pressure on D'Antoni in Los Angeles, and this story certainly won't make things any easier on him. "We want Phil" chants rained down from the Staples Center faithful throughout last season and it wouldn't be surprising to hear them again if the Lakers struggle this year.
That ship has probably sailed, however, considering how things played out last year. Stranger things have happened, though, so don't completely rule anything out.