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Phil Jackson on the Sioux nickname: 'Do the right thing'

Alumnus and legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson urged the University of North Dakota on Monday to "do the right thing" and resolve the emotional Fighting Sioux nickname controversy.

"We have to rethink probably our nickname and moniker," he said during the second of two public appearances at the university, where he wore the Sioux name and logo as a star basketball player more than four decades ago.

Use of the symbols is "not beneficial" to the Lakota people, he said.

"I think ... we can make this change gracefully," Jackson said, adding that he and other former UND athletes "don't feel there's any decrease in our spirit or our enthusiasm" with a name change.

Earlier Monday, at a convocation where he received an honorary doctorate, Jackson said that "objectification of people is limiting to ourselves" as well as to the people objectified.

He said he had "been asked by my Lakota friends to speak out" on the logo issue, which has steeped the university in controversy in recent years. In a legal settlement last year with the NCAA, which had threatened to punish the school if it didn't change the nickname, UND agreed to drop it if it is unable to reach an understanding with namesake tribes in North Dakota within three years.

Mixed reaction

Reaction to Jackson's logo comments appeared mixed, with some in the audience applauding and cheering but many sitting on their hands. (About 750 people attended the honorary degree ceremony, according to a university spokesman, and the audience for the question-and-answer session appeared to be about twice that.)

"I thought he was eloquent, courageous and gracious," said Tim O'Keefe, UND Alumni Association executive vice president, after Jackson's second appearance, a question-and-answer session that was part of UND's yearlong 125th anniversary observance.

The alumni group, representing as it does people on all sides of the logo issue, has not taken a position on how it should be resolved, O'Keefe said.

"What I heard him clearly say is ... that if we can't find ways to come together on this and find a solution we all can embrace, we all will lose," he said.

Two students who attended the discussion together, one an advocate for retaining the nickname and one who said he's prepared to see it go, both praised Jackson's handling of the subject.

"I really like that he was man enough to come out and speak his mind," said Casey Neale, 21, a senior from St. Louis, Mo. "I liked how he stood up to give voice to a small minority that doesn't always have a voice."

Michael Johnson, 20, from Eden Prairie, Minn., said that he still favors holding onto the Sioux logo -- he wore a logo sweater -- but Jackson's words "almost got me to the point where I think he's right."

Johnson said he believes the logo is meant to honor the Sioux, or Lakota, but the issue "is not worth fighting for if the people you think you're honoring don't want it," he said.

"I still love the name, and I'd still like to keep it. But maybe it causes too much trouble."

Avis Skinner, a retired Grand Forks teacher, said that she's getting to the same place. "His message was to move on, and I think we need to move on," she said.

Added Susie Shaft, a UND graduate and longtime employee in the registrar's office, "To me, he didn't injure either side. He did it very graciously. And I think that if he could accept (a change) this graciously, we should be able to."

Jeanie Buss, a Lakers vice president and Jackson's companion, said that Jackson "spent a lot of time writing" his remarks. "He's a writer, and every word that he chose to speak was meaningful and special."

The Zen master

Coach of nine NBA championship teams, six in Chicago and three in Los Angeles, Jackson starred as a UND basketball player in the mid-1960s before embarking on a professional playing career, during which he won two championship rings with the New York Knicks. As a coach, he won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and three more with the Los Angeles Lakers.

After receiving the degree, Jackson talked about his life since his days on campus, living up to one of his own nicknames -- the Zen master -- by quoting, among others, the philosophers Plato and Soren Kierkegaard, the poet A. E. Housman, the singer Bob Dylan and Buddha.

"For the son of a minister, those college days were mind-opening," he said, and they set him on a life course that embraced meditation, spirituality and change. He spoke with pride of advances in civil rights and the status of women -- changes that came because individuals and groups raised their voices and brought light to difficult issues.

And it is time, he suggested, for resolution of a nagging issue "in our own backyard," at UND.

"What is to be gained by keeping the Fighting Sioux" name and logo, he asked, and what is to be lost by giving it up?

"We have a chance to do the right thing," Jackson said.

Sage, sweet grass

Earlier, Jackson mingled with students at the UND Indian Center, where he was greeted with an honor song and received gifts -- a blanket, sage and sweet grass and a beaded medallion in the Lakers' colors of purple and yellow.

"My wife, Deanna, was up till 4 a.m. making it," said B.J. Rainbow, president of the Indian students group, which opposes retention of the Fighting Sioux nickname.

"He said we need to move on together" and leave the nickname issue behind, Rainbow said. "It was good to hear from someone of his stature, an alumnus."

Jackson, who as a young man spent several summers as an Upward Bound counselor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, was given the name Swift Eagle in a naming ceremony there. He said his continuing associations with American Indians and their culture "has been a real spiritual assistance to my life."

About 750 students, faculty and others heard Jackson speak at the first convocation, including Gov. John Hoeven and former Gov. Al Olson.

Olson said he was a counselor at Boys State when Jackson attended as a high school senior, and UND Coach Bill Fitch asked for his help in getting Rugby, N.D., basketball star Paul Presthus to consider attending UND. Presthus indicated he was sold on going to Minnesota, Olson said, and he reported that to Fitch.

"He said, 'That's OK. I've got Phil Jackson.'"

Hoeven introduced Jackson. After the traditional, formal opening to the convocation, with deans and other UND leaders marching into the auditorium in their academic robes, Hoeven strode to a microphone and hollered, "Let's make some serious noise for Coach Phil Jackson! Whaddya say?"

After a full minute of whoops, hollers, whistles and foot-stomping, the governor said, "You were just waiting to cut loose with that, weren't you?"

Hoeven said Jackson deserved recognition not only for his athleticism but also for his intelligence and humanity.

"He is somebody who cares about people and takes the time to learn about them as individuals so they can realize their potential," he said.

Hoeven presented Jackson with a North Dakota license plate, "LUV ND," to take back to Los Angeles.

Receiving the degree -- it was a reach for Dean Martha Potvin to help President Robert Kelly drape the ceremonial hood around the still lanky honoree -- Jackson said he was humbled by the "wonderful honor."

Noting that it had been almost 20 years since he was last at UND, and 25 years since he last participated in a UND event (when he was named to the university's athletic hall of fame), Jackson said he remembered thinking "how quickly fame fleets." He couldn't have expected then, as his playing career was ending, that he'd achieve even greater fame by coaching, he said.

Change often is difficult, he said, noting that he can't play basketball or ride motorcycles like he used to. But "it's the grace with which you accept that" that makes life good, he said.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to