- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- An estimated 40 protesters gathered across the street from Staples Center before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns on Monday night to condemn Lakers coach Phil Jackson's refusal to criticize Arizona's new immigration law.
The protest was peaceful and there were no arrests, Officer Karen Rayner said.
In comments made to ESPN.com's J.A. Adande on May 4 about state Senate Bill 1070, Jackson said, "Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the legislature] say 'we just took the United States immigration law and adapted it to our state.'"
One protester's sign read, "Phil, say no to the racist AZ bill! Stand with the fans," while another read, "Dear Coach Phil Jackson, We [love] "Los" Lakers! Why do you support SB1070? Do we need our "papers" 2 C our team in AZ!?"
Prior to the game, which the Lakers won 128-107, Jackson said the protest and sudden outcry to his comments were "quite a delayed reaction" before adding, "I don't think a sports organization should be involved in that kind of a situation, it's a loaded situation."
Some of the protesters, however, hadn't heard Jackson's comments.
"Phil Jackson went political and that's not his job," said Jose Maldonado from Montclair. "His job is not governor, his job is not president, his job is not political, his job is to be a coach. When he said what he did he went political and that's the reason I'm standing here, to protest his involvement."
Jackson, however, made it clear he didn't want to get involved in politics and initially said he didn't think teams should get involved in politics as the Suns did on May 5 when they wore jerseys that read "Los Suns" in Game 2 of their playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs. Suns players and owner Robert Sarver have spoken out against the bill.
"I don't think teams should get involved in the political stuff," Jackson said. "And I think this one's still kind of coming out to balance as to how it's going to be favorably looked upon by our public. If I heard it right the American people are really for stronger immigration laws, if I'm not mistaken.
"Where we stand as basketball teams, we should let that kind of play out and let the political end of that go where it's going to go."
Other protestors, however, believe it is the responsibility of people of influence, like Jackson, to use their platform to speak out against the bill as Steve Nash and many on the Suns have.
"The Suns took the high road and it is an issue sports can affect," said Pete Navarro, an attorney in Los Angeles. "Arizona was awarded the 1993 Super Bowl and they were one of the last states to declare Martin Luther King Day an official holiday and they put pressure on the NFL and they moved the Super Bowl from Tempe to Pasadena until they made it an official holiday so sports can affect politics."
Activists also want the Lakers to put on the Los Lakers jerseys they wore for a game on March 21 and in years past to honor Hispanic fans. Lakers spokesman John Black said those jerseys will not be worn during the playoffs.
"We will not be getting involved in choosing sides among our many different support groups in any debate, nor will we be getting involved in political issues of this nature," Black said.
"Our focus and goal at this time is on basketball, winning games, and hopefully winning another championship, which we feel the vast majority of our fans want us to focus on," he added.
The law, which is scheduled to take effect July 29, has triggered protests and prompted several cities to boycott Arizona businesses. Los Angeles is the largest of those cities.
While there were more LAPD officers around Staples Center before the game than protestors, many of those who were there hoped their presence would encourage Jackson and others to read the bill and take a stand against it.
"Phil Jackson is supposed to be such a thoughtful guy and I hope he would read that senate bill," Navarro said. "I've read that senate bill and it's horrible. The law is racist and he should know that."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
12hMatt Walks, ESPN.com