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Thursday, May 16, 2013
Spoken word: Mark Jackson

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

Mark Jackson
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Warriors coach is one of the NBA's most fascinating speakers.
Mark Jackson leans into his words as if they’re skinny, 1990s point guards trying to stop him. He shoves them around. Boasts are bellowed. Mind games are played. Sermons are delivered.

A lot happens when Jackson is on the mike. Between the platitudes and clichés, here are some Jackson pronouncements from this year's playoff run:

"They tried to send hit men on Steph.”

Jackson said this after a Game 5 loss to the Nuggets wherein Stephen Curry was roughed up a bit off the ball.

I would call this a savvy public display of hypocrisy. It’s hard for the guy who coaches Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green to call out the opposition for roughing people up. It's ridiculous on its face.

At the same time, it was smart of Jackson to alert refs to off-ball action.

The natural tendency, even for referees, is to focus on the ball. With this declaration, Jackson took a laser pointer and attached the light to Kenneth Faried’s jersey. The Warriors coach called Faried out specifically for hitting Curry’s ankle. In Game 6, Faried picks up his third foul on a “trip” of Harrison Barnes. Except, Barnes appeared to trip over his own feet on the replay. We’ll never know if Jackson’s complaints helped swing the foul that caused Faried to get benched in Game 6, but I have my suspicions.

"I've taken pride in not ever criticizing referees -- for two years. And then reading the statement by the NBA, I'm extremely thankful I am not fined for criticizing referees."

Jackson is a swaggering braggart. (After beating the Lakers, he declared his team better and even added, “They are in the rearview mirror.”) But it's complicated.

This brashness is at odds with an almost priggish devotion to his own sense of propriety. He never curses, at least in public. There’s no more rap music in a Warriors locker room, which could now double as a library reading room.

Jackson advocates a particular decorum around officials. He got his first and only technical foul by literally asking for it. Seriously, Jackson didn’t like the calls so he politely asked the ref to give him a technical as a demonstration to his players.

So it’s no surprise that, after making the hit men comments, Jackson takes pride that he didn’t violate his own code. Aspects of Denver’s play were criticized, but the refs were never questioned, at least explicitly. I have no firm grasp as to why Jackson adheres to these codes, but the structure may give him comfort.

“I’m a guy that believes, again, that God has his hands on this team.”

The God issue is sensitive, especially when you consider that the Bay Area isn’t exactly the Bible Belt. As you’ve probably noticed over these playoffs, Jackson is publicly quite religious. Regardless of Jackson's right to sermonize, I will hazard that these statements are sometimes taken too literally. I don’t believe that Jackson believes God delivers the wind gust that causes Manu Ginobili’s air ball because God loves the Warriors. It feels more like a statement about how the team communes with whatever Jackson thinks God to be and how he thinks this is a good process.

Warning: I’m not religious in the slightest, and I’ve never had an extended theological discussion with Jackson. I’ve just noticed that Jackson is big on the power of positive thinking.

"Those guys are just getting to the hospital. The baby has been born already."

This was in response to Curry’s 22-point third quarter explosion in Game 4 against Denver. In the amusing quote, Jackson isn’t just talking about how Curry's play; he’s talking about how ignored his greatness was when obscured by injuries, Monta Ellis’ ball-hoggery, losses and a non-Lakers Pacific time slot.

It has a certain resonance with a Bay Area populace that is equal parts proud of the region and insecure over how it doesn’t get enough attention. The Bay is beautiful and important, but it isn’t Los Angeles in terms of national and international cachet. East Coast bias isn’t real to the media-steeped L.A. sports market. In the Bay, fans can bristle over how their teams miss out on national coverage. It’s a big market with a big chip on its shoulder. Oh, you just discovered Curry? He’s been great for a while! And we have EXCELLENT food and wine out here! L.A. stinks!

"We live in a country that allows you to be whoever you want to be. As a Christian man, I serve a God that allows you free will to be whoever you want to be. As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what's right and what's wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins. I know his family. And certainly [I'm] praying for them at this time."

This was such a tense moment at Warriors practice. A local reporter asked noted Christian Jackson for his thoughts on Jason Collins coming out. As Jackson started, nobody really knew where this quote was headed.

The words are vague and, frankly, cryptic. Most around the sports world were congratulating Collins, rolling out the welcome mat. Whatever Jackson was saying was at odds with that. But his words also weren’t specifically hateful or rejecting. He later spoke well of both Collins and his family.

What is this prayer about then? Salvation? Happiness? Protection?

In that same news conference, Jackson spoke of praying during every national anthem.

My take? Jackson probably should have gone a different direction with his comments, but I also believe he was processing right in front of us. Jackson didn’t give any indication of having known of Collins’ sexual orientation, despite his friendly relationship with Jason and his family. By all appearances, the news was fresh to him.

Perhaps this is how tolerance happens. Those who wrongly think they live a world apart from gay people suddenly find that they already know and quite like a gay person. The once myopic are forced to grapple, forced to process. It’s easy to not see the humanity in someone you initially view as an “other.” But if you already see the humanity in a person before he declares himself to hail from an “other” category? It’s too late; you’ve already bonded with that person. You already know better than to dismiss his personhood. That kind of wake-up call can broaden perspectives and bring people together.

All of this might have absolutely nothing to do with Jackson. Again, he was vague. But the uncomfortable moment made me aware of how people around the NBA were processing and incorporating what they just learned about their brave friend Jason Collins.

Also worth noting on this tricky subject: While players the league over have spoken on the record about Collins coming out, as far as I'm aware that's not true of a single Warrior.

"In my opinion, they're the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game."

Remember how I said that Jackson is a swaggering braggart? He made these comments about Curry and Klay Thompson. Based on 3-point shooting, he has an excellent case. He likes to pump his guys up, perhaps hoping that they adopt his optimistic paradigm. It’s easier to become a star if you think it possible first.

Talk like this rubs some people the wrong way, but I love it. Most coaches are so afraid to say anything good about their players. It’s refreshing to see someone skirt the line of hyperbole in the other direction.

"That's stupid. ... I'm doing it for fun."
Jackson was asked why he kept submitting paperwork listing Carl Landry as a starter against the Nuggets when Harrison Barnes was actually the starting power forward.

He dismissed the notion it was superstition. The coach just thought it amusing to repeatedly deliver an inaccurate lineup card.

While I don’t find the joke hilarious, I do believe in the value of stepping back from playoff game terror and chuckling at its absurd quirks. The great coaches occasionally exhibit some detached whimsy. Think Gregg Popovich intentionally fouling Shaq after tipoff or Phil Jackson smiling on the bench for reasons unknown. Mark Jackson’s coaching equivalent to playing with his food could be a good sign. I also believe he was just messing with George Karl to glean a slight advantage.

“Can I be honest with ya? I’m jealous. I wish I could put on a uniform the way you ballin'.”

You could regard this, from TNT's Inside Trax timeout microphone, as Jackson trying to convey that his players should appreciate and seize the moment.

But something in his tone makes me believe the comments are more nostalgic, less practical. From what I’ve heard from players-turned-coaches, there is no high that matches going out on a court and actually shaping the game with your hands. I wonder if Jackson was just thinking aloud as he contemplated life on the bench. I wonder if Jackson actually does feel a pang of jealousy or if he's experiencing a miniature midlife crisis on account of no longer being able to share in this unique experience.

The statement could be less about missing the past than appreciating the present, though. So many players from the Jordan era condescend to the modern NBA. "It was so much tougher then!" is the refrain. Jackson talks up his era on occasion. But in this moment, he's telling his modern team what a privilege it would be to play with it. Jackson has reverence for the past, but not so much that he's degrading what happens now, in front of his eyes. It's easy to roll your eyes at his "greatest shooting backcourt" comments, but such bold declarations might show the Warriors coach to be hyper-present and quite respectful of the talent he presides over. If so, that's pretty cool.

“Can I stop again to tell you I love you? Outstanding.”

“Love” can be a dirty word in the machismo-steeped culture of pro sports. But bless him, Jackson is too emotional to use any other word.

I have no clue how the Warriors take this, but it’s notable that most coaches never say anything like this. Because “their business” is a business. “Love” does not belong in a business, just as Jackson’s religious statements might not belong in corporate America.

But sports are strange because, to be a business, people must believe these teams are far more than that. Executives, players, coaches, everybody involved have to emotionally invest in something other than profit, even if profit is also a motivation. And in this gray zone of life called “sports,” this nexus of tribalism, feeling, glory and money, Jackson lives loudly.