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Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Phil Jackson's reality check

By Kevin Arnovitz

In a video interview with HuffPost Live, Phil Jackson is asked whether sports organizations and players need to be more inclusive of gay athletes.

Jackson, who played 12 seasons in the NBA and coached for 20, winning 11 championships along the way, had this response:
That's a ridiculous question. I mean, none of us have probably ever seen it in all our careers. There's no inclusiveness to be had, so it's really a strange question.

Jackson was then asked whether he meant there were no gay athletes in the NBA, to which he responded, "I've never run into it in all my career."

Interesting, because in summer 2000, Jackson was entering his second season as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won the 1999-2000 NBA championship. The Lakers were in the market for a skilled backup center who could fit seamlessly into the triangle. Jackson reached out to free agent John Amaechi, who was coming off a solid season with the Orlando Magic.

Amaechi came out as an openly gay man in 2007, less than four years after his retirement from the NBA. In his book, "Man in the Middle," Amaechi recounts the scene with Jackson:
For a free agent center, there's nothing quite like the sight of Phil Jackson pulling up on his black Harley. It's a pretty good indication that you are wanted, big time. Words are almost beside the point.

Over waffles at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, I chatted with Jackson and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak -- a pretty good big man in his own right.

The previous night I'd enjoyed dinner at a little hole-in-the-wall Italian place with another Laker legend, Jerry West, so there wasn't much serious business to conduct at the Wilshire. As vice president, West had laid out the team's plans for me ... They had seen me improve, they had been impressed with my work ethic, fundamental play, and the way I flourished as a role player. They were confident I would thrive in their system.

I was to back up Shaq, save him a little wear and tear, contribute my customary 7 to 11 points per game. Pull down a few boards, take up some space in the paint. Root for the stars. Contribute to team chemistry. It was far from superstardom, but not a bad day job.

Among these men, there was a quiet unspoken certainty not just about my role but about the larger mission: replicating the dynasty Jackson and Jordan had created in Chicago. And I was to play a role, albeit a complementary role.

There were many things I wanted to talk about with the bearded, leather-jacketed Jackson. I would benefit from playing for a coach who sought me out in part because he saw parallels in my own cerebral approach.

Despite an aggressive courtship by the Lakers' brass, Amaechi ultimately decided to stay in Orlando to be close to two teenagers he was mentoring closely and whom he'd ultimately adopt.

The Lakers survived and prospered, and it's unlikely Jackson has spent much time, if any, thinking about those waffles. But the breakfast is a matter of record, no matter how hazy or selective his memory.