Could Phil Jackson Have Been the Coach of the Sonics?

Jeff Gross

Back in 1998, the Seattle SuperSonics fired George Karl. Looking to find a replacement, the team considered trying to bring over the man who would be the greatest coach in NBA history.

Edited by Tiffany Villigan

With the New York Knicks trying to lure Phil Jackson to the Big Apple, it’s yet another attempt by an organization looking to strike gold by bringing the storied coach to their city. It’s understandable, as Jackson has developed a messiah-like reputation for bringing teams to the NBA equivalent of the Holy Land. His link to a team draws just as much attention as any major free agent.

Jackson’s reemergence in the news had me thinking about a time when his name was connected to the SuperSonics. No, I’m not talking about last year when it was reported that Jackson would have joined the Sonics if the Sacramento Kings had come to Seattle. Rather, I’m thinking of a time about a decade and a half earlier.

It was the summer of 1998, and for the second year in a row, the Sonics had been bounced in the second round of the playoffs. This was after the team had finished the season 61-21, and had won the first game of the best-of-seven series against the Lakers. Despite having won at least 60 games in three of the last five seasons, only once did Karl lead his team past the second round of the playoffs.

Karl’s relationship with Seattle management was already a tense one. Having been paid $3.2 million a year, he had been vocal about his desire for a new contract with higher pay, but it never came. Whether it was the inability to keep his mouth shut or, as President Wally Walker claimed, the fact that he wasn’t the right fit for the team, another playoff disappointment gave the organization an excuse to dismiss the highly successful, at least in the regular season, coach.

Replacing a coach who had compiled a 384-150 record in his six-and-a-half seasons with the team was no easy task. Whoever replaced Karl would have shoes to fill that were so large that only men with feet as big as Vin Baker's might be able to fit in them. The four candidates were Sonics assistant Bob Weiss, former Spurs coach Bob Hill, former Suns coach Paul Westphal, and a member of Seattle’s only championship team, Paul Silas.

But was there a chance that the Zen Master could have been hired?

While Karl was having his tiff with Seattle management, Jackson was having his own problems east in Chicago. He was serving the remainder of his second consecutive one-year contract, and due to a personal battle with general manager Jerry Krause, the likelihood of him returning to the Bulls was very low.

After Karl’s dismissal, Jackson’s agent, Todd Musburger, hinted that his client would be open to coming to Seattle. A man of Jackson’s caliber would have been a great fit for a successful, veteran team like the Sonics. In the words of Musburger, "One of his great abilities is to handle supremely talented athletes and get them to work together for a common goal."

Seattle seemed to reciprocate the feeling. Even after Weiss, Hill, Westphal, and Silas interviewed with the team, it was reported that Walker would put off hiring a coach until after the NBA Finals were over. Walker wanted to talk to Jackson, whose Bulls were battling the Utah Jazz for their sixth championship, about his interest in possibly coaching the team.

Alas, that never happened.

Shortly after the NBA Finals, the Sonics made the decision to hire Westphal without talking to Jackson. According to Walker, "We interviewed four outstanding candidates for the job and the speculation that we were waiting to talk to a fifth candidate was accurate, but the further we went into the process the more evident it became that Paul was the right man for this job."

In Westphal’s first year as head coach, the team would miss the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. His time in Seattle would be a tumultuous and short one, marked by decline and disappointment. Barely over two seasons in, he would be given the axe.

On the other hand, Jackson would take the 1998-99 season off before returning with the Lakers. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Jackson to help Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and friends win a championship. In his first season in Los Angeles, Jackson won 67 games, marking the first of three consecutive titles there.

Was Jackson ever a serious candidate to become the head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics? It’s hard to say because talks never happened. If he did become coach, there’s no guarantee Seattle would have won any championships either, as he would have inherited an aging team.

Still, one would have to think that he would have given the Sonics at least another chance at a potential championship run. While Westphal clashed with veteran players, especially star Gary Payton, Jackson would have earned the respect and authority that one can only get from winning six championships. He also had the reputation of being able to master personalities, meshing together the likes of a hypercompetitive Michael Jordan with the unpredictable Dennis Rodman.

The Sonics team he would have taken over would have also been somewhat similar to what he had when he went to Los Angeles. At hand was a team of talented players who had much regular season success, only to falter when the playoffs came. Yet, in his first season, Jackson helped the Lakers overcome their postseason struggles to become the top team in the league. Could he have done with Payton, Baker, and Schrempf what he did with O’Neal and Bryant?

Like many stories in the sports, Jackson coming to Seattle was probably more talk than anything else. Still, imagining Jackson leading the Sonics is envisioning another opportunity that Seattle might have had to bring a title to the Emerald City.

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