Rookie coach Jackson preaches change to hopeful Warriors
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Five minutes before the first practice of his NBA coaching career, Mark Jackson pulled out his phone in the coaches' locker room at the Golden State Warriors' practice facility and made four calls. The first was to Lou Carnesecca, his college coach at St. John's. Jackson thanked him for sewing some of the earliest seeds that led to his pro career. Next, he left a voicemail message for Jeff Van Gundy, his former coach and broadcast partner, and he said thank you for all of the meals filled with basketball conversations they had shared over the years. Then he left another message for Louisville coach Rick Pitino, whom Jackson calls the best coach he ever had, thanking Pitino for helping him get his career established as a young point guard with the Knicks and for being a coaching model for him to study. Finally, he called his wife Desiree. He thanked her for being an incredible wife, mother and partner, and they took a moment to pray together.
Then Jackson wiped the tears from his eyes, grabbed his whistle and went out on the floor to start coaching. He was ready.
The Warriors believe that Jackson is ready to elevate them from the depths of the NBA, where they have resided for most of the last two decades, even though, of the six coaches in the league who are new to their teams this season, Jackson is the only one who has never coached a single NBA game. In fact, he's never coached at any level, unless you count his son Mark Jr.'s AAU team. That lack of experience didn't bother Warriors owner Joe Lacob in the slightest. "I wanted to do something different, instead of the traditional kind of hire," Lacob said. "I've started 70 or 80 companies, and I know that at the end of the day it's the CEO who makes or breaks the company. I knew right away that Mark was special, a true leader, the kind of person I wanted. He's a CEO."
Jackson certainly doesn't talk or act like a rookie, mainly because he has experience of another kind -- 17 seasons as an NBA point guard, most of which were spent with an eye toward coaching someday. "I say this as humbly as I can, but I was a leader at birth and I've been one everywhere I've been," he said.
He has more playing experience -- 1,296 games -- than anyone who has ever coached in the NBA. "As a player, I watched coaches and assistant coaches, studying how they went about their jobs, thinking about who I might want on my staff someday," he said. "As a point guard, I thought like a coach, deciding what sets to run. I looked forward to this day. I do not come to it unprepared."
He comes to it with complete confidence and an evangelical flair, which isn't surprising since he is a deeply religious man who is also a pastor at True Love Worship Center in Van Nuys, Calif. Even when he's in the gym, Jackson often sounds like he's in the pulpit. During the Warriors' first practice last week, he stopped the action when guard Monta Ellis allowed the man he was guarding to slip past him in a drill. "Now, I've heard people say that Monta Ellis is not a good defender!" Jackson bellowed, fire and brimstone in his voice. "I know that is not true!" He sounded so much like a preacher that it wouldn't have been surprising if he'd then told the players to pick up their hymnals.
In that one moment, Jackson accomplished several things. He showed that not even the smallest defensive lapses would go unnoticed, he let his players know that even his stars would be held accountable, and he deftly challenged Ellis to rise to a higher standard. He's not afraid to set the bar high for himself, either. He's gone on record several times with the prediction that the Warriors will make the playoffs this season, something they've done only once since 1995. He made his expectations clear at his introductory press conference. "You might as well latch on to the back of the bandwagon," he said, "because things be a-changin' here in the Bay Area."
If the change is going to happen, it will have to begin on defense, where the Warriors have been long been awful. The 105.7 points they allowed per game last season was the third-worst average in the league, and that was actually an improvement over the last four seasons, when they were at the bottom of the league in points allowed. "The first two days of practice were about 95 percent defense," said guard Stephen Curry. "When we scrimmage five-on-five, the way he keeps score is by how many defensive stops you get, not by how many baskets you get. Everything is geared toward getting us into the mindset of being a good defensive team -- not just for a couple of possessions, or even a couple of games, but all the time. There's no question he's serious when he says we're going to be a better defensively."
That was one of Jackson's first objectives -- to make sure his players know that he means what he says. "If you're not getting it done defensively, I'm still gonna love you, but I'm not gonna play you," he said. "I'm going to look for somebody who can get the job done." He draws parallels between coaching and parenting. "When a parent sets the curfew at midnight, the kid knows whether he really has to be in at midnight, or whether he can come in at 12:30 or 1 a.m. and it'll be OK," Jackson said. "I think my players already know that with me, midnight means midnight."
Bay Area fans are ready to jump on that bandwagon that Jackson talked about. They've seen close up how a coach can transform a losing franchise seemingly overnight in watching Jim Harbaugh's work with the 49ers. The Warriors, like the Niners, have made very few significant personnel changes last year, although not for lack of trying. They thought they had free agent center Tyson Chandler all but signed until the Knicks swept him up at the last moment. When the Clippers matched their offer sheet for restricted free agent DeAndre Jordan, the Warriors were reduced to signing journeyman center Kwame Brown to a one-year, $7 million contract.
"Would we be willing to make a big move? Yes," said Lacob. "But we want to be smart about it. We'd love to turn everything around overnight, but that's not always realistic. But with what we've done so far, especially with bringing Mark in, we think we're on the right track."
Jackson could be another Harbaugh -- a young coach with new ideas who quickly changes a losing culture. Or he could be more like Harbaugh's predecessor, Mike Singletary -- a man of deep faith whose inspirational messages quickly lose their effectiveness. The only thing that's certain is that he exudes so much intensity and self-confidence that it's hard to imagine him failing. When Jackson starts to preach, it's almost impossible to be a non-believer.
He wants his team to take strength from a Bible passage that says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, 'Move,' and it shall be moved." Jackson has talked to his team about that passage, and on the inside of the Warriors' locker room are posted the words, "It's time to talk to the mountain."
"What I'm doing is saying to the mountain of doubt, to the mountain of mediocrity, to the mountain of underachievement: 'You shall be moved,'" he said. "And I'm believing with everything in me that it shall come to pass and we will be a playoff team."
To which the hopeful Warrior fans reply, "Amen."