INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James respected Phil Jackson's unmatched coaching accomplishments. That affection has vanished.
"I've got nothing for him," Mr. James said Tuesday.
James fired back at the 11-time coaching champion and current New York Knicks president for using the word "posse" in a recent interview to describe the NBA megastar's business associates. James said he lost all respect for Jackson and his comments underline a larger societal issue for young African-Americans trying to succeed in business.
In the interview, Mr. Jackson said James has always demanded preferential treatment and called his departure from Miami as a free agent a "slap in the face" to the Heat organization. Jackson recalled a time when James asked for the team to stay over in Cleveland while on a road trip, a request that put coach Erik Spoelstra in a bind.
"You can't hold up the whole team because you and your mom and your posse want to spend an extra night in Cleveland," Jackson said in the ESPN interview .
The word "posse" struck a chord with James, who has surrounded himself with childhood friends during his career.
Jackson's language also touched a flash point at a time of heightened racial tension in the country.
"We see the success that we have, but then there is always someone that lets you know how far we still have to go as African-Americans," James said Tuesday following the Cavaliers' morning shootaround. "I don't believe that Phil Jackson would have used that term if he was doing business with someone else and working with another team or if he was working with anybody in sports that was owning a team that wasn't African-American and had a group of guys around them that didn't agree with what they did.
"I don't think he would have called them a posse. But it just shows how far we have to go. But it won't stop us from doing what we need to do as a group. I've put together a great team, I've empowered some guys since I was a kid and we've all grown together and become one of the people that try to model after, so we're not going to let Phil Jackson's comments stop us from doing what we need to do. It just gives us extra motivation. But it's still sad, though, to see that people at the top always want to try to put guys in power down."
James was offended by Jackson's flippant use of a term many find degrading.
"If you go and read the definition of what the word 'posse' is, it's not what I've built over my career," James said. "It's not what I stand for. It's not what my family stands for."
Keith Gilyard, a professor of English and African-American studies at Penn State, explains to the New York Times how the word "posse" can be offensive.
“What we’re talking about is a rhetorical moment, and one of the things that’s interesting about rhetoric is sort of the study of who can say what to whom and under what conditions — or can say what about whom and under what conditions. The word in and of itself is never neutral. It never means the same in all contexts.”
And Gilyard says the word can have different connotations when used publicly instead of privately.
“When you have an official or executive that uses that language that makes its way into mainstream circulation, it has a different meaning,” he added. “Meaning shifts depending on contexts.”
Along with close friends Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Randy Mims, James has built a sports business empire. Among the group's most prominent successes are landing James a lifetime contract with Nike worth nearly $1 billion and launching a film and TV production company that has partnered with Warner Bros.
Carter handles James' business affairs while Paul serves as his agent — and for several other top players — and Mims works with the Cavs. They formed LRMR marketing shortly after James turned pro, and the 31-year-old three-time champion was criticized for surrounding himself with friends.
"I've tried to put my guys in position to where they can walk in a meeting and go places and they don't need me because they got to a point where they've done their homework," James said. "They've studied on what they want to do and they can hold a meeting without me because of the respect that they have and the knowledge they have. That's just 12 years of hard work and dedication that we put to each other. I know Phil's in a position of power in our sport, but to criticize me and my guys over that is nonsense."
The Cavs play the Knicks on Dec. 7 in Madison Square Garden, a game surely to be intensified by the Jackson-James drama. James seemed hurt someone of Jackson's stature would try to demean him.
"It seems like when my name is involved with other people that's helped build the game, it's like, 'How can we criticize what he does on and off the floor?' instead of trying to help me," he said.
James has been outspoken on social issues and doesn't intend to stop.
"My whole goal is while I have this platform and this muscle that I have right now is how can I better the youth that looks at me every single day and sees what I do and sees what I say and sees the way I walk and talk and what I wear and use it as a positive way to get out of the situation they're in," he said. "I'm not going to be that guy that ever downplays somebody or tries to knock someone off just to feel better about myself."