Opinion: LeBron James v. Phil Jackson, and the Modern Day NBA Player/Businessman

By Michael Mugerwa

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“It had to hurt when they lost LeBron. 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.

-Phil Jackson

If you haven’t already heard Lebron James’s cold rebuke towards Knicks coach Phil Jackson for this statement, watch this first:

I partially sympathize with LeBron’s stance; Jackson’s use of the word ‘posse’ may appear innocuous, but is grossly inappropriate and demeaning when you remember he is describing a multimillionaire athlete and his business partners. It obviously doesn’t help that, for some, the word “posse” has a racial connotation. And, believe it or not, Phil Jackson has a history with edgy racial connotations (*gasp*). In 1999, Jackson blamed rap music for society’s “limited attention span”. In 2005, Jackson said players should “get out of the prison garb and the thuggery” while discussing the NBA’s dress code. But I digress.

The most conversation-sparking piece of Jackson’s statement was not his comment about James and his associates. Rather, it was his subtle jab at rival Pat Riley which fascinated me the most, as Jackson said Riley’s “iron-fist rules” were not enough to keep LeBron around. He also expressed disbelief when considering Riley’s “nice vibe with his guys”.

Right now, Miami is a shadow of what they were in their “Big Three” heyday- no Wade, no LeBron, and a hurt Bosh makes them nearly unrecognizable. The Heat are a truly glorious example of the modern NBA dynasty: they rose to quick notoriety, failed initially to meet ridiculous expectations, experienced prolonged victory, fell victim to the fate which birthed them. It’s a cycle which is playing out right now in Cleveland, and most recently with KD and the Warriors.

The LeBron-Cleveland, Wade-Riley, and Durant-Thunder fallouts were awkward to say the least. However, they ushered in a new type of independence among NBA players, as players can now be expected to make executive business and family decisions in spite of ties to cities, teams, and staff. Even outside of the league, the influence is being felt. High school kids fly cross-country, leaving their family and friends, to play for powerhouse academies in pursuit of scholarships. College basketball players are more emboldened to demand compensation from the NCAA for jersey sales and TV revenue. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 draft pick, already has a documentary with Showtime chronicling his travel all the way from freaking Australia in pursuit of basketball. The film even primarily discusses his gripes with the NCAA system, although he is yet to log a single minute as a pro.

In short, the LeBron-Phil Jackson spat is not just about race; at its core, the issue has a lot more to do with players flexing their new independence from organizations and control of their brand. When LeBron talks about putting his friends in “positions of power”, or wants to stay in Cleveland an extra night, he is exercising the power of the brand which he worked to build. The same occurred when Durant courted teams this summer, as his vast selection led to chagrin and tears (looking at you, Steve Ballmer) from many front offices.

Are these new breed of players pampered prima-donnas or beneficiaries of their brand and value? To what extent is race a factor, if it is one at all, in a league where players are mostly African-American and management is overwhelmingly white? Do Jackson’s comments about the Wade-Riley fallout show resentment towards this shift in relations or utter shock? Are similar sentiments shared by other front offices in the league?

The answers are muddy, but it’s definitely worth thinking about.

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