Ex-NBA coach Phil Jackson says he stopped watching basketball when players wore slogans on jerseys during COVID-19 bubble

Phil Jackson played, coached and worked as an executive in the NBA for 50 years. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)
Phil Jackson played, coached and worked as an executive in the NBA for 50 years. (Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage)

Hall of Fame NBA coach Phil Jackson says he hasn't enjoyed or watched basketball since the 2020 bubble in Orlando, Florida, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason? He didn't like the slogans on players' jerseys or on the court.

“ … They had things on their back like 'Justice' and a funny thing happened like, 'Justice just went to the basket and Equal Opportunity knocked him down,'" Jackson said on the Tetragrammaton podcast with Rick Rubin. "... Some of my grandkids thought it was pretty funny to play up those names; I couldn't watch that."

The NBA agreed to let players wear slogans such as "Justice," "Equality," "Black Lives Matter," "Say Their Names," "Vote," "Peace" and others on the back of their jerseys instead of their names during the bubble in 2020 as a show of support for fighting racial injustice in the United States.

That decision by the league came on the heels of massive protests during the 2020 summer after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and the death of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed Black woman who was killed in her home. Games were postponed during the bubble when players refused to play in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in Wisconsin.

Jackson, 77, appears to believe this messaging did more harm than good because it made the league too political.

"It was trying to cater to an audience or trying to bring a certain audience to the game," he said, "and they didn't know it was turning other people off. People want to see sports as non-political. Politics stays out of the game; it doesn't need to be there."

Here's the full sound bite of Jackson in his own words:

No matter which way you look at it, this isn't the first time Jackson wanted basketball players to stay out of politics, nor is it his first questionable remark on racial topics.

Jackson told ESPN's J.A. Adande in 2010, “I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff," when talking about the Phoenix Suns' peaceful protest of Arizona's new immigration laws with "Los Suns" jerseys.

He's also said "a certain population in our society" has a "limitation of their attention span" because of rap music, players "have been dressing in prison garb ... it’s like gangster, thuggery stuff" and referred to LeBron James' business partners as his "posse" in a 2016 interview with ESPN.

Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, who played for Jackson during the Bulls' championship runs in the 1990s, accused his former coach in 2021 of being racist after Jackson drew up a last-second play for then-rookie Toni Kukoč instead of Pippen during a 1994 playoff game.

"I don’t think it’s a mystery, you need to read between the fine lines," Pippen said. "... I felt like it was an opportunity to give [Kukoč] a rise. It was a racial move to give him a rise. After all I’ve been through with this organization, now you're gonna tell me to take the ball out and throw it to Toni Kukoč? You’re insulting me. That’s how I felt."

Pippen also said Jackson tried to "expose" Kobe Bryant after leaving him and the Los Angeles Lakers to write a book in 2004, only to return in 2005.

Jackson played, coached and was an executive in the NBA for 50 years from 1967-2017. He is in the Basketball of Fame for his time as a coach, where he won 11 NBA titles with the Bulls and Lakers. Jackson became the president of the New York Knicks in 2014 but mutually parted ways with the team in 2017.

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