Hip-Hop 50: When Kendrick Lamar told Phil Jackson he was beyond coaching
Editor’s note: In honor of hip-hop turning 50, ESPN tapped the culture’s top voices to write about their favorite athlete name-drops in hip-hop history.
“If Phil Jackson came back, still no coaching me” — Kendrick Lamar on Big Sean’s “Control” (2013)
By the time Phil Jackson joined Twitter in 2013, the NBA was already dramatically different from what it was when he retired in 2011. Jackson’s triangle offense was nearly extinct, and when the Zen Master joined Twitter, it was like when your once-successful grandfather posted embarrassing photos of his coin collection on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Kendrick Lamar was skyrocketing to rap superstardom by doing things a tad bit differently than the stars of the previous generations. If Lil Wayne was an alien who flooded your blogs and MP3 players, then Kendrick was insular and was crafting albums that reminded fans of the golden age. So, needless to say, his verse on “Control,” Big Sean’s 2013 filler track, stirred the pot.
That song, which features Kendrick raising the stakes of rap competition to the point of him sounding like a lecturer, has a lyric that made Phil Jackson publicly comment on rap, perhaps for the first time ever. Kendrick, in the middle of his three-minute verse, name-drops the coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers dynasties: “If Phil Jackson came back, still no coaching me.”
Jackson, who was rumored to be coming back with the Lakers that season before they decided to hire Mike D’Antoni, responded on Twitter, a sign that the methods of celebrity communication were changing. We were closer to getting a soundbite than we were if paparazzi asked a question on the street. Jackson’s tweet read: “@kendricklamar it’s okay to be cocky and sure, but we all need to someone to lean on. Let’s call it mentoring.”
This is the epitome of the Obama era: the NBA, and white America, finally acknowledging rap music with a meaningless and showy gesture that excited just about everyone. The NBA began embracing social media; players were trying a new app that brought them closer to fans than they had ever been. The NBA account eventually followed the Miami Heat every night like they were The Beatles. For good reason, too. The line between the fans and the players was being obliterated; some of the fans became the media via Twitter. I was just a newbie when this tweet happened. It was possibly the first time I realized the relationship between hip-hop and the NBA was dubiously improving.
At that point, Kendrick was a young hot shot with a Nas and Freestyle Fellowship flow. Jackson was retired and writing a book called “Eleven Rings.” Jackson is arguably the most famous white basketball coach in Black culture — having coached polarizing and beloved Black athletes like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Kendrick called out all those rappers in his lyrics but promised to apologize only to Phil. So, his nod to Kendrick on Twitter became instant lore.
But now, times have changed. Kendrick Lamar, on his recent album, “Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers,” is calling for people to put down their devices and get offline. Lamar has become intensely acclaimed; in 2017, he won the Pulitzer Prize for music. He has become a standard-bearer for the dynamism and intrepid greatness of hip-hop.
A far cry from the ubiquitous Kendrick, Jackson now claims that ever since the NBA became involved with social justice — after George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a white police officer — he can’t watch basketball anymore. Double that with his prickly criticism of LeBron James, and Jackson’s reputation around the league and beyond has been tarnished a bit by his orneriness. Like many things in the Obama era — Twitter, “Control” and the hyper-capitalism of the NBA — Jackson’s tweet to Kendrick feels a part of a completely different and archaic time in the lore of U.S. history.
Jayson Buford is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Stereogum. He has a weekly substack called Lots of Commas.