Lakers Won't Pick Sides in Immigration Debate

Lakers coach: "I have respect for those who oppose the new Arizona immigration law, but I am wary of putting entire sports organizations in the middle of political controversies"

By Jonathan Lloyd, Gene Johnson, Julie Brayton and Jack Noyes
|  Wednesday, May 19, 2010  |  Updated 9:58 AM PDT
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The Lakers and coach Phil Jackson aren't picking sides in the debate over Arizona's immigration law.

But the issue was bound to come up this week -- LA faces Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals. Game 1 is tonight at Staples Center.

About 40 activists demonstrated outside the arena Monday night. Jackson became their target earlier this month after he declined to criticize Arizona's law.

Jackson made his comments in response to a question from ESPN.com  columnist J.A. Adande about his thoughts on Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver  having his team wear its "Los Suns" jerseys for their May 5 game partly in  response to the law and partly because of the Cinco de Mayo celebration.

"Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard when the legislators said  that, 'We just took United States immigration law and adapted it to our  state?'" Jackson said during his pregame news conference May 4.

Jackson then asked Adande if his interpretation of the law was correct.  Adande said Arizona "usurped the federal law."

Jackson disagreed, saying, "It's not usurping, they just copied it, is  what they said they did, the legislators. Then they gave it some teeth to be  able to enforce it."

SB 1070 -- here's the text -- empowers local law enforcement to check the immigration status  of suspects they have stopped for other reasons if there is a reasonable  suspicion they are in the country illegally. The law specifically bars police  from racial profiling. The Arizona Republic newspaper recently asked a panel of experts to outline how the law works. The experts' interpretations varied when it came to what happens at the point a law encforcement officer can or should ask about a person's status.

Some Suns fans have  written to Arizona newspapers to express support for the Lakers' coach because of his  comments on the immigration issue.

On Monday, Jackson asked that his comments "not be used by either side to rally activists."

"I've been involved in a number of progressive political issues over  the years and I support those who stand up for their beliefs," Jackson said in  a statement issued by the team. "It is what makes this country great.

"I have respect for those who oppose the new Arizona immigration law,  but I am wary of putting entire sports organizations in the middle of political  controversies. This was the message of my statement. I know others  feel differently, even in the Lakers organization, but it was a personal  statement. In this regard, it is my wish that this statement not be used by  either side to rally activists."

Jackson's comments to Adande prompted the  Mexican American Political Association and Southern California Immigration  Coalition to decide to picket Monday's Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals  against the Suns.

The protesters conducted informational picketing outside the ESPN Zone restaurant at the LA Live complex, and then marched to the adjacent Staples Center. They drew taunts from some counter-demonstrators, including one who criticized the activists for putting a swastika on an American flag.

Opponents of Arizona's SB 1070 have likened it to actions taken by Nazi Germany against Jews, a comparison that drew criticism last week from the international Jewish human rights organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

"We are not happy with the position that Phil Jackson took," Nativo  Lopez, the president of the Mexican American Political Association, said. "We  want to call on Jackson and the Lakers to put on their Los Lakers jerseys,  especially considering the tremendous support that the Lakers have enjoyed from  the communities specifically targeted by the misguided and racist Arizona  law."

A flier with a sinister looking Jackson calls on the coach to "Stand with the Fans! We support out team, demand that our team support us!"

The groups also "want to welcome Los Suns of Arizona and thank them for  the symbolic support," Lopez said.

The Lakers will not wear their Los Lakers jerseys for any playoff games, Lakers spokesman Black said. He was unaware of anyone from the Laker  organization being contacted by either group. 

"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," Lakers spokesman John 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."

Jackson made similar comments May 4.

"I don't think teams should get involved in the political stuff," Jackson said. "I think this one is still kind of coming out to balance as to how it is  going to favorably looked upon by ... the public.

"If I heard 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."

TIME magazine, which noted that Jackson supported Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in 2000, reported that the Lakers refused to make team members or officials available to discuss the issue.

But Lakers center Pau Gasol, of Spain, told the Daily Breeze it's a complicated issue.

"I think it's a pretty messy subject," he told the newspaper. "I'm hoping it solves itself in the best way and it doesn't cause too many problems and doesn't cause violence in communities."

The game comes a week after the LA City Council adopted a resolution directing city departments to consider which contracts with Arizona can be terminated. The Lakers also were injected into that discussion when Councilwoman Janice Hahn suggested Lakers fans traveling to Arizona "bring snacks" instead of buying food in the state.

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press  May 6-9 found that 59 percent of the 994 adults surveyed supported the Arizona  law, while 32 percent disapproved.

Activists plan informational picketing at 5 p.m. outside the ESPN  Zone restaurant at the LA Live complex, before marching to protest in front of  Staples Center. Lopez said he understands those who want to avoid politicizing the best- of-seven series that will determine the Western Conference representatives in  the NBA finals.

"My whole family is fanatical sports fans and say, 'Don't touch my team  with anything that smacks of politics,'" Lopez said. "But we're more worried  about the people that are being victimized in Arizona."

Arizona's 12 News was outside Staples Center during the weekend. Their "Planet Orange" playoff coverage included reaction from Lakers fans.

"I was shocked," fan Mario Gonzalez told "I'm a huge Lakers fan. I was born and raised in LA. To hear something like that coming from coach Jackson, he's not any ordinary coach -- he's a legend. I was surprised."

Protesters told the station that they plan to have about 100 participants outside Staples Center.

Another fan just wanted to watch the Lakers and Suns play ball.

"I think they should just play basketball because that's what they do best," Kris Cole told News 12 outside Staples.
 

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