Phil and Jeanie -- basketball's ultimate power couple -- call it quits

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Phil Jackson wasn't in the mood to stop and catch up. His New York Knicks had gotten out of Staples Center with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers and he'd gone an entire game without having to wave to nostalgic Lakers fans on the big screen.

"I think the Lakers are trying to move away from that kind of stuff," Jackson said as we spoke briefly outside the Knicks' locker room on Dec. 11.

There was such a distance in the way he said, "The Lakers." This, after all, is the man who won five NBA titles in Los Angeles and was still engaged to Lakers president Jeanie Buss. But that distance was real, and it had kept growing as the years went by and Jackson spent more and more time in New York, running the Knicks, and in Montana with his children and grandchildren during the offseason.

His connection with Los Angeles, and his fiancée, was simply too hard to maintain. On Tuesday night, Buss and Jackson announced that they were mutually ending their four-year engagement.

The announcement -- via their personal Twitter accounts -- brought an end to the NBA's version of Camelot.

Like the Camelot in Richard Burton's Broadway musical, this had always been an impossible romance.

The owner's daughter dating the team's coach? And not just any owner: only one of the most powerful owners of all time, Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss. And not just any coach: only the most successful NBA coach of all time.

Then there were hurdles, such as Jeanie Buss being the team's vice president in charge of business affairs at the time, and her brother Jim Buss being in charge of basketball operations.

So many tangled webs, and yet Jeanie Buss and Jackson somehow made it work for 17 years.

During the best of times, when the Lakers were winning NBA championships, they'd ride to the arena together from their house in Marina Del Rey. At games, Jeanie would sit with her girlfriends Linda Rambis and Stacy Kennedy in the second row, across the court from the Lakers bench, where Phil could see her and the players could hear her.

Once on the drive in, Jackson mentioned Lamar Odom needed a little extra encouragement as he adjusted to his new role as a sixth man. So during the game, Buss and her girlfriends made a point of cheering for Odom as he checked into the game. "Take your pants off!" they yelled out, as Odom shed his warm-ups near the scorers' table. He beamed at the attention.

It was a small thing, but it was those kind of gestures that made the impossible relationship work for so many years. The way they'd work in tandem and share thoughts about the team with each other. That was Camelot.

Once Jackson retired as coach in 2011, things started changing. At first he was home all the time, plotting his next moves. He had no intention of coaching again -- his body couldn't take it. And his spirit was leading him in other directions, toward a front-office career, which would allow him to test his principles from on high, way above the court.

But when Dr. Buss was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012, and the franchise needed a coach of some stature to come in and lead the team of superstars -- Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash -- for what appeared to be Dr. Buss' last ride, Jackson raised his hand.

As always, he would do it for Jeanie.

This time, the Lakers didn't call on him. Or rather, general manager Mitch Kupchak called him around midnight to tell him the Lakers had chosen to hire Mike D'Antoni instead.

Jackson was livid. His agents issued a blistering statement, decrying the disrespect shown to the coach who had won five titles for L.A. and was willing to come out of retirement to coach the team and help his fiancee's family at a critical juncture.

It did not break apart their relationship though. If anything, it strengthened it. About six weeks later, Jackson proposed to Jeanie Buss. His knees and hips were too stiff to get down on one knee. Not that he is the grand gesture type, anyway. What was important is that he knew getting engaged would make her happy, and give her father some peace as he lay dying.

The engagement was almost destined to stay at that level once Jackson became president of the Knicks in 2014. Jackson and Buss had to sign documents that ensured there would be no conflicts of interest between the two franchises. According to sources, that included a provision that the NBA and its owners be informed if they ever decided to marry.

So now not only were they living apart, they couldn't talk about their jobs when they were together. If they ever did decide to marry, it would further complicate their business relationships.

As the years went by, Jackson focused in on the Knicks and Buss focused on the Lakers. He would come to Los Angeles when he could, and she would see him in New York when she attended board of governors meetings, but friends say it got harder and harder to find time to connect.

Both of their legacies are tied to what they do next. Buss must decide whether to reboot the Lakers' front office. Jackson needs to make the Knicks into a contender. Those close to Jackson say he intends to stay for the full five years of his contract with the Knicks, despite the mutual option that's built into his contract this summer.

There had been speculation that Jackson could return to the Lakers this offseason, when they might need a new guide in the front office, and he could amicably part from New York. Those are the types of implausible things that happen in Camelot.

It was never meant to be.

Buss has been spending the past year supervising the development of the team's new practice facility, and working tirelessly on the league's new collective bargaining agreement. She also has maintained close ties with first-year coach Luke Walton, which is a departure from her distant relationships with previous Lakers coaches. Those close to Buss say she also has been giving more thought to the looming question of the team's front office.

All of those are massive things, that Jackson and Buss simply couldn't talk about given their current roles.

So the impossible relationship officially came to a loving end Tuesday night. Camelot was over.

Related Video