Lakers coach criticized for remarks on immigration law

A small but spirited group of activists, outraged at comments by Lakers coach Phil Jackson that seemed to back Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, rallied Monday outside Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles before the playoff opener against the Phoenix Suns.

“The way we look at it, Phil Jackson is supporting the Arizona law,” said Mario Gonzalez, a longtime Lakers fan and rally organizer. “That’s surprising. It caught us off guard. We want to find out where the team stands on the law.”

Jackson sparked the furor after making remarks to an columnist that seemed supportive of the Arizona law, which makes it a state crime to lack immigration papers and requires police to determine whether people they stop are in the country illegally.

“Am I crazy, or am I the only one that heard [the Legislature] say, ‘We just took the United States immigration law and adopted it to our state?’ ” Jackson said of the Arizona statute.

The Lakers coach disputed the columnist’s assertion that Arizona legislators had “usurped” federal immigration law — an allegation widely made by critics who say the law could lead to racial profiling of Latinos.

Jackson released a statement Monday before the game, saying he has respect for those who oppose the law. “I’ve been involved in a number of progressive political issues over the years and I support those who stand up for their beliefs. It is what makes this country great,” he said.

“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,” he said. “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.”

But his words did little to mollify about three dozen protesters, some of whom waved signs and banners that said, “Phil say no to Racist Az. Bill” and “Los Lakers. Stand up! Speak out.”

Others banged on drums as activists shouted: “Phil Jackson, stop the hate!” and “Lakers si, Phil Jackson no!”

Rusty Feuer, 69, said she came to the U.S. from Canada but would never be asked for identification papers because she is white.

“I’m here because this is racist,” she said of the law. “I’m blond and blue-eyed and they would never stop me.”

Rodney Lusain, who teaches history at Los Angeles High School, brought about 15 of his students with him. The students, who are 16 and 17 years old, have been studying immigration issues.

“Today,” Lusain said, “they get to see the power of protest.”

For junior Jonathon Grijalva, 17, attending the protest with the class was an opportunity to make a statement on behalf of his parents, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico about 20 years ago.

“We’re here to fight for their right to be here,” he said

Andres Meza, an electrician from Placentia and an immigrant from Mexico, waved a U.S. flag that was upside down and had a small swastika taped to it.

“I love America, but they are doing the wrong thing,” he said of officials in Arizona.

He also took aim at Jackson, saying that “he should stand on the right side and support immigrants.”

Jackson, long known as a free spirit who in ESPN columnist J.A. Adande’s words “has showed lefty leanings in the past,” also seemed to chastise the Suns’ management for its criticism of the Arizona law.

The Suns’ owner and several players have publicly decried the statute.

“I don’t think teams should get involved in the political stuff,” Jackson told Adande. “If I heard it right, the American people are really for stronger immigration laws…. 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.”

Gonzalez, the protest organizer, said Monday’s rally was not meant as a call to boycott the Lakers or root against the L.A. squad in its push to repeat as league champions. Rather, he said, the action is aimed at condemning Jackson’s apparent support for the Arizona law and clarifying Lakers’ management’s opinion on the matter.

“We want to give Phil Jackson the benefit of the doubt,” said Nativo Lopez, head of the Mexican American Political Assn. “There are nuances here that Phil Jackson perhaps is not familiar with. He’s an expert at basketball but not at immigration law.”