• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Jackson under fire over immigration comment

Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson talks with his team during the first half against the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series in Salt Lake City, Saturday, May 8, 2010. (Chris Carlson)
May 17, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Los Angeles Lakers Coach Phil Jackson finds himself in the middle of the controversy over Arizona's new immigration law. Protesters picketed outside game 1 of the Lakers playoff series on Monday.Jackson's statements weren't exactly an endorsement of Arizona's law, but it wasn't a criticism either, and that was enough to set off some immigration activists.

Jackson told an ESPN reporter, "Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the legislators] say, 'We took the United States immigration law and adapted it to our state'?"

Jackson then asked the reporter if his interpretation of the law was correct, who responded that Arizona "usurped the federal law."

Jackson disagreed, saying "it's not usurping, they just copied it, is what they said they did, the legislators. Then they give it some teeth to be able to enforce it."

The comments were nearly two weeks ago, but as the Lakers took on the Phoenix Suns Monday night, the Mexican American Political Association and the Southern California Immigration Coalition found a high-profile backdrop for a protest.

Arizona State Bill 1070 empowers local law enforcement to check the immigration status of suspects they have stopped for other reasons if there is a reasonable suspicion they are in the country illegally. The law specifically bars police from racial profiling.

On Monday, Jackson released a statement on the controversy, saying, "I've been involved in a number of progressive political issues over the years and I support those who stand up for their beliefs. It is what makes this country great. I have respect for those who oppose the new Arizona immigration law, but I am wary of putting entire sports organizations in the middle of political controversies. This was the message of my statement. I know others feel differently, even in the Lakers organization, but it was a personal statement. In this regard, it is my wish that this statement not be used by either side to rally activists."

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Monday: "Everything I've seen over the years about him, he's a good man. I don't know why folks have decided to picket him, and I certainly don't endorse that. I think that's separate and apart from what we think about the boycott."

The biggest question about the law is how it will be enforced without leading to racial profiling of Hispanics.

Immigration-rights groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) feel that will happen. The organization filed a lawsuit Monday morning in Phoenix.

"Being undocumented is a status. You can't see it on someone's face, it's not written anywhere on that person, so they're going to be relying on stereotypes like skin tone, intonation, accent and surname," said Victor Viramontes, MALDEF senior national counsel.

The Lakers defeated the Suns Monday night. The Suns made their own headlines when the team wore jerseys that read "Los Suns" on May 5, Cinco de Mayo. Immigration activists say part of the reason for their picket line will be to thank the Suns for their symbolic support, but the main reason is to express unhappiness over Jackson's comments.

"As Laker fans, we're really hurt that Phil Jackson would come out and defend such a racist law," said Ron Gochez, Mexican American Political Association. "We want Phil Jackson to come out publicly and explain what he meant by that, and we want the Lakers as an organization and Phil Jackson as a coach to say that he does not support that racist law."

Jackson has been known to make inflammatory comments as a way to play mind games with opposing players.

Some fans outside the Staples Center on Monday said if Jackson wants to talk politics, he should save it for the off-season.

"Focus on the game, that's his job," said Oakland resident Ben Colbert.

Activists wanted the Lakers to put on "Los Lakers" that they wore to honor Hispanic fans in March. But team officials said those jerseys will not be worn during the playoffs.

City News Service contributed to this story.


Load Comments