When I walked into my inconspicuous, unaccredited memoir-writing night class filled mostly with middle-aged, middle-class, bohemian-looking, friendly white ladies (me, 26 years old, gay, biracial, the only male), I never would have guessed I was just a couple of degrees of separation from the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, and, last but not least, Dennis Rodman. The common denominator of this group of NBA legends is NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson.
But on the last day of class, while listening to one of my classmates’ elegant and adventurous personal essays about her family’s journey as her ex-husband ascended from a relatively minor position coaching basketball in the Caribbean professional ranks to one of the premiere NBA coaching gigs with the Chicago Bulls, I suddenly connected the dots and realized that my classmate happened to be June Jackson, the ex-wife of Phil Jackson.
About a year later, around Thanksgiving time 2013, I was skimming through Outsports.com and saw Phil Jackson’s photo accompanied by a big, bold and less than flattering headline: "This year's 10 biggest turkeys in LGBT sports."
Phil had landed at No. 5 on the list for a controversial response on HuffPo Live earlier that year when a viewer-submitted topic was presented to a panel of guests including Jackson: "I'm wondering if you think that organizations and players and athletes could be or need to be more inclusive of gay athletes and more welcoming to the gay community in general?"
Phil replied, "That's a ridiculous question. I mean, none of us have probably seen it in all of our careers. There's no inclusiveness to be had. ... I've never run into it in all my career."
John Amaechi, who came out as a gay man after retiring from a career in the NBA, addressed Jackson’s ostensibly dismissive comments through Outsports and Huffington Post:
"I have NOTHING but respect for Shaq, Kurt Rambis and especially Phil Jackson," Amaechi said, "but Phil spoke to me on the phone on a number of occasions and even had breakfast with me in L.A. after my really great season with Orlando when he was trying to get me to come to the Lakers and I would not have been the first gay player on one of his teams."
"I just can't fathom that people like Phil who is clearly a smart man, could think the question 'ridiculous.' He has coached more than several gay (or ‘bi’) players over the years by my count ... players who were not out publicly, but who had ‘managers’ who came to every game and lived with the players and certainly players who were more discrete than that, but still inspired 'that conversation' with some of their teammates and significant rumors in the in-the-know media -- at least to the level I did when I played."
I decided to look up June Jackson’s email address from the old memoir-writing class roster and see if she might serve as a liaison between Phil and I so I could request a response and clarification while revisiting his comments on HuffPo Live. My intuition was that Jackson’s relatively clumsy response was not so much the product of anti-gay sentiment or insensitivity, but rather the result of frustration in encountering an unexpected, off-topic, "curveball"-type question.
It just so happened that June, who shares a growing family with Phil and remains very close friends with him (she jokes that she refers to Phil as her "was-band" among her girlfriends), was actually celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with him when she received my email and I was tickled to learn that it sparked a lively dinner-table discussion among the family.
June had an enlightening take on the faux pas and explained, "[Phil’s] comment about the question being ‘ridiculous’ was in reference to it being off topic for the purpose of the panel -- not at all a ridiculous question in general, however. This is not unusual for a hot topic to be introduced to catch people off guard and Phil, known for shooting from the hip, fell into the trap. He does have regrets about this event…"
June also forwarded my email to Phil himself and on Dec. 5, 2013, I received this statement from Jackson:
I'm glad you came to June with a question about the statement I made last March that caused some discomfort in your community. I'll try to explain my take on all that:
I was on a panel of 3 people -- a live feed-that was to tout the upcoming Final Four NCAA tourney and to bring focus to the unique idea that Kurt Rambis and I would be tweeting during the two days of the final four. The moderator was doing his job of pumping up the idea and the basketball tournament when he opened up the floor to a question by the press. Out of the blue the young reporter brings up the question that struck me as totally out of place considering what this press feed concerned. However, that doesn't excuse me from being abrupt with her and trying to get her back on topic. ‘I have never known or known of an NBA player that professed to be gay.’
That was true at the time when I was playing and coaching in the NBA. I'm sure I could have couched that statement a little better, but it was the truth. Now, of course, we are aware of a couple of guys, John [Amaechi] and Jason [Collins], that have come out. Good for them. Living in the truth is the best and maybe only way to live a mindful life.
Jackson is now said to be jumping back into the NBA to oversee the New York Knicks as team president. Also, the Knicks’ nearby rival, the Brooklyn Nets, are expected to sign Jason Collins, the NBA’s first openly gay player, for the remainder of the season.
Jackson may not have ever coached an openly gay player, but very soon he will have to deal with one on the Knicks’ scouting report. Does this mean he never coached closeted gay athletes in the past? Who knows. Perhaps only time will tell. Personally, I think he must have already coached a closeted gay athlete in the NBA. It seems statistically impossible that he has not, with more than two decades of NBA head coaching under his belt.
My opinion is that Phil Jackson’s gaydar is just a bit off. When you’re as focused with the on-court mechanics, techniques, and strategies as he is, you are bound to mistake that tell-tale stereotypical fling of the gay wrist as a feathery follow-through on a jump shot. Or when that blatant bossy bottom juts his rear into the nearest opponent’s crotch after a shot goes up, perhaps Jackson simply sees an aggressive rebounder and no other implications beyond that.
On the contrary, my gaydar was essentially built by NASA. If I turned the tables and offered to coach Phil Jackson on how to spot a gay guy, his gaydar would ping a lot more frequently and he would realize that the NBA probably has at least a few more gay men running around but still living in the closet for one reason or another.