I saw my first Lakers game as a boy, when my late father took me to watch the team play the Cincinnati Royals at the old Sports Arena. I was hooked for life, and though I have an indefensibly immoderate fondness for nearly all sports, the Lakers remain, for me, a team apart.
At least they were. I can't bring myself to root against the Lakers in their current playoff series with the Phoenix Suns, but neither can I support them — unless the club formally repudiates Coach Phil Jackson's endorsement of Arizona's mean-spirited new anti-immigrant law.
Jackson's support for the Arizona statute, which can only be enforced through impermissible racial profiling of Latinos, came to light on the eve of Monday's first game in the series. Jackson was asked by an ESPN columnist what he thought of the Suns' owner and players declaring their solidarity with the law's opponents by wearing jerseys that read "Los Suns" during a game on Cinco de Mayo. The L.A. coach replied, "Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the Arizona Legislature] say, 'We just took the United States immigration law and adopted it to our state?' " Arizona lawmakers simply "gave it some teeth to be able to enforce it," he said.
By contrast, Suns star Steve Nash, a two-time NBA most valuable player, has attacked the law as "terrible and totally misguided. I think [it] will encourage racial profiling and sets a very dangerous precedent."
Jackson criticized Nash and the Suns for their public opposition to the measure. "I don't think teams should get involved in the political stuff," he said. "If I heard it right, the American people are really for stronger immigration laws."
Monday afternoon, with protests planned outside Staples Center during the opening game, the Lakers press office issued a "clarification" by Jackson. "I have respect for those who oppose the new Arizona immigration law," he said, "but I am wary of putting entire sports organizations in the middle of political controversies. This was the message of my statement.... In this regard, it is my wish that this statement not be used by either side to rally activists."
It won't do. Jackson's original statement was not a declaration of neutrality, nor was it an argument for holding sport above politics. It was an endorsement of the Arizona law and a criticism of another NBA team that opposes it.
Just as Jackson's convoluted clarification does not excuse him in this controversy of his own making, neither will the insistence by some of his admirers that this is just another example of the psychological warfare he routinely wages against playoff opponents. In that implausible schema, Jackson is supposed to have spoken favorably of the dubious Arizona statute as a way of inciting Phoenix fans who also support the law against their hometown team.
Jackson is unquestionably a great coach of great players, but if he intentionally went fishing in these painfully troubled waters and took the position he did just to gain some minor advantage in a playoff series, it was reprehensible.
Frankly, Jackson's reputation as one of the NBA's deep thinkers always has seemed to me to owe more than a little to his impenetrably baroque syntax. Take the time to untangle his sentences and what emerges usually ranges from the banal to the incomprehensible. Like the players in his fabled adaptation of Tex Winters' triangle offense, meaning is constantly, and elusively, in motion when Phil does the talking.
Jackson once remarked: "Basketball … is an improvisational game, similar to jazz. If someone drops a note, someone else must step into the vacuum and drive the beat that sustains the team."
That's exactly what the Lakers players — or better still, the team's management, which is only too happy to profit from Latino support — need to do now. They need not join Nash and the Suns in denouncing the Arizona measure — though that would be preferable — but they do have to distance themselves from Jackson's wrongheaded endorsement of a law whose implementation can only affront Latinos' constitutional rights.
If the Lakers, who have given this community so much joy and excellence, close their eyes to Arizona's affront to so many of its members, then at least one disappointed fan will be withholding his support, and inviting as many others as will listen to do the same.