Phil Jackson Isn’t Racist, But Calling LeBron’s Friends A “Posse” Is Coded Language

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Earlier this week, LeBron James created quite the conversation online after firing back at comments made by former NBA coach and current New York Knicks president, Phil Jackson. In an interview with ESPN, Jackson was asked a wide range of questions, including his thoughts on where things stand between Miami Heat president, Pat Riley, and James, who left the team for Cleveland in 2014. This was Jackson’s opinion on James and his time with the Heat:

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.

I always thought Pat had this really nice vibe with his guys. But something happened there where it broke down. I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way.

According to ESPN, James wanted to stay overnight in Cleveland so he could host the team for Thanksgiving dinner in his hometown. He did so in the hopes of keeping his teammates, who were on the road for games, from having to spend the holiday in their hotel rooms. What a jerk, right?

But as for the response to Jackson’s comments, James told reporters in Cleveland this week that more than trying to paint him as selfish, the NBA star was offended at the fact that Jackson called his friends a “posse.”

“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,” he said. “I don’t believe that Phil Jackson would have used that term if he was doing business with someone else and working with another team or if he was working with anybody in sports that was owning a team that wasn’t African-American and had a group of guys around them that didn’t agree with what they did. I don’t think he would have called them a posse. But it just shows how far we have to go. But it won’t stop us from doing what we need to do as a group.”

James’s friend and business partner, Maverick Carter, the CEO and co-founder of LRMR Management, also spoke out about the use of “posse” by Jackson. While he said he wasn’t calling Jackson racist, the language was definitely disrespectful.


Carter took things a step further with a statement to

“I don’t care that he talks about LeBron,” Maverick Carter said. “He could say he’s not that good or the greatest in the world as a basketball player. I wouldn’t care. It’s the word ‘posse’ and the characterization I take offense to. If he would have said LeBron and his agent, LeBron and his business partners or LeBron and his friends, that’s one thing. Yet because you’re young and black, he can use that word. We’re grown men.”

And so, the Internet has debated for the last few days whether or not “posse” is a “racist” term. There are different definitions of the noun, including the ones posted by Carter. And while I don’t think calling someone’s friends a “posse” is necessarily racist, I definitely think it’s a form of loaded, coded language. It implies something without outwardly saying it. I doubt that Jackson would have spoken that way about anyone else surrounded by a group of friends and business partners (as many in a variety of levels of sports are), especially since he has a history of talking less than positively about James. In fact, this wasn’t the first time he’d called the champion’s crew a “posse.”

In his 2004 book, The Last Season, Jackson said about James:

Yet as talented as (LeBron James) definitely appears to be, I don’t believe any nineteen-year-old should be playing in the NBA. These young men grow so dependent on their posse’s, who fetch their cars and their girls, that they can’t possibly develop into mature, self-sufficient human beings. One day, I’m convinced, we’ll find out the true extent of the psychological damage that’s been caused.

Whatever Jackson’s beef with James, it’s clear that he’s trying to belittle the talents and contributions of the star player and his friends. And this type of thing happens more often than we think. It happened to rapper Kendrick Lamar and his labelmates of Top Dawg Entertainment in 2013. When he was named one of the men of the year by GQ, a profile on the rapper by writer Steve Marsh spent more time trying to differentiate Lamar from other rappers and being surprised that he defies stereotypes than it did celebrating the MC:

They have a seriousness of purpose, a rigorous discipline that can feel slightly monastic at times. Kendrick doesn’t smoke weed or drink booze. In the time I spent with him, I never witnessed anyone roll even the thinnest spider leg of a jay, nor did I see Kendrick so much as glance at the many, many girls around him.

TDE label head, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, who was compared to Suge Knight in the story, issued a statement against Marsh’s story.

“To say he was ‘surprised at our discipline’ is completely disrespectful,” Tiffith wrote in part of it. “Instead of putting emphasis on the good that TDE has done for west coast music, and for hip hop as a whole, he spoke on what most people would consider whats wrong with Hip Hop music.”

Lamar agreed, opting against attending the GQ Men of the Year party he was scheduled to perform at.

I do think it’s a shame that such language is used when speaking on young men of color who are doing great things. Again, while I don’t believe that Jackson, or the writer of Lamar’s profile, are racist, I think they do what many people do — talk about certain individuals (i.e., Black folks) using coded language. Applaud Black men and women for being “articulate.” Call protesters “thugs.” Tell a Black woman she’s so “sassy.” Call natural hair “wild,” and a little too wild for the workplace.

People who aren’t men and women of color probably won’t get it and say I’m being “sensitive,” but this type of language is offensive. Hence the reason James and his friends were so bothered by Jackson’s comments. With James’s helps, his friends have become successful businessmen and done great things. Together, they have won championships, created an entertainment company that just signed a huge deal with Warner Bros., brought you the Starz show Survivor’s Remorse, negotiated a lifetime contract extension with Nike worth nearly a whopping $1 billion, made millions by making James a stakeholder in Beats headphones, signed other big athletes and led their careers as agents, and given back to the community. And yet, they’re just a posse? I think not.


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