— Quitting while you’re ahead is a great idea when you’re in a casino or arguing with your life partner. It’s a lousy idea in sports.
And it was an especially terrible idea when the Lakers' Phil Jackson was thinking of retiring while he was on a two-ring winning streak and still the greatest coach in the history of the NBA.
A few weeks in Montana, sucking on that clear air and drinking in the big sky vistas, were all it took for Jackson to realize that even though his knee is a mess, his heart is getting cranky and those two artificial hips aren’t exactly like the original equipment, he still wants to coach. He still wants to win.
This is great news for Kobe Bryant, who would like to get the one more ring he needs to match Michael Jordan’s six, and there’s nobody else in the game who is better suited to help Kobe reach that goal than Jackson.
It’s also great for the NBA, which can never have too many living legends involved in the game. It’s terrific for Lakers fans, for Jack Nicholson and for sportswriters, who get to continue to cover a coach who reads actual books and can discuss them.
The only people it isn’t great news for are NBA referees, who have to put up with another year of Jackson’s in-game ref-baiting and his postgame ref-bashing. But who cares about a referee’s feelings?
There are no real risks for Jackson in coming back. He either adds to his legend, by winning a sixth title in Los Angeles to match his six in Chicago, or he loses in the playoffs. Since most seasons for most coaches end short of a title, there’s no shame in that.
Win or lose, at least he’s giving it his best shot. And when you don’t know how many shots you have left, that’s a big deal.
We talk a lot about the joys of retirement and getting out when you’re on top, and that’s all well and good if you’ve got a job you really don’t like all that much and something to do when you retire. But when you do something better than anyone else in the world, why would you want to quit doing it? Picasso didn’t retire from painting, Pablo Casals didn’t retire from playing the cello, James Michener didn’t retire from writing epic novels.
Athletes and coaches are artists, too, in their own way. The difference with them is that there does come a time when they have to retire because no one will employ them anymore. That‘s the only time anyone should have to retire from a job that is part of who he is.
Jackson calls next year his "last stand." Personally, I hope he means that in the same way that Brett Favre has meant it the past three years. I hope if he forges a three-peat next season, he decides he has never felt better and wants to come back and do it yet again.
What Jackson found is that contemplating retirement when you have a job you love is a lot easier than actually doing it. CNN's Larry King finally announced that he’s packing it in this fall, when he turns 77. He still hasn’t lost anything off his fastball if only because he never had one; it was all lobbed softballs from him. But King wrung everything he could out of his gift of gab, and I suspect the only reason he’s going now is because he’s getting hammered in the ratings and has too much pride to let his bosses force him out the door.
This is as it should be. If that means some players and coaches hang on too long, so be it. At least they won’t find themselves sitting in front of the fire 20 years from now wondering if they could have wrung another year or even another day, another at-bat, another 3-pointer, another win out of their talent.
Jackson will shortly turn 65, and he’s still the best in the business. He’s a teacher, a psychologist, a philosopher, a rare intellectual in a business not usually celebrated for its depth of thought. He’s more than a coach. He’s a national treasure.
Jackson could talk about retiring because he has things to do once he stops coaching. He doesn’t strike you as the sort of man who will have trouble finding things to do and passions to pursue. But he also knows that once he does retire, there will never again be anything that totally engages him like coaching a basketball team at the very highest possible level.
Since none of us have known what that feels like, it’s not for us to tell him when to stop. All we can do is applaud — and thank — him for sticking around for one more season.