There was a timeout late in Game 2 of the Warriors’ 2013 First Round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets last April, and Head Coach Mark Jackson, who was mic’d up for national television, had a message for his team before sending them back onto the court.
“In case I forget to tell you, I love you,” Jackson told his players, before clapping his hands and praising them for an “outstanding” performance.
Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who scored 30 points that night in a 131-117 victory, said that “special moment” during the postseason said a lot about the atmosphere Jackson has created since being named Golden State’s head coach in June of 2011.
“Basketball’s a game and it’s our job, but at the end of the day we feel like we’re a family, and he’s set up that atmosphere from the beginning,” Curry said. “When we’re playing well and going out on the court and trying to represent Coach in a great way, he just wanted us to know how he felt. That goes a long way, for sure.”
Jackson led the Warriors to a 47-35 regular-season record last season. They beat Denver 4-2 in the first round before pushing the San Antonio Spurs to six games in a Western Conference Semifinal loss. Now Jackson is in his third season as Golden State’s coach. He has an upgraded roster and higher expectations, but his coaching approach hasn’t changed.
It’s an approach that was forged from playing 17 seasons as a point guard in the NBA, reaching the playoffs 14 times and dishing out 10,334 assists, third on the all-time list behind John Stockton and Jason Kidd. He is a players’ coach who knows the pressure and challenges his players face and who understands the importance of mutual respect. It’s also an approach that has roots in his deep religious faith and work as a pastor.
“I’ve always been a guy that had relationships, built relationships,” Jackson said. “I talk, I laugh, I joke. I always thought that it wasn’t fair when people say, ‘Well, you can’t be a friend to your players and be a disciplinarian or hold them accountable.’ That’s not true. I love my kids to death, and I’m a friend to my four kids. At the same time I hold them accountable. At the same time I’m tough at times. The same thing with players. I’ve got a great relationship with these guys. They understand what I expect of them, they truly understand how I’m going to hold them accountable and they’re willing to run through a wall because I don’t treat it like it’s me and then it’s them. No, it’s us.
“Another thing I never understood was how a coach could cuss a player out and disrespect a player, but if a player does it, he’s out of line and is not a good player and he’s disrespectful. So I treat them with respect. I treat them like they’re grown men because at the end of the day they are grown men, married with kids in some situations. And you get more out of that. So it’s a great situation for me, and I truly love these guys.”
Power forward David Lee called Jackson a “perfect fit” for the Warriors and a coach who has a knack for “getting the most” from his players.
“I think part of that is the fact he was a player and understands what we go through on and off the court,” Lee said. “And also, X’s and O’s wise, he’s very knowledgeable about the game, and the other thing he does a great job of is he doesn’t try to do everything himself. He puts a great staff around him and he trusts the people around him and trusts the players. It’s not about his ego, it’s about us having the best chance to succeed on the floor.
“He’s got a relaxed atmosphere, but at the same time there’s a lot of discipline involved. He comes to us as a man and demands that we treat him with respect right back, and once we’ve established that, it’s just about playing basketball and him coaching basketball. We keep it real simple.”
Jackson played for seven NBA teams, including his hometown New York Knicks, who chose him in the First Round of the 1987 NBA Draft out of St. John’s. He played in 1,296 regular-season games – second most of any head coach in NBA history behind only Brooklyn Nets first-year coach Jason Kidd – and appeared in 131 playoff games.
“It certainly has put me in a position to be a better coach because I sat in their seats,” Jackson said. “I don’t have to wonder why the guy is playing bad today on the fourth game in a fifth night. He’s playing bad because he doesn’t have legs, because he’s tired. I’ve been there. No matter how you try to muster up energy, effort and enthusiasm, some nights, some practices, you just don’t have it.
“Some guys are going to struggle during stretches and some guys are going to be on fire during stretches. Some guys are going to be frustrated sitting on the end of the bench. Some guys are going to be frustrated coming out of the game when it matters most. I’ve been in all of those situations. None of my guys have been put in a situation that I haven’t been able to experience, therefore it allows me to be understanding and to be able to speak to them, wherever they are, and they appreciate that. I’m not guessing. I’ve been there.”
Jackson said his love for his players is “unconditional” and doesn’t end when they go to other teams, either as free agents or in a trade. He said he congratulated both Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack when they landed free-agent deals with other teams after playing key roles for the Warriors last season.
“If I ask you to pour out and invest in the call of this basketball team, and you pour out, we’re tied for the rest of our lives,” Jackson said. “It’s not an 82-game thing with me. So I’m happy that those guys were able to make as much money as they can, and I’m pulling for them every night, other than when we face them. Guys watch that. Guys look and see that they’re not just a piece of meat to me. And it works both ways. Hopefully it never happens, but one day I’ll be gone, and they’re going to have to know I gave them everything I had and it wasn’t an act. I’m committed to them.”
Jackson and his wife, Desiree, are pastors at True Love Worship Center International in Reseda, CA, a non-denominational church they founded in 2009. He said he preaches at his church to around “300 loyal members” whenever he can, “And they love me to death whether I win a game or lose a game.”
Jackson, not surprisingly, has an evangelical flair at times when he coaches his team.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, it’s who I am,” Jackson said. “People say, ‘How do you separate the two?’ Well, I can’t. I’m coach Mark Jackson and I’m pastor Mark Jackson. I’m husband Mark Jackson, I’m father Mark Jackson, I’m son Mark Jackson, I’m friend. So what you see is what you get, and I think who I am at heart, I’m a giver. I’ve been a giver my entire life. It allows me to keep things in perspective, understanding that this is not life. To some people, as a player, as a coach, you lose a game and you’re miserable. This is a game. I look at the big picture.
“I think being a pastor has helped me because I understand at the end of the day that basketball’s a game, and I’m trying to win in life, and when you try to win in life and do things the right way, games will follow.”
Jackson had never been a coach at any level before being hired by the Warriors. After retiring as a player following the 2003-04 season he began a seven-year television career as an NBA analyst, the final five for ESPN and ABC, typically working alongside play-by-play man Mike Breen and ex-NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy on the network’s top broadcast team.
Despite his lack of coaching experience, Jackson arrived in Oakland with the confidence of a veteran NBA coach, talking playoffs and predicting a quick turnaround for the Warriors. Where did that confidence come from?
“I have faith in God,” Jackson said. “I don’t think I can do it. I’ve come to accept that it’s not about me. There was a day when I thought I was Rookie of the Year and I was this guy. No. I came in with confidence because I truly believe that God is able.”
Eric Gilmore is a freelance sports writer based in the Bay Area