Phil Jackson is one of basketball’s great minds. He’s won 11 championships as an NBA coach, and two as a player with the New York Knicks. Jackson is a student of the game, and has been lauded for his ability to teach it to others. So it might be surprising to hear that he hasn’t watched the NBA in three years because it’s “too political.” However, to people who know Jackson’s history of uttering anti-Black sentiments, his reasoning should be expected. But it should also be an indictment of Jackson’s legacy as someone who has had no problem profiting off of the same Black people he’s spent so many years insulting.
Jackson went on Rick Rubin’s Tetragrammaton podcast and voiced his displeasure with the Black Lives Matter and social justice messaging on NBA courts and jerseys during the 2020 playoffs.
“It was trying to cater to an audience or trying to bring a certain audience to the game,” he said. “And they didn’t know it was turning other people off. People want to see sports as nonpolitical. Politics stays out of the game, it doesn’t need to be there.”
Jackson’s comments also disregard the exact reason those messages were on courts in the first place. They were in response to the spate of police killings during the spring of 2020, especially those of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. The statements of solidarity were imperfect but meaningful for the mostly-Black league to signal to the world that those slain Black lives mattered, too. Jackson seems more preoccupied with his discomfort than honoring those lives.
Statements like these have littered Jackson’s politics for decades. His most egregious comments came in 2005 when then-NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a dress code for players. The rule change came in the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace brawl between the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and fans at the game. Stern sought to change the image of the league by legislating out “hip-hop” clothing, which was met with backlash for its own coded conditions: business casual attire, no chains or pendants, no headgear, no T-shirts. Players were outraged, with some, like Golden State Warriors guard Jason Richardson, calling it “kind of racist.” Jackson gave it a ringing endorsement, but not before taking it all a step further and inserting his own troubling editorializing.
“I think it’s important that the players take their end of it,” he said back then. “Get out of the prison garb and the thuggery aspect of basketball that has come along with hip-hop music in the last seven or eight years.”
Prison garb? Thuggery? Jackson has spent decades mastering the art of the dog whistle like he’s mastered the triangle offense.
Back in 1999, he blamed rap music for the state of the modern (read: Black) athlete: “I don’t mean to say [that] as a snide remark toward a certain population in our society, but they have a limitation of their attention span, a lot of it probably due to too much rap music going in their ears and coming out their being.”
In 2016, he called LeBron James’ business partners his “posse,” which was also drenched in code. He wouldn’t have called Larry Bird’s friends a posse. James peeped the insult, too, and was quick to fire back.
“To use that label, and if you go and read the definition of what the word ‘posse’ is, it’s not what I’ve built over my career,” James said. “It’s not what I stand for, it’s not what my family stands for. I believe the only reason he used that word is because he sees young African-Americans trying to make a difference.”
Even some of Jackson’s former players have called out his issues with race. Earlier this year Isaiah Rider recalled Jackson making remarks about the supposed danger of hanging out on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. “One day he says, ‘Yeah, you guys have a good day. Hopefully I don’t hear about JR being on Crenshaw.’ ” Rider responded: “I don’t think none of that’s funny.”
Scottie Pippen, who won six championships with Jackson as a Chicago Bulls forward, claimed Jackson putting Toni Kukoc in to close out a playoff game in 1994 was a “racial move to give him a rise.” Pippen, though, would walk back the comments about his legendary coach.
It’s that “legendary coach” part that has allowed Jackson to go through so much of these last two decades with his reputation relatively unscathed (his disastrous tenure in the Knicks front office notwithstanding). And that’s mostly because of his reputation as perhaps the greatest coach of all time.
Jackson, of course, coached the greatest players and some of the biggest Black icons in sports from Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s been in locker rooms and shared benches with Black athletes for his entire coaching career and as an NBA player. Oftentimes white folks get passes for their anti-Blackness because they happen to be in proximity to Black folks.
But that’s not how anti-Blackness works. Jackson’s legend was built off the backs of those Black superstars and dozens of other Black athletes whose greatness allowed him to be in the ranks of greatest coaches. From segregationists who have Black workers in their homes to racist hip-hop label execs and team owners who protest against integration but become billionaires on the backs of elite Black athletes, this country has shown that it tolerates Black people as long as they make powerful white people richer or more renowned. Jackson can stomach the Black people who have made his life better. But in the aggregate, he’s proven to be someone who has, at best, dismissive and archaic beliefs about Black folks and our demands to be treated equally.
What was most troubling about Jackson’s comments was his dismissiveness of slogans supporting Black folks and joking about it with his grandchildren.
“[The players had] things on their back like ‘Justice’ and a funny thing happened like, ‘Justice’ just went to the basket and ‘Equal Opportunity’ knocked him down. Some of my grandkids thought it was pretty funny to play up those names; I couldn’t watch that,” Jackson said.
A coach cultivates talent and brings out the best in his players. It’s one of the things that made Jackson so celebrated. Now, he’s not watching basketball and instead laughing with his grandchildren while they minimize the ways Black folks demand their voices be heard.
As former NBA guard and sports analyst Jalen Rose said a couple of days ago about Jackson and his comments: When someone shows you who they are, believe them. Jackson has shown himself to be someone who has troubling ideas about the very same Black people who have created his legacy. To understand that is to understand that coaching or playing with or covering or talking about Black folks doesn’t automatically exclude anyone from deeply harmful beliefs. Yes, Jackson will always be the man who coached teams to 11 championships. But to me, he’ll also always be the man who showed us who he was decades ago. It’s just taken far too long for too many of us to believe him.