Mea Culpa Time for Phil and LeBron?

Phil Jackson isn’t a stranger to pissing people off. He called the Spurs 1999 championship the asterisk championship because it was earned in a strike shortened year. He motivated through public ridicule Shaquille O’Neal, frequently tossing zingers in the media about Shaq’s well documented laziness and weight. He once said that if Shaq ended his career with only a single MVP award, it would be a disappointment. (Jackson was right). Jackson wrote a book defiling Kobe Bryant and then, in a karma like twist, put all his hopes in Kobe being forgiving. (Kobe was). Jackson referred to the Sacramento Kings fans as crazy cow bell ringing yahoos. On the sidelines, Jackson once punched Pau Gasol in the chest and told him to wake up. According to Robert Horry, Jackson never really spoke to him directly during his entire Laker tenure. Arrogantly, Jackson refused to give credit to any of the great coaching peers of his era such as Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers.

A couple of weeks ago he got on LeBron James bad side, enough so that James says he has lost respect for Jackson, the greatest coach of championship rings in NBA history. It all stems from something that happened three years ago, the details of which aren’t really important, only that Phil referred to the childhood friends of James, who have since become James business partners, advisers and firewall, as a “posse.”

What is a posse depends on your generation and how you interpret it. LeBron James interpreted it as synonymous with thug or gang member.

Jackson, if you give him the benefit of the doubt, thinks of posse as a group of friends that surround a central character and may cause conflict with their behavior. However you conjugate it, LeBron James let the world know it wasn’t an appropriate description for successful men. It was racially insensitive at the very least. Or, intentionally prejudiced. It was more than Phil Jackson being his smug and arrogant self. It fit the texture of the country, the Donald Trump America that has legitimized and elevated racial and gender slurs, hate and racial animus since his election. Intentionally, bias has infected the culture and people, particularly people of color who are bracing themselves against verbal and violent attacks, are on edge.

LeBron was very succinct. “We see the success that we have, but then there is always someone that lets you know how far we still have to go as African-Americans. I don’t believe that Phil Jackson would have used that term if he was doing business with someone else and worked with another team or if he was working with anybody in sports that was owning a team that wasn’t African-American. I don’t think that he would have called them a posse.”

Language is central to perception. It attaches to groups and members of that group  a defining principle. While many don’t see the harm in the terminology of “posse”, African American men who feel under attack find the casual usage of that word, particularly when used as a descriptor and out of context, as one more way of discrediting and delegitimizing their humanity and achievements. Basically, it is a put down.

A posse doesn’t mean success. It doesn’t mean achievement, or top of the food chain capitalistic excellence, or even great for that matter. It describes a group loyal to one another but missing the ingredient of individual achievement.

The messenger was the problem, as much as the message. Phil Jackson’s intelligence is well documented. He is a compulsive reader who understands parsing language and being specific about words and the power that language has on a culture. Jackson is not random and does not do anything accidentally. He is a thinker. He has great impulse control, verbal and otherwise. If he said posse, he meant posse.

Jackson was answering questions about the Knicks in an interview with ESPN and recounted a story about LeBron James when he was with the Heat and how James friends allowed the Heat to change plans they would not otherwise have done if they didn’t have a player of the caliber of James. The word posse was used and James reacted.

Or overreacted, many would say.

But here is the LeBron James truth. He is a champion. He is a hero. He did a spectacular thing bringing a title to Cleveland, particularly when the Cavaliers were down 3-1. He is a millionaire many times over with plans to be a billionaire. He is a philantropist. He gives a lot of money away. He has a television show and movies and Nike products and projects he has turned down that the rank and file athlete would have said yes to in a minute. All of that makes James influential and inspiring. He was once a poor kid from Akron. He has reached the height of his profession and has created capital for others and made capital for himself because of his talents, persistence and commitment.

And yet, LeBron James is no different than the kid on the street selling bootleg Cavs t-shirts; his skin is the same brown. He is being judged with the same stereotypes and the same divisive language and the same sum us up generalities as every male member of his tribal group. LeBron James is more perception than he is reality. He is a caricature of what people assume black men to be because they don’t know any black men who are successful (other than professional athletes) and so they reach for the low hanging fruit of stereotypes to cover up what they don’t know.

LeBron James has a reason to be sensitive. He is not in a forgiving mood either. He has no interest in coming to a meeting of the minds with Phil. It’s a staring contest with neither blinking. Though both reiterate they want to move past it.

Phil: I guess word choice is something I could regret. It is water under the bridge. I don’t think there was anybody hurt or harmed in this situation. I think LeBron’s friend obviously had an issue with it. So we just let it go. It’s not enough to talk about it.

Phil acknowledged that at the very least he was not being professional. Jackson, an employee of the league, characterized the endearing friends of the league’s most powerful and enduring star in language that wasn’t appropriate. Comments about other players, outside of their performance is off limits.

Lebron: “I’ve built my career on and off the floor on the utmost respect and I’ve always given the utmost respect to  everyone- my peers, people that’s laid the path for me and laid the path for coaches, players, things of that nature. I’ve always given respect to them and it’s always shade thrown on me.

To James way of thinking, what a posse does is not what his friends do. Intelligent, educated and insightful men with a significant place in the world and at the business table is not the Phil Jackson “posse”.  LeBron’s friends were being judged by the lowest common denominator. They weren’t called LeBron’s agent or his business partners but the over generalized, ubiquitous “posse”.

If there is water under the bridge between Phil and LeBron, it is very icy, almost near frozen.

photo via llananba