Timing is everything so they say, but in the case of Phil Jackson, the New York Knicks President of Basketball Operations, his timing couldn’t be any worse.
In 2004, in his book titled The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, Jackson wrote this in reference to LeBron James:
“Yet as talented as (LeBron James) definitely appears to be, I don’t believe any nineteen-year-old should be playing in the NBA. These young men grow so dependent on their posses, who fetch their cars and their girls, that they can’t possibly develop into mature, self-sufficient human beings. One day, I’m convinced, we’ll find out the true extent of the psychological damage that’s been caused.”
That was then.
Jackson was recently interviewed by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan and was revisiting James’ departure from the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014 and how that decision affected Miami Heat President Pat Riley.
Here’s what he had to say:
It had to hurt when they lost LeBron, “Jackson said. “That was definitely a slap in the face. But there were a lot of little things that came out of that. When LeBron was playing with the Heat, they went to Cleveland, and he wanted to spend the night. They don’t do overnights. Teams just don’t. So now [coach Erik] Spoelstra has to text Riley and say, ‘What do I do in this situation?’ And Pat, who has iron-fist rules, answers, ‘You are on the plane. You are with this team.’ You can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.
“I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way.”
This is now.
A 70-year-old white man calling a young rich Black man and his friends a “posse.” Uncomfortable yet? Don’t be because that’s the optics of the story that the mainstream media will sell to get you to engage in click bait.
Do I think Jackson is a racist? Absolutely not. I’m not as naive as some who points to the fact that’s he played with, coached and been around African-Americans essentially his entire life as proof that he’s not a racist. However, I can’t speak to his personal feelings, but he certainly hasn’t come across as being racially insensitive in years past.
In fact I’ll go as far as to say Jackson’s comments were not racially motivated, rather they were a product of wrong place (social media age) wrong time (post Trump election). Jackson’s interpretation of the word “posse” is different from James’s because all things don’t mean the same thing to all people. I wish those who criticize Colin Kaepernick for his stance on the flag and not standing during the national anthem would understand that fundamental difference, but I digress.
Perception is greater than reality and Jackson is smart enough to know that. The reality of the situation is that Jackson’s comments come across as condescending and they were said in a breath to demean, belittle and embarrass James and the people he associates himself with. Jackson was trying to make James seem like the typical primadonna superstar who felt entitled to special treatment.
James, who was simply asking then-Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra if the team could stay in Cleveland for Thanksgiving night, and wasn’t asking for anything unreasonable. You mean to tell me Jackson never made concessions or acquiesced to star players before? He certainly had to, having coached the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Most companies, organizations, or businesses do and are willing to occasionally look the other way for that valuable employee. It happens everyday. It’s called precedent.
But we should be thanking Jackson because his comments provide insight into an issue as it pertains to a slow, but steady paradigm shift in the NBA. Jackson and Riley are representative of the old guard and the old guard resents what they see on the horizon from the new guard. The old guard was one in which the owners dictated everything and the players weren’t as celebrated, as empowered and as emboldened as they are today.
James who has been the biggest facilitator of the shifting dynamic as it relates to owner-player relationships, has enjoyed success and prosperity in large part to his “posse” constantly putting him in advantageous positions to succeed. There’s a new sheriff in NBA town and it ain’t Adam Silver. In this NBA town players are controlling their own destiny, generating more revenue than ever thanks to new television deals and endorsements, and as a result are more brand-conscience than ever.
The irony in it all is that in his book, Jackson expressed concerns over James and the people he would have around him because of what he thought they were around for. Instead James and his friends have done the polar opposite, debunking any and all stereotypes associated with young Black athletes and are legitimate contributors to the biggest brand in sports that is LeBron James.
Jackson barked up the wrong tree on this one. Next time he mentions James and his “posse” he should put some respect on it.
Oh and don’t forget to mention successful.
Marcus Lamar is a Washington D.C.-based sports journalist. You can check out his podcast “Marc My Words” on Soundcloud, YouTube and coming to iTunes soon. Follow him on Twitter @iam_marcuslamar.