Phil Jackson's $75,000 fine for comments about a possible lockout shows NBA's heavy handedness
Usually at this time of year, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson scans the playoff landscape, plants a dig at an opposing team's star player and hopes the officiating adjusts.
The risk-reward usually falls into two categories. It can help plant psychological doubt in that player, but it usually comes with a fine for questioning the NBA's officiating. It's usually worth it considering any fine is a small fraction of Jackson's salary and it could give his team a competitive edge even before tipoff. But this year, Jackson and the Lakers each have drawn $75,000 fines for comments that had nothing to do with questioning league officials.
Jackson gathered with a small group of traveling Lakers beat writers last week at a hotel in Portland, where he spent 80 minutes talking about big-picture issues, such as his impending retirement, his storied coaching career and his take on the season. Naturally, a question was posed on whether a possible lockout factored into his decision to retire after this season.
"It was really about the fact that there's going to be a lockout," Jackson said. "It's the perfect time to help the organization cover a gap if there's a lockout. My staff, all those guys who work with me. All those things played into it. I felt like an obligation."
"Who knows what the NBA is going to look like next year?" Jackson continued. "It's going to take on a whole different proportion. How long is it going to last? I think there are some people who are pretty convinced there's not going to be a year next year."
The fact it took the NBA a week to deem the comment offensive was bad enough. The fact that it's deemed offensive at all is even worse. It's unfortunately not surprising.
The NBA issues fines for everything it finds egregious, ranging from players' accumulating technical fouls to criticism of officiating to Kobe Bryant's recent anti-gay slur.
I think fines were warranted for all three circumstances, but the fact that the NBA assesses penalties of such tiny amounts compared to players' salaries, and at the frequency with which police officers hand out traffic citations at the end of the month, reveals a pettiness that just alienates players and coaches from the league offices even more. In this case, the fine is beyond petty. It's not even warranted.
Jackson's comments simply stated something that's hardly a secret. The league office, the 30 team owners and players' union have a collective bargaining agreement that expires June 30, 2011, and both sides indicated they're nowhere close to an agreement. The sound bite could surely read "Jackson says definitively that there will be a lockout," but the context of the quote surrounding that statement makes it very clear that Jackson's pointing to the mere uncertainty of next season that makes him uneasy about coaching even longer. That's why Jackson remained careful with his words after practice Friday at the Lakers' facility in El Segundo when asked about the fine.
"I'm not going to answer that question due to anything I answer will probably be another fine," Jackson said. "So I'll just lay that out there. I don't think I said anything wrong. I believe the question led into the statement I made and I used the wrong term. So that's all I'll say about that. But no one feels good about the action that [ensued] except [NBA Commissioner] David Stern, probably."
Knowing how the league reacted to Jackson's initial statement, it wouldn't be surprising if the NBA took offense to Jackson's subtle dig at Stern. Doing so, however, would only validate Stan Van Gundy's tongue-in-cheek contention that Stern runs the league like a dictator, an argument that took on a life of its own when Stern then responded, "We won't be hearing from him for the rest of the season."
It's unlikely the same will apply to Jackson, who's adamant about speaking his mind. Besides, it's the playoffs. This is the time when Jackson receives angry phone calls from the league office. Unfortunately in this case, Jackson would rather it had come with the benefit of planting a mind game in an opposing team's star player than over a petty issue that isn't worth anyone's time.
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Photo: Phil Jackson. Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters