- Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN Staff Writer
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The last time Warriors fans saw Brian Scalabrine was on Saturday, and he hardly looked like a man who’d disappear. The 6-foot-9 (now former) Golden State assistant coach leaned in and attacked a halftime interview with gusto, as though he’d been waiting a while for this moment. Mark Jackson’s assistants are not permitted to speak to the media, save for these regular in-game snippets wherein they usually mumble platitudes. “Scal” could not be contained by such a format, though. The “White Mamba” is a big personality. He might sign autographs, but he follows no script.
Scalabrine has since been demoted to Golden State’s D-League affiliate in Santa Cruz. Jackson isn’t explaining the specifics of why this happened. Warriors owner Joe Lacob and Warriors general manager Bob Myers have yet to speak publicly on the matter.
Why did Jackson banish such a popular figure? And what does one make of the report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports that Jackson would go weeks without speaking to former assistant coach Mike Malone, who now coaches the Sacramento Kings? The information void invites speculation about Jackson and his job status, of which there has already been plenty this season.
You could understand how, from Jackson’s perspective, the media swirl seems insane. The Warriors are on pace for their best record since 1991-92. They exceeded expectations in last season’s playoffs. They haven’t even fallen short of realistic expectations this season.
Yet there are questions about whether he will remain in Oakland after this season, and whether he’ll be coaching for his job this postseason. The Warriors are the top-ranked defensive team in the Western Conference, and their coach can’t help but wax defensive.
Back on Feb. 10, Jackson looked at the assembled media and said, “I mean, we are 10 games over .500. Some of you guys haven’t seen that in a long, long time. So keep on acting like you have.” The Warriors had just clobbered the 76ers, but Jackson was dealing with some strange public dispute with Andrew Bogut over whether the ailing center had “hurt himself sleeping.” The news conference may well have epitomized this season. Jackson wasn’t really winning.
A day after the Bogut dispute, in an interview with Tim Kawakami, Lacob followed up some Jackson compliments with: “But some things are a little disturbing -- the lack of being up for some of these games at home, that’s a concern to me.” Lacob then set the expectation bar high, saying: “My expectation was that we would be a serious competitor to be in the top four in the West.” The Warriors are currently clinging to the sixth seed, and Jackson, who has one year left on his contract, lacks a lucrative extension.
But Jackson believes in belief and believes in his guys. Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Festus Ezeli all saw substantial roles as rookies. Green shot miserably throughout last season. Jackson reiterated his faith in Green’s game, kept feeding him minutes, and Green came through big for Jackson in the playoffs. The second-rounder has emerged as a valuable defensive player in his second year. Jackson promotes confidence, bragging outright about his players and their capabilities (he has compared Green’s defense to that of LeBron James, for example). His strategy is to raise internal expectations through effusive praise, in hopes that the power of positive thinking shifts the paradigm of a historically awful franchise.
If he was just an evangelist for confidence, it would be far less complicated. His positive qualities are tethered to matters of some controversy, though, matters that extend far beyond the realm of basketball.
The ordained pastor has obliterated whatever divide might exist between church and sport. He has boldly done it despite answering to an owner who has a different religion. His quotes are peppered with mentions of God, church and Jesus. After a victory over the Denver Nuggets, airtime was given to a celebratory team prayer. His faith-based ethos has seeped into the team culture. From an article by the Mercury News' Marcus Thompson II during last season’s playoff run: “How does it show itself in Oakland? Richard Jefferson's chapel notes taped to his locker. Rubber wristbands reading ‘In Jesus Name I Play’ spilling out of Stephen Curry's cubby. Rookie center Festus Ezeli reading pastor Rick Warren's ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ before a game.”
It’s part of the workplace environment at Oracle now. Jackson sermonized on the arena floor after a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of a “Friday Fellowship” drive.
If you’re looking for a reason as to why a seemingly successful coach lacks fan support, you might tilt your head in this direction. The Bay Area isn’t the Bible Belt, after all. According to The Atlantic, it’s actually the least religious major metro area of the country, with only 24 percent of residents claiming “very religious” status. Factor in how NBA fans skew young, plus how young people skew secular, and you have a less than ideal audience for Jackson’s (literal) preaching. After games, Jackson is sharing an intense, sincere worldview with many who either disagree or lack the context to relate. Locally, it doesn’t help matters that the preacher was caught up in a sex scandal early in his Warriors tenure. The slipup served as snarky joke fodder for those who were already cynical about messengers of faith.
There’s anecdotal evidence that Jackson’s religiosity helps the Warriors. The quite religious Jermaine O’Neal signed a reasonable contract with Golden State. Noted Christian Andre Iguodala built a relationship with Jackson before heading west from Denver. In Iguodala’s introductory news conference, he mentioned getting to know Curry (and Kevin Durant) over chapel sessions at the 2010 world championships.
By all indications, the great majority of Warriors players like how faith intermingles with work. And this is where a certain sweet-shooting superstar comes into the picture. Curry, who points to the heavens after every 3-pointer, likes Golden State’s locker room culture.
In response to the questions that came with Scalabrine’s ouster, Curry, who references “Philippians 4:13” on his sneakers, supported Jackson: “Coach made a decision and we back him 100 percent.” It’s easy to dismiss such a response as “what else is he supposed to say?” but it means something that Curry didn’t deflect. Curry even spoke for the team as a whole, saying, “I know everybody in that locker room supports him 100 percent,” and later adding, “I love Coach and everything he's about. I love playing for him and that’s all that matters to me."
Curry is one of those guys Jackson believed in, and yes, there was a time when doing so wasn’t an obvious choice. Whereas Keith Smart before him benched Curry over turnovers, Jackson let his young star play through mistakes. Smart ultimately sided with giving the offense to Monta Ellis, and it got him fired. Jackson gave Curry free rein, and it got him to the second round.
It’s not a given that Curry’s influence can or will keep Jackson in Oakland, but his opinion certainly matters. When asked if he should have some sway over Jackson's future, Curry responded: “I hope they ask, yeah, for sure. I’ll give them my honest opinion, and hopefully that means something. Obviously at the end of the day I’m not the one making decisions, but I have an opinion.”
The basketball world is used to considering the whims of guys like LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe and Chris Paul. We’re not so used to considering Steph's sway. He's a go-along, get-along type -- thought to be too nice for these kinds of games. This could be a young, amiable superstar’s first major act of political leadership, though. Does Curry leave all of the decision-making to ownership, or does he leverage his star status and loudly stump for the coach who helped him become a franchise player? And can Curry's belief in Jackson trump Lacob's apparent lack of it?
In the meantime, it would appear Jackson enters April coaching not just for his job, but for the entirely unique team culture he built with it. If Jackson can afford to oust the popular Scalabrine, it’s because that culture supports the coach with an uncommon degree of faith.