TrueHoop: Joe Lacob

Do Warriors have faith in Mark Jackson?

March, 27, 2014
Mar 27
1:02
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Mark JacksonKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsWarriors coach Mark Jackson is a man of deep faith. But is there enough belief in him by the Bay?
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.

[+] EnlargeMark Jackson and Stephen Curry
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezSteph Curry backed Mark Jackson. Will the franchise player get the final say over his coach's fate?
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.

Rick Welts' winning streak

October, 24, 2011
10/24/11
11:22
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Rick Welts
Alex J. Berliner/ABImages
Rick Welts: "I have to be part of this dialogue in men's team sports going forward."

Momentum isn't just a phenomenon on the floor or in the flow of a seven-game series. By virtually every account, the NBA enjoyed one of its best seasons in 2010-11. Television ratings and merchandise sales soared, while several teams have put lucrative new local broadcast deals in place. Most of all, the narratives and subplots coming out of the season were captivating, storybook stuff.

But the inertia wasn't just felt on the court. The league made strides off it, too.

Sports has always provided a laboratory for a range of social and cultural issues and, in that respect, the NBA achieved a lot of good -- yet another reason why the current lockout and prospect of a cancelled season is frustrating.

Among the more aggressive initiatives pursued by the NBA was GLSEN's "Think B4 You Speak" campaign. Their keynote televised spot, starring Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, was bold, well-produced and unprecedented. Ten years ago, the idea that NBA players would take to the camera during the playoffs to tell kids that using gay as an epithet is uncool would've been noble but naive. Yet GLSEN's ad was as ubiquitous as the NBA's talking basketball and Heineken's The Asteroids Galaxy Tour spot.

How did GLSEN corral Hill and Dudley? The NBA aggressively pursued gay-friendly athletes and enlisted them. The league signed Steve Nash and Brook Lopez up for the print campaign. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard tweeted his support.

Less than 24 hours after the GLSEN public service announcement premiered during the conference finals, the New York Times published a front page feature on Rick Welts. In the body of the article, the then-Phoenix Suns president became the first executive in men's pro sports to come out as gay.

The response to Welts' announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in gay organizational circles. Gay folks have done well over the past 15 years in political and cultural spheres, but there are still incredibly few recognizable public figures carrying the torch. The same dozen or so celebrities traverse the country speaking at various charity dinners giving pep talks to donors and organizational leaders.

Welts has now joined that roster of out, gay figures and he was honored on Friday night in Beverly Hills by GLSEN, the organization that launched the Changing the Game initiative, under whose umbrella "Think B4 You Speak" campaign resides.

From the outset of the evening, you could sense Welts' presence was different.

He doesn't hail from the entertainment industry and isn't a fixture in charitable gay circles.

This is all new to him -- and, in turn, he is new to the community.

We caught up with Welts at the event, where he was accompanied by his partner, Todd Gage.

Kevin Arnovitz: There's a certain brand of celebrity gay public figures achieve and you're there. Tonight is proof of that. Is that exciting? Disorienting? Overwhelming?

Rick Welts: I really didn't know what to expect. I was probably prepared for a mixed reaction to the story -- maybe 90-10. But it was unconceivable to me that of the thousands of calls, emails, letters -- people still write letters -- every single one has been nothing but encouraging and positive which, for me, was a little overwhelming. It was overwhelming in a positive way, but it did instill in me a sense of responsibility going forward. I really wasn't sure that would be the case. I thought maybe that would be it, that I'd get my 15 minutes of fame, but clearly it just continues.

I'm still trying to figure out what my role should be. I'm all about running the Golden State Warriors. That's my job. That's what I want to focus my time on, but somehow I have to be part of this dialogue in men's team sports going forward. What form that takes, I'm not quite sure yet.

During the early part of your initial media tour, you seemed a little bit reticent at first, like it was all still very new -- which I guess it was. Has your comfort level in those contexts grown?

Welts: I don't think I felt that. Maybe it came across that way. By the time I got to that point, I knew what I'd signed up for. So nothing about it was unexpected or scary. It turned out to be a much easier process than I'd imagined.

We had our Warriors press conference a couple of weeks ago, and there's still a little bit of out-of-body experience when I'm listening to these questions about my sexual orientation in the context of running an NBA franchise. It's okay. I hope on some level it makes a contribution, but I'm really all about doing my job for the Warriors. I want that to be the focus. I know this is always going to be there.

Your job is not to instill in the Golden State Warriors an ethic of tolerance, but do you hope to have an impact -- do you feel obliged to have an impact -- on, say, Dorell Wright, Steph Curry, Monta Ellis and Mark Jackson, who is an observant evangelical Christian? Is "making a contribution," as you say, a hands-on experience whereby you speak to the team for 15 minutes one afternoon after practice and tell your story?

Welts: The answer is, "I don't know." I had a great conversation with Mark on the phone. Everyone in the organization has been incredible. I'll tell you one of the most gratifying experiences I've had since May -- and you'll understand this -- is the interview I had with the Warriors. I was with Peter Guber and Joe Lacob for six hours. I realized I didn't have to guess what they knew or might have known or how they'd feel about it, whether they'd have a problem with that, because I was out.

And it wasn't until about four hours into the meeting when one of them goes, "So how did the announcement go over with the ownership in Phoenix?" I said, "It went over great," and then we went back to the Warriors. For me, as someone who spent his whole business career worrying about how that would affect my ability to be successful in the occupation I'd chosen, that was a pretty amazing experience.

About the move from Phoenix to Oakland. There was a lot of well-wishing on your way out the door. You were going to spend some time contemplating your next move. Then, boom, you had the job at Golden State. Did you already have the Warriors gig lined up when you resigned from the Suns?

Welts: I was at a point in my life where the important aspect of it was living in northern California. My partner has two kids whom he has joint custody of and they live in Sacramento -- so he's not relocatable. I initially thought I'd take some time off. I got some amazing book offers, maybe do some speaking -- and I was really excited about that. But just as I was leaving Phoenix, Robert Sarver said, "I'm going to call the Maloofs in Sacramento and the new guys in Golden State and say, 'You know what? They ought to talk to you.'"

He did that --

--This was before the resignation or after?

Welts: After, but I was still there. So the weekend after I left, I spent that six hours with [Guber and Lacob]. They had a short list to start that I was on, but I wasn't available. Then I became available and the opportunity presented itself.

So you're sitting across the table from these guys. They've paid a lot of money for this team. What's your pitch? What's the Rick Welts platform for how to turn the Golden State Warriors into an elite NBA franchise?

Welts: They had really done their homework on me and I'd really done my homework on them. So we knew if there was a connection on both sides, we were going to make a deal. They wanted to make sure they were bringing in someone who had a general approach to business in the NBA that was not business as usual. They wanted someone who wasn't afraid to think big. For them, what hasn't been done is more interesting to them than what has already been achieved. That's how they envision the franchise and they want someone on the business side who demonstrated that same kind of approach. And that's exactly the kind of owners I was looking for if I was going to jump back in this as quickly as I did.

Let's talk about the No H8 Photo you guys posed for. I'm probably one of only 10 gay dudes in California who doesn't have one. But the airbrushing on those shots is pretty incredible.

Todd Gage (Welts' partner): Airbrushing? What are you talking about?!

Welts: There's no airbrushing.

Please.

Welts: It was something I agreed to. By total coincidence, Todd was in town that day. I called him and said, "Get your ass down here," and he did.

Gage: They take every line out. It's incredible.

Getting fired the Smart way

March, 21, 2011
3/21/11
11:35
AM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes/edits for HoopSpeak.com and Warriorsworld.net. He lives in Oakland and wallows @SherwoodStrauss on Twitter.


I don’t know Warriors coach Keith Smart, and I don’t think he’s doing a good job. But it’s painful to watch him slowly lose what I’m guessing is a dream vocation. Every now and again, I show up to Oracle, volley post-game questions from the folded chairs. After losses, Keith appears close to a crying rage. A losing coach bottles torrents. And I’m this bespectacled dork, bleating into his ears, clawing for some damning quote by which to screw him over.

Smart once approached after a presser, wondering why I had “something against Monta.” He towered over as I tried to say what should have been, “It’s hard to convey nuance when asking brief questions.” Whatever I spoke melted into a mumbled shrug as my eyes ran away from his glare.

(I’m just a nerd, obsessed with efficiency. There is no media agenda here, sir.)

As he walked away, I felt ridiculous. Suddenly, it was embarrassing to be a 5-11 twentysomething with bad facial hair, assessing a basketball coach’s performance--between tweets. I used to only watch these games on the TV, a device that never got mad at me. How had my livelihood become about judging his livelihood? It was similar to the shame I felt after Al Thornton tweeted me, in response to snickering digs. Thornton’s handle says “a driven country guy with an old soul.” He was born and raised in Perry, Georgia, where the population hovers near 10,000. At Florida State, Al slowly worked his way off the bench, finally blooming as an upperclassmen. The improbable NBA journey must have been doubted along the way by unathletic haters like myself. What does he think about the avatar in glasses who dares mock his game?

A few times this season, Smart cited “the tape,” as though obscure snippets of Warriors footage contained what I lacked in maturity and common sense.

“See you look at the stats...I watch the tape.”

To a weary coach, mastery of “the stats” could appear a youthful alchemy obsession--a beginner’s chemistry set. “The tape” may well represent all that escapes outsiders. Sure, I can re-watch Warriors games. But I won’t know the exact offensive sets or defensive schemes. I won’t know who’s hurting, who loafed through practice. “The tape,” is his coaching gravitas, the moat between Smart and marauding critics. With every loss, a little bit of that moat evaporates.

Before games, Keith’s gregarious, quick to smile. It’s easy to see how he held a happy locker room through a losing season slog. Reporters grumble about his vague, meandering quotes, but there’s presence behind the vocalized nothing. When basking in a win, Smart can tease writers into laughter. He’s confident and at ease, like so many former pros are.

But no one thinks he’s staying. The new ownership needed Keith to exceed expectations and he underwhelmed. Matt Steinmetz -- the guy who broke the Sprewell choking incident -- went so far as to call Smart’s ouster what should be a “forgone conclusion.”

So the coach is a dead man walking, except we can’t really say it to his face. He’s bound by a certain etiquette as well. In a home loss against the Mavs, Smart benched Stephen Curry for a crucial crunch time stretch. Curry had been playing poorly, the benching did not spring out of the air like some Nellie flight of whimsy. But, Keith refused to flesh out its logic, stating that the choice just wasn’t a “big deal.” The coach won’t trash his young star, even when the situational politics might call for it.

To reference Steinmetz again, the Curry-Smart relationship is chief among the reasons for this expected firing. There’s something strict and paternal in the way Keith handles his best player. A bad mistake often leads to a quick hook, while veteran Monta Ellis is free to frolic. It’s as though Smart’s trying to hone Curry’s mastery of split-second decisions through punishment. The process looks ridiculous to my eyes, like Keith’s foolishly channeling that Bobby Knight schooling, seeing if he can yell life’s rhythms into submission. I wouldn’t be shocked if Smart cites “the tape” as a rebuke to Curry’s frustrations.

If Stephen Curry played five more minutes per game, I’d hazard that his coach would have a chance. I’d also wager that Golden State would have a few more wins. This is why Smart’s Curry-handling might be an instance of misguided integrity. Keith will sacrifice job security in pursuit of his path. Eventually, “the tape” won’t save him. Eventually, his young star will have a new coach.

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