Mark Jackson has not coached in the NBA since the Golden State Warriors fired him after the 2013-14 season. On the surface, you could argue that’s surprising. Typically, a coach whose three-year tenure coincided with a long-pitiful franchise turning into a 50-win playoff team, who helped lay the defensive foundation upon which a dynasty was built, would be a hot commodity. But Jackson’s Golden State run isn’t remembered for the things he did right. It’s remembered for the things he did wrong.
Over the years, the perception that Jackson couldn’t get along with ownership or anyone in the Golden State front office, that he manipulatively corrupted his locker room, and that as an ordained minister, he forced his religious beliefs into places where they perhaps didn’t always fit has taken a stronghold around the league.
Speaking on Rich Kleiman’s «Boardroom: Out of Office» podcast, Jackson said he believes the «narrative» around his Warriors’ tenure has, to this point, cost him the second coaching shot he’s still looking for. Jackson specifically addressed the assertion that his religious beliefs and practices were forced upon his players.
«When you make a statement and say I force folks to come to church — are you kidding me? What sense does that make?» Jackson said. «Never in my life have I forced people to go to church.»
«… First of all, Steph Curry believes if he goes to God in prayer, he will be healed from his ankle issues,» Jackson continued. «Steph Curry himself believes that. So therefore if it did happen, or if it didn’t happen, at the end of the day, he’s healed. And I thank God that he’s healed and he went on to become one of the truly great players in this game, a superstar and a class act.»
In Marcus Thompson’s 2017 book — Golden: The Miraculous rise of Stephen Curry — it was asserted that Jackson once asked Curry to take part in something of a spiritual healing ceremony in his church. From Thompson:
A part of the tradition at Jackson’s church was a spirited service including worshippers jogging along the walls of the congregation in praise. Curry, two days removed from his latest sprain, found himself taking laps with Jackson and the other members filled with the spirit. Then after Jackson’s sermon, his wife and co-pastor, Desiree, continued the worship with an impromptu sermon and benediction. She also called Curry to the altar.
They took off his shoes and socks, anointed his ankle with oil and prayed for healing. The parishioners lifted their voices in chants and amens, calling on God to bless one of His Christian ambassadors. Service at Jackson’s church was much more passionate and engaging than Curry was used to back in Charlotte. But he humbly accepted the blessing that was being offered and returned to his seat with a smile on his face.
«Where you going?» Desiree asked the star point guard in front of the congregation. Curry responded with his go-to look of bewilderment, a half smile and widened eyes. He thought he was supposed to return back among the flock when she was done.
«You don’t get a blessing from the Lord and just walk off!» she shouted. «Show us you believe in the power of God.»
It took Curry a second to understand what she meant. Then the old Bible stories rushed to his mind. Like when Jesus healed the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda, that man had to pick up his mat and walk. If he believed he was healed, he needed to show it.
So Curry started shimmying and hopping on his right foot, much to the delight of the congregation.
«I didn’t know what else to do,» Curry said.
You’ll notice, contrary to Jackson’s defense, that there is no mention of Curry, or any of Jackson’s players, being forced to go to church. It is widely known that Curry has long been a man of faith. A large contingent of that Warriors team was rooted in common religious beliefs, something that surely served as a connecting point with Jackson, who is far from the only deeply religious coach to ever patrol an NBA sideline.
What made this particular anecdote about Jackson and his wife making this show of healing Curry’s ankle with oil and prayer is that it completely ignores that Curry had just had the ankle surgically repaired the previous offseason. That, and a whole lot of rehab and strength training, is what healed Curry’s ankle. Not some magic oil.
Jackson did and said a lot of weird stuff like that, preaching more than coaching in the eyes of many, playing head games that didn’t exist, like the time he reportedly told players that Warriors center Festus Ezeli was rooting against the team while he was injured, the accusation so deeply cut Ezeli that he was reportedly brought to tears. From a 2014 piece by then Grantland’s Zach Lowe:
I first interviewed Mark Jackson about 20 games into last season for a piece about Golden State’s massive improvement on defense. Jackson went out of his way to point out, unsolicited and on the record, that it would be wrong to publicly credit any single assistant coach for the team’s transformation.
It was a weird thing to say unprompted, my first window into Jackson’s personality — a strange brew of braggadocio, inspiration, and insecurity. That personality ultimately cost Jackson his job in Golden State despite a near-unprecedented run of on-court success for one of the league’s sad-sack franchises. There were some on-court issues, but Jackson and his staff did a nice job with this roster. They are gone mostly because the environment in Golden State became toxic.
So toxic, in fact, that Jackson got rid of two of his assistants, Brian Scalabrine and Darren Erman, beneath a cloud of cliquey, high-school drama. Scalabrine has since told his side of the story, and it doesn’t put Jackson in a particularly flattering light. In another 2014 article, Lowe chronicled the borderline «poisonous» Erman situation.
The Warriors in the last six weeks demoted one assistant and fired another, and ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard today reported that the team fired Darren Erman after learning Erman had recorded at least one coaches’ meeting. Multiple league sources confirmed the gist of Broussard’s report, and that Erman was concerned Mark Jackson and other coaches loyal to Jackson were insulting Erman to other players behind Erman’s back.
The team had no choice but to fire Erman. However, the front office is fond of Erman and was upset at having to let him go, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter. The Erman firing and demotion of Brian Scalabrine have raised tensions throughout the Warriors’ organization.
Jackson made a show of firing Scalabrine in front of players and other coaches, but he had no real grounds, and the front office made Jackson find a compromise, per a source familiar with the matter: demoting Scalabrine to the D-League. In addition, Jackson has asked that Jerry West, a high-level adviser in Golden State, not attend most practices and team activities, sources say.
The tension with Erman got weird. Midseason, the team moved Erman’s parking spot to a less convenient place, likely at the behest of Jackson or one of Jackson’s allies on the staff, per multiple sources familiar with the matter. They began changing his duties in strange ways. … The atmosphere has bordered on poisonous.»
It’s impossible to imagine all this drama was happening within the Warriors and it was somehow everyone else’s fault. Jackson was in the middle of it all. He clashed with certain players (hello, Andrew Bogut), assistant coaches, certain members of the front office, management, even beloved former Warriors TV analyst Jim Barnett didn’t hold his tongue when reflecting on Jackson’s Golden State tenure.
«[Jackson] couldn’t get along with anybody else in the organization,» Warriors owner Joe Lacob said shortly after Jackson’s firing. «And look, he did a great job, and I’ll always compliment him in many respects, but you can’t have 200 people in the organization not like you.»
Lacob isn’t the only one who has consistently praised the work Jackson did on the court. Curry publicly lobbied for Jackson to keep his job before Golden State ultimately opted to fire him. Andre Iguodala went on «The Breakfast Club» podcast in 2019 and called Jackson one of his «favorite coaches of all time» while asserting that Jackson has, in his opinion, been blackballed from the NBA.
«Anybody who doesn’t give that man a whole bunch of credit for what he was able to spearhead and get started out there, I think they’re just not in reality. They just don’t know the situation,» Jarrett Jack, who played, and thrived, for the 2012-13 Warriors under Jackson, once told CBS Sports. «I was in those huddles. I was in those locker room sessions. The way he talked to us, the amount of confidence he gave us. Go look at the kind of defense the Warriors were playing before Coach Jackson showed up, and look at them now. … Anybody that tries to downplay his role in [what the Warriors became], that’s not right.»
A few years back I was messaging with a former Jackson assistant who told me he has «never had a better boss than Coach Jackson.»
«It just kills me when EVERYONE dissects Coach Jax’s shortcomings as if he’s the only imperfect coach,» the former assistant continued. «…It kills me when people in the media disregard his accomplishments and bash him for what he wasn’t. And what really kills me [is] when media personalities don’t think he’s capable of being better the next time around. He’s a widely respected man in the NBA among players and even a lot of executives. But the bad mouthing has gotta stop at some point.»
There are, however, a lot of other people who take the opposite stance, who would tell you that in addition to all the drama he created off the court, Jackson’s teams, relative to the wealth of talent Jackson had at his disposal, underachieved. It’s a case with real merit. Consider that under Jackson, the Warriors were the No. 12 ranked offense in each of the two years preceding his firing. In Steve Kerr’s first season, with virtually the same roster, they jumped to No. 2 offensively while winning 16 more regular-season games and the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.
«If Mark had stayed [as coach], there’s a real chance the Warriors never would’ve won a championship,» a former Golden State official told CBS Sports. «And then we would still be sitting here today saying a jump-shooting team can’t win a title.»
In the end, nobody can say for sure whether the Warriors would’ve reached championship heights, let alone dynastic heights, had Jackson been allowed to finish what he started. What we can say for sure is a lot of coaches have blown first opportunities only to get second and third opportunities all over the league.
The Warriors were Jackson’s first shot at coaching. He was on a rookie contract, essentially. When we look at rookie players, we do so with an assumption, even an expectation, that they will be in a state of continual growth, but for whatever reason, we tend to view coaches as finished products from the start. Jackson has had seven years in the broadcaster booth to watch the way the best teams are operating.
In his private moments, you would hope there has been significant reflection on his time with Golden State, the good and the bad. Jackson was beloved for allowing his players, particularly Curry, the opportunity to learn through their mistakes, apply those lessons, and become better for the process.
«I’ll say this, in my life — you know, you’ve given me credit, and I appreciate it, and not just as a coach, but as a basketball player, as a father, as a husband, whatever it is — I haven’t been perfect,» Jackson said on Kleiman’s podcast. «I’ve made mistakes, and that’s part of living.
«…So when you ask about the Warriors, we made the playoffs one time in 19 years [prior to me getting there]. «You then go from a team in a lockout-shortened season winning 23 games to now a team that all of a sudden wins 48, I believe, and is a playoff team, and then the next year, the third year, wins 51 and is a playoff team. I didn’t do that. We did it. Ownership, management, my coaching staff, and most importantly, without a doubt, the players buying in and being committed. We did that.
«I’m incredibly blessed to have had that opportunity,» Jackson continued. «Now, when you do things as a believer, that doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out. And sometimes, you’re gonna be used in ways that you don’t wanna be used. So did the human side of me think, ‘Man, this is messed up. I got fired? How did I get fired when I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and I’m trying to live right, and I’m trying to instill and motivate and inspire and all those things. I got fired?’ The human side of me certainly feels some of that. But as you mature as a believer in life, the objective is for the spiritual side to be stronger than the human side. So my spirit man checks my flesh man and says, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s not about you. It’s not about you. It’s about a bigger purpose, a bigger call on your life.'»
Ultimately, if Jackson eventually does get his second chance, it will be because a team believes he is capable of being better, on and off the court. That said, if Jackson doesn’t end up getting that chance, let’s be very clear: it won’t have anything to do with the circumstances under which someone went to church.