Phil Jackson, the Hall-of-Fame NBA coach and current quasi-adviser to the Los Angeles Lakers is through with watching professional basketball. Why? Three years ago, the NBA made a few brand-friendly gestures towards supporting the largest civil-rights protest in U.S. history,
Now six seasons removed from his disastrous stint running the New York Knicks and more than a decade since he patrolled the Lakers sidelines, Jackson has given up on the sport he’s played and coached his entire life because it’s too gosh-darned “political.”
In his mind, the tepid and sure, at times cringe-worthy racial justice slogans plastered on the court and on the backs of jerseys during the quarantined 2020 NBA bubble had nothing to do with the players themselves, many of whom were leaders in the movement.
Instead, “It was trying to cater to an audience or trying to bring a certain audience to the game,” Jackson said on a recent episode of storied music producer Rick Rubin’s podcast. “They didn’t know it was turning other people off. People want to see sports as non-political. Politics stays out of the game. It doesn’t need to be there.”
He continued: “They 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.”
A clip from the podcast was passed around and picked up some viral steam over the weekend. For fans who haven’t been tracking Jackson’s ideological evolution over the years, it seemed bizarre that he’d throw his hat in with the types getting performatively heated about Bud Light, and literally grousing about the NBA needing to Stick To Sports. But the image of Jackson as a counter-culture figure is just that: an image, one Jackson’s always been willing to feed. In reality, he’s spent the last two decades following the same political trajectory as a lot of boomers: an increasing turn towards reactionary and at times bigoted musings, all delivered with a kind of colicky and sour resentment you’d expect from someone who responds to a changing world with fear and anger.
The irony here is that Jackson himself was an angry young man himself, and not that long ago. While playing for the Knicks in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Montana-born preacher’s son became a prominent countercultural figure. He was a devoted Grateful Dead fan, who made no bones about his predilections for dabbling in mind-altering substances, or took to the streets at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In a twist of fate, Jackson’s teammate Cazzie Russell, a reserve with the National Guard, was positioned on a rooftop, pointing a sniper rifle at Jackson at the anti-Vietnam War protesters below. Buddhist teachings and Native American rituals were part and parcel of his game-planning and motivational strategies while coaching the Chicago Bulls to six titles and five more with the Lakers. (His 2006 book was titled: Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, to give you some idea.)
Look just past the wholly effective self-marketing campaign, though, and there were clear indications at the time that the so-called Zen Master had swung to the right.
As far back as 1999, Jackson was spouting downright condescending grievances about the kinds of music NBA players favored and the clothing they wore
“I don’t mean to say [that] as a snide remark toward a certain population in our society,” Jackson said, “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.”
Those racist fears—that the NBA could never survive financially if it were perceived as being “too Black”—has been present throughout the league’s history. Finding an acceptable form of Blackness that could be packaged and sold to a preferred white (and wealthier) customer base was of particular concern at the turn of the century. The league was just coming out of a grueling and costly work stoppage. (The owners made out like bandits, of course.) And then-Commissioner David Stern was fretting about selling tickets in a post-Michael Jordan basketball world, especially one in which league’s marquee star Allen Iverson made no bones about his place within hip hop culture. Six years later, Jackson went to the same well, after Stern imposed a dress code.
“I think it’s important that the players take their end of it, 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,” he said. The Phil Jackson of 1968, who posed nude for glossy photos, draped himself in leather fringe jackets, and tooled around Manhattan on a bicycle, would have laughed.
By 2010, Jackson was siding with Arizona lawmakers—including noted racial-profiling advocate Sheriff Joe Arpaio—pushing legislation that would have allowed cops to corner anyone who, in their minds, didn’t seem American enough and check their immigration papers. The Phoenix Suns staged a mild protest and in response, Jackson grumbled, “I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff,” while offering a botched understanding of privacy laws. Shortly thereafter, Jackson backtracked, saying he’s a “progressive,” and adding that protests as a whole are what “makes this country great.”
The weird paternalistic hang-ups and steadfast belief that his particular form of manipulative mind games continued throughout the next decade. He took a bizarre shot at LeBron James. The people who James associated with—friends, agents, family, what have you, many of whom were Black—constituted a “posse,” Jackson said in an ESPN interview, and have the star’s best interests in mind and were part of a plot to help him accrue more power. James, unsurprisingly and rightly, took offense. As is the case now, people were similarly surprised that the, in his words, “progressive” Jackson would express such a paternalistic and inescapably racist sentiment.
Once again, they shouldn’t have been. For all his actual leftist bona fides, Jackson’s coaching career and Zen Master rep has been partly built on the ancient trope about athletes needing to be brought to heel or subjected to mind games in order to become their best selves on court. As of 2015, he believed the NBA needed to up its age limit, because being compensated for their labor was doing the workforce a disservice. Ripping players in the media was a Jackson staple, too. Mostly, those methods veered away from the stereotypical hard-assed coachspeak, like when he tried to inspire the Lakers in the playoffs by playing a video comparing the Sacramento Kings’ white point guard Jason Williams to Ed Norton’s neo-Nazi character in the movie American History X. (The Kings’ head coach was also spliced in between clips of Hitler.)
Famously, Jackson would parcel out hand-chosen books to his charges. Kobe Bryant, four years removed from settling a civil suit accusing him of rape, was given a copy of Montana 1948, a novel recounting the story of a man who raped and murdered a young Native American woman. It might read as a very strange thing to imply to his star player, but then again, Jackson had written a 2004 post-mortem on the Lakers in which he basically said that he thought Bryant was guilty.
Another former Jackson player, Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen, has clearly had enough of Jackson’s vinegary, off-the-cuff racial commentary.
It happens, though. People get older; the world shifts in ways beyond their ability to process, and they lash out. Being the proud owner of 13 total championship rings, doesn’t make Jackson immune.
So the next time Phil Jackson gets his britches in a twitch about some culture war nonsense, don’t act surprised. When people tell you who they are, believe them. Phil’s been telling us for a while now.