Phil and the Posse

The big story last week involved an interview that Knicks GM Phil Jackson gave to ESPN, where, per his usual protocol, he was quite candid in his opinions about many things.  The big public takeaway from the interview was that Jackson’s comments about LeBron James and his management team (which is comprised of many lifelong friends), which were called LBJ’s “posse.”  The consensus was that Jackson’s comment was, at best, disrespectful, and, at worst, subtly racist.

Is it fair to criticize Jackson for his phrasing?  Let’s take a look at his statement, which came in the context of a larger answer about how LBJ undermined Pat Riley with his need for star treatment.  After explaining that LeBron might be difficult, Jackson then said: “[y]ou can’t hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland.”

Based upon that statement, Dallas Carter, one of James’ friends and agents, tweeted that he didn’t feel the “posse” statement was racist but said it was “disrespectful language.”  LBJ, himself, thought the remarks were racially tinged, noting in a New York Times story that : “I don’t believe that Phil Jackson would have used that term if he was doing business with someone else….But it just shows how far we have to go.”

Is “posse” a racially charged term”?   Perspective matters.  In these odd social times, we have strong currents of insensitivity on issues of race and, at the same time, oversensitivity and political correctness.  Given the spectrum of sensibilities, the answer, then is personal.  The best we can do is try to assess the controversy in the most moderate and objective way possible.

To do so, we should start with whether posse is racially charged based upon our understanding of how the term has been used historically.   Without delving too deeply in to a full history, the racial aspect of posse in the NBA seems to go back to Allen Iverson, who remained tight with his childhood friends.  According to David Porter’s 2005’s “Basketball: A Biographical Dictionary,” AI’s “embrace of in-your-face rap music and concerns with his personal retinue/entourage known as ‘Iverson’s Posse’ position him as the infant terrible of modern basketball.  This ‘posse’ has even become grist for cultural commentators, who question Iverson’s resistance to structures of authority.”

In Porter’s entry, the posse was being criticized for enabling bad behavior and non-conformism that hurt the team.  In 2003’s “Young, Black, Rich, and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip Hop Invasion,” Todd Boyd, summed up the issue thusly: “The media and mainstream White society often imply that large groups of Black men constitute a gang, and this was also what was said about Iverson.  White guys have friends; Black guys have a posse.  This tends to be the thinking.  Of course, Iverson did nothing to dissuade anyone from thinking this, either, except to proclaim that these were his friends and he was going to stick by them.”

Iverson was/is such a unique cultural figure that it is hard analogize his “posse” with the current LeBron/Phil controversy.  We do know that using the term posse has been considered non-controversial in many other NBA contexts.  Just to provide a little more nuance, here are a few other random recent examples:

-In 2011, Sam Smith, author of the “Jordan Rules,” remembered that Michael Jordan’s core group of friends and described them thusly: “Life on the road wasn’t that glamorous, and back then Jordan’s posse was three guys–Fred Whitfield, who is still with him in Charlotte, Fred Kearns, and Adolph Shiver. They’d travel to some games, but couldn’t afford to all the time. So Jordan would invite some of us to hang around and play cards.”

-In Roland Lazenby’s “Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings,” John Salley discussed the coddling of NBA stars and noted that “In the pros, someone gives you a credit card.  Now you got a posse around you, and this guy, that guy, he looks like he knows how to buy food, buy cars, whatever.  Manage your money.  Run your life….So you leave it to them to do it all.   All you do is say to someone, ‘Just make it happen.  I’m going upstairs and rest.’”

In both these cases, posse does not seem to have offensive connotations (though it clearly is implies that the friends in Salley’s random hypothetical are African American).   So, there is a tension here…(a) posse usually refers to a group of young, Black man and (b) some posses (but not all) have had a gang/thug implication.

This dichotomy must be understood to get to the heart of the LBJ controversy.  There is no implication by Jackson that James is somehow subversive due to his “posse” or that the group is gang-like.  But Jackson does seem to indicate that James is high maintenance and that he has his own entourage.  There is absolutely nothing in Jackson’s history to show that he is racist.  In fact, all past stories of Jackson show that he seems to be incredibly open-minded on such issues.  Still, Dallas Carter is taking exception to the implication that Carter is somehow just a glorified personal assistant to James and not successful in his own right.  Jackson doesn’t quite say that but, objectively, this is not an unreasonable implication to take.   Yes, Carter would probably not be as hugely successful as he is but for his relationship with James.  But the fact is that he has succeeded and he is far from the first person to benefit from friendship or family ties as an entry into the NBA management (regardless of the beneficiaries race, gender, or ethnicity).

Jackson’s problem is not race.  Rather, it is his know-it-all pomposity.  He routinely delivers bromides at competitors and seeks to tweak them in the name of gamesmanship.  You can go all the way back to when he criticized the early 1990s Trailblazers for mental toughness and there are a million examples since then (including several other examples in the same recent interview).  Here’s the deal….Gamesmanship and condescension are tools he used to tweak serious rivals like Pat Riley’s Knicks and the Spurs.  It is arguable that they had any effect on his rivals but in the mind of some (and perhaps Jackson, himself), the strategy worked because he won so many titles.  This time, though, Phil can’t point to some rings he won in the past decades when the current Knicks are middling and LeBron is the champ.

On top of that, Jackson’s statement isn’t even accurate.  Jackson implies that that LeBron is a prima donna who wants star treatment and that Jackson would never tolerate such disobedience.  Putting aside whether LeBron is high maintenance, Jackson, himself, has routinely compromised with his stars.  Michael Jordan wanted to win but he did what he wanted as well.

Jackson acknowledged this fact in a 1991 Sports Illustrated story: “We made our rules strict.  [Jordan’s] friends couldn’t ride on the team bus or the team charter, but they could be with him on the road.  There is a difference in the way he’s treated, yes, but there’s also a difference in the way he produces.  A big difference.  And that must be weighed.”  And, of course, Jackson wrote a whole book detailing what a pain in the ass his Lakers stars were too.

Really, Jackson is just another GM trying to build a decent team and he looks quite foolish trying to play the psychological games of the past before his current team plays in even a single playoff game.  He might want to just focus on his rebuilding job and not try jockeying with the Warriors and LeBron.

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