Phil Jackson is an unimpeachable NBA legend. Unless you’re a hater or a victim of his glory, and there are many, because his glory is vast, he is a twelve-time champion as a coach and a player. He makes every big ego of the game more tranquil, more willing to do the good thing of agreeing with a team and trusting the ball in their less-talented hands. Jackson has a way and even if you think his words are mumbo jumbo—“find your center,” he will probably say—you cannot dismiss him so much when it comes to his results. He got Kobe and Shaq to agree not to pee on each other’s stardoms for a second. He took an almost-out-of-the-league Dennis Rodman and accepted that he wears dresses to marry himself at book signings, allowing him to be a dynastic defender when the sport treated him like a dead dunce. In what was perhaps Jackson's most impressive feat, he even prevented Michael Jordan from murdering everyone around him every time they were imperfect.

All of these aspects of Jackson's legacy used to be true, but now only parts of it are. The 2016 NBA is in the process of repealing the Zen Master’s authority, sending clear signals that their reverie for him is over. In Jackson’s latest head-scratching saga, involving the doddering use of the word “posse” in relation to LeBron James and his very wealthy and law-abiding friends, he has outed himself quite fully as a man without grip on the game and the world of people—businessmen, producers, political advocates and entertainers—that grow with it. The details of how Jackson came to drop himself in the bad claws of the NBA’s increasingly woke rhetoric (concerned with identity politics, the details of representation in media, and dismantling the stereotypes of black athletes in America) have been told elsewhere and are mostly logistical. In light of the fact that Jackson and James came to exchange words with reporters the week after Donald Trump became president-elect, though, it seems fair to say that this emotionally loaded exchange reflects the way the league is processing the biggest domestic political development within the lifetimes of its active players.

James, speaking to reporters, expressed that Jackson lost his respect with the comment. Close LeBron friend and emerging activist Carmelo Anthony plays for the Knicks that Jackson is an executive for, and while he stopped short of speaking ill of his co-worker, he did strongly condemn his use of that coded word when he was asked about it. What Anthony might wish to swear off more formally is Jackson’s Triangle Offense, the vaunted and perplexing system that seems more and more like an elliptical reason for the 71-year-old to register his general grumpiness, and his frustration with losing his vision for the game. Basketball is not timeless: it changes with the wind like the earth does too, and what worked in the Jordan climate may not hold gold in the land that the current King rules. 

While the blistering brand of LeBron does a lot to degrade the prestige that Jackson enjoys around the league, it is not exactly as if James is taking down a man in great reputational standing. Skepticism around Jackson has been growing since the moment he took his job with the Knicks two years ago—why would any old man with no need for money take a job with this team? An endlessly intriguing petri dish for the rest of us, the Knicks organization has been a pile of bad asset management, worse personality maintenance, and close to no perspective at all for most of owner James Dolan’s two-decade reign. There are a few good years in there, to be sure, but otherwise the team has tortured their fanbase with its hubris and lack of strategy. Jackson, in his third season as executive, looks to have compiled enough evidence against the possibility that he is the solution to this succession of folly. A once-great basketball mind has lost the holistic touch he had with players as people, and with it his ability to bring them to their best selves on it, or to estimate which players will be best, or to even make these men want to be around or agree with him anymore.

It is odd to see such a ritual dismissal of an aging man in sports. Usually here we only get sentimental expressions, cliches about everyone you’ve ever talked to being great. Then again, it is much weirder for a supposedly advanced country to elect an unpredictable and inexperienced con man with the emotional intelligence of a child into the most powerful position in the land. As America enters uncertain territory, the NBA as its most politically overt league will be the force that relays national undercurrents of pain and rage to its often apolitical fanbase. James has sent the message that niceties will not be the norm as he is looked upon to have thoughts in this atmosphere, and it’s likely that Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and the rest of the vanguard he keeps company with will make their feelings known too. Jackson, a previously untouchable uncle of the game, is an early casualty in the NBA’s version of the cultural sea change challenging everything right now.