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The Golden State Warriors pretty much owned the Western Conference for half a decade, appearing in five successive NBA finals from 2014 to 2019. Three of those five ended up with Golden State hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy; if it not for a superhuman comeback by the Cavaliers in 2016 or a rash of catastrophic injuries in 2019, they might well have won all five. The fact that they’ve made the postseason this year – they face the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night in the play-in tournament – despite the season-long absence of their second-best player, Klay Thompson, bodes well for the future, too.
All of this appears at the top of what’s already considered a Hall of Fame resume for current Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. But is Kerr merely reaping the rewards of a foundation built by his predecessor, Mark Jackson? And does Jackson’s absence from the head coaching ranks since his Golden State exit raise wider questions about how black coaches are treated in the NBA?
Prior to Jackson’s appointment as head coach in 2011, Golden State had recorded just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance between 1994 and 2012. But Jackson surprised many around the league in the 2012-13 season by taking a Warriors team that relied heavily on young players to the Western Conference semi-finals. That group revolved around a core that would prove critical to the team’s future success, including Thompson, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli, all of whom had been in the league for three years or less. Under Jackson, the young Warriors team more than doubled their win total from the previous season. It was also the first year that Curry and Thompson emerged as the best shooting backcourt in league history becoming the ‘Splash Brothers’ we know and love today. That offseason, the team added veteran forward Andre Iguodala, boosting their young core heading into Jackson’s third season in 2013-14.
While much of the credit for constructing what soon became the Golden State dynasty should go to the Warriors front office for drafting the likes of Curry and Thompson, the players themselves have acknowledged the importance of Jackson in their development. As Iguodala said in 2019: “He was the ultimate players’ coach. He was one of my favorite coaches of all-time. Come in, compete, play hard and then he was going to put you in the best position to get the most money.”
The Warriors went on to reach new heights in 2013-14, most notably a 10-game winning streak that included six straight road wins. They finished the regular season with 51 victories, a four-win improvement over the previous season and the team’s highest total in 22 years. Despite this, the Warriors were unable to overcome Andrew Bogut’s broken leg toward the end of the season and suffered a Game 7 elimination to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first-round of the playoffs.
It was the last game Jackson coached at Golden State; he was removed from his position shortly afterwards, to the surprise of many. The reasons remain murky but they appeared to be a combination of personality and philosophical clashes as well as the Warriors’ belief Jackson had taken the team as far as he could.
“Part of it was that he couldn’t get along with anybody else in the organization,” Warriors owner Joe Lacob said. “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.”
Unnamed league sources would go on to tell Yahoo Sports that the Warriors had an “increasingly dysfunctional atmosphere”. Jackson was also reportedly “very insecure about his assistants getting credit” for the team’s success. It was not just coaching staff he is said to have upset though: on one occasion, he reportedly told players that Ezeli was rooting against the team while he was injured. The accusation so deeply wounded Ezeli that he was reportedly brought to tears.
Many have also pointed to Jackson’s devout religious beliefs as a part of his downfall, with reports, denied by Jackson, that he tried to make players attend church. How much damage this did to the team is moot: a large contingent of that Warriors team, such as Curry and Iguodala, have strong Christian faith and this served as a connecting point between the players and Jackson.
But Jackson’s strong religious beliefs may not have been the best fit for a team based in the liberal Bay Area. Iguodala said Jackson’s views on sexuality may well have put him at odds with the team’s then-president, Rick Welts, who is gay.
There was enough dysfunction around Jackson’s time with the Warriors to justify the team’s decision to move on from him. But one thing that cannot be argued is the progression of the young stars who played for him – stars who would go on to dominate the NBA for the rest of the decade.
So why hasn’t Jackson been able to get a coaching job in the NBA since? Iguodala has suggested his former coach has been “blackballed” by the league, while Jackson claims that the Warriors’ “narrative” has kept him from getting another coaching job. After all, any alleged homophobic remarks by Jackson remain strictly in the realm of rumor and there are plenty of devoutly religious coaches at the elite level of US sports, although many of the most successful ones choose to keep their faith separate from their job.
In the background, as so often in America, is the question of race. Jackson is not the only African American coach in the league to have trouble finding a job in the league. The issue is striking in a league in which 80% of the players are black, yet only a little over 20% of current NBA head coaches are black. It was an issue that was brought back into focus when Steve Nash was named head coach of the Brooklyn Nets despite having no prior coaching experience, when many felt that there were more qualified candidates of color.
The situation prompted NBA commissioner Adam Silver to admit “I know we can do better” in September 2020. Many black assistant coaches around the league have also vocalized their frustrations on the subject. “Steve is a good hire. He’s never coached, but he’s brilliant when it comes to basketball … but the list of qualified black assistants, guys putting in their time and going nowhere, seems to be getting longer and longer,” one assistant told NBC Sports’ Monte Poole at the time of Nash’s appointment.
Unlike first-time coaches like Nash, Jackson has already proven he can lead an NBA team and succeed at doing so. While it is hard to prove categorically that Jackson has not been given a second chance due to his race, it is undeniable that black coaches are not given the same opportunities as their white peers – the numbers do not lie. Whether the situation changed has much to do with how seriously the league and its teams’ leaders take the problem.