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Lakers coach nudges alma mater UND to rethink moniker

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Phil Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers coach and most-famous athlete ever produced by the University of North Dakota, returned to his alma mater this week to receive an honorary degree — and do a little gentle coaching.

Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Phil Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers coach and most-famous athlete ever produced by the University of North Dakota, returned to his alma mater this week to receive an honorary degree — and do a little gentle coaching.

“We have to rethink, probably, our nickname and moniker,” the greatest Fighting Sioux basketball player said Monday during the second of two public appearances at the university, where he wore the Fighting Sioux name and logo more than four decades ago.

Use of the symbols is “not beneficial” to the Lakota people it purports to honor, he said.

He said he had “been asked by my Lakota friends to speak out” on the controversial logo issue. In a legal settlement last year with the NCAA, which had threatened to punish the school’s athletic programs if it didn’t change the nickname, UND agreed to a change if it fails to reach an understanding with namesake tribes within three years.

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“I think we can make this change gracefully,” Jackson said, adding that he and other former UND athletes could accept it without “any decrease in our spirit or our enthusiasm” for the school and its traditions.

Earlier, at the convocation where he received his honorary doctor of letters degree, the Hall of

Fame coach said that “objectification of people is limiting to ourselves” as well as to the people objectified.

“We have a chance to do the right thing,” he said.

Jackson was greeted as a rock star by two crowds, one of about 750 people, the other maybe twice that. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven introduced him at one event as “the greatest NBA coach of all time,” and UND President Robert Kelly called him “a great thinker.” 

Mixed reactions
The returning hero’s logo remarks were received less enthusiastically. While some in the audience applauded, many sat in silence.

But Jackson’s presentation appeared to have some impact. Michael Johnson, 20, from Eden Prairie, Minn., wore a sweater bearing the Sioux logo and said that he favors keeping it, but Jackson’s message “almost got me to the point where I think he’s right.”

The logo is meant to honor the Sioux, or Lakota, Johnson said, but it’s “not worth fighting for if the people you think you’re honoring don’t want it. I still love the name, and I’d still like to keep it. But maybe it causes too much trouble.”

Avis Skinner, a retired Grand Forks teacher and longtime Sioux athletics fan, said that she’s getting to the same place. “His message was to move on, and I think we need to move on,” she said.

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Jackson, born in Montana and raised in Williston, N.D., has coached nine NBA championship teams, six in Chicago and three in Los Angeles. He also won two championship rings as a player with the New York Knicks.

The son of fundamentalist preacher parents, he fashioned a special major at UND combining courses in psychology, philosophy and religion, and early on he embraced meditation, which he has used in shaping such superstars as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant into team players. In his remarks Monday, he went with ease from Plato to the poet A.E. Housman, from Bob Dylan to Buddha.

Jeanie Buss, a Lakers vice president and Jackson’s companion, said that Jackson “spent a lot of time writing” his degree acceptance remarks. “He’s a writer, and every word that he chose to speak was meaningful and special.”

As a young man, Jackson served as an Upward Bound counselor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He returned several times, once with fellow NBA stars Bill Bradley and Willis Reed, and eventually the tribe ceremoniously gave him the name Swift Eagle. His ties to the reservation and people there continue, he said, and their culture “has been a real spiritual assistance to my life.”

On Monday, Jackson also met with members of the UND Indian Association, who welcomed him with an honor song and gifts: a blanket, bundles of sage and sweet grass, and a beaded medallion in the Lakers’ colors of purple and yellow.

“He said we need to move on together” and leave the nickname issue behind, said B.J. Rainbow, president of the Indian students organization, which opposes keeping the nickname. “It was good to hear from someone of his stature, an alumnus.”

Change often is difficult, Jackson said later, during his second public appearance on campus, a question-and-answer session that was part of the university’s 125th anniversary celebration. He can’t play basketball or ride motorcycles like he used to, he lamented.

But “it’s the grace with which you accept that,” he said, which makes life good.