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“If it comes down to Kobe or you, I’m keeping Kobe” — how Mitch Kupchak told Phil Jackson they were going to fire him as the Los Angeles Lakers head coach

In the summer of 2004, Phil Jackson told Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak that he could no longer coach Kobe and to choose between him or the superstar otherwise, he'd leave Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, head coach Phil Jackson and guard Kobe Bryant

Mitch Kupchak, Phil Jackson, and Kobe Bryant

In the summer of 2004, the Los Angeles Lakers had significant decisions to make about Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Phil Jackson's tenures in the organization. This was the same summer when the Lakers came off one of the most dramatic seasons (which says a lot given how there's always drama in Los Angeles) in franchise history because of the feud between Bryant and O'Neal as well as their painful loss to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.

At that time, nobody knew whether Jackson, Bryant, and O'Neal would stay in Los Angeles. In fact, many assumed that all would go their separate ways. The Diesel was after more money; Bryant wanted to be his team's main superstar, while Jackson could no longer stand Kobe.

The Lakers chose Kobe over Shaq and Phil.

The Zen Master could no longer stand Bryant and eventually gave Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak an ultimatum to choose between him or the superstar because he felt their relationship had fallen apart. Jackson admitted he could no longer reach Kobe and gave up coaching him.

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"One of the things that really changed our relationship in the last year was that there were some heated words. I actually said to Kobe that it's too destructive to have that vitriolic hot flow coming out of you towards me because it undermines what the team has to do and in that particular time I realized that our relationship had disintegrated," Jackson admitted in episode 7 of the Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers documentary.

When Kupchak heard Jackson's ultimatum, he already knew how to respond. The Lakers have long prioritized superstars over coaches or even executives, and it was clear they would do their best to retain Bryant even at the expense of letting Jackson walk away and trading O'Neal.

"You're the coach, you figure it out. And if you're not gonna do it, I'll find somebody else to do it. But if it comes down to Kobe or you, I'm keeping Kobe," Kupchak told Jackson.

Without Jackson, Kobe wouldn't have won 5 rings.

After spending 2 seasons apart, the Lakers and Jackson reunited in 2006. It didn't take long for Bryant to miss Jackson as the head coach felt he still had unfinished business. Bryant had matured by 2006, and as years went by, he grew into a leader, a more selfless teammate, and a dominant player on the court. Jackson and Bryant spent their second stint together making it to 3 straight NBA Finals and winning 2 championships.

Ultimately, the 2 seasons Bryant spent without Jackson made him realize how important the Zen Master was to the success of his career. Without Jackson, Bryant wouldn't have been one of the greatest players ever to play the game. 

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