Through the baiting, we keep waiting. Is this the day Mark Jackson blows up? Is this where he hears about another verbal shot from Andrew Bogut and fires back? Will this be the telecast where bitterness finally overwhelms him — as he sits so conspicuously among the golden-yellow-shirted swarms in the rocking arena where he once worked, commenting on the team he once coached and the players he once taught — and he lets loose with a rant that becomes a balls-to-the-walls Warriors distraction?
It would be easy for Jackson to try and sabotage the organization that fired him last year. He has a microphone by his mouth and, surely, a chip on his shoulder. The owner, Joe Lacob, assassinated his character when he said Jackson “couldn't get along with anybody in the organization … you can't have 200 people in the organization not like you.” Bogut, the center who couldn't stand Jackson, has tweaked him so many times we've lost track, including this crack the other day: “Whenever you get a head coach who's not full of himself, it makes a huge difference.” Some players still revere him — such as Draymond Green, who hugged Jackson at courtside after the Warriors won the Western Conference title — and others are thrilled he's gone, which could make for a sensitive locker-room situation if Jackson wanted to plant a poison pill.
But to his credit, he has chosen a higher road. No doubt warmed by the diplomacy of his successor, Steve Kerr, who rarely lets a day pass without praising his three seasons of work, Jackson appears to have moved beyond a period where he was taking his own shots at the Warriors. He disappointed Stephen Curry, his biggest public backer after his dismissal, by saying in March that James Harden deserved the Most Valuable Player award. He ruffled feathers in January when, during his first Warriors-related broadcast for ESPN, he said of Kerr relative to Jackson's tenure here, “While giving him credit, there's no reason to take credit away from the past. You cannot disrespect the caterpillar while raving about the butterfly.”
The butterly, Kerr, is four victories from a championship. The caterpillar, Jackson, will be at courtside again Thursday night broadcasting the NBA Finals for ABC, which could be his job longer than he prefers as coaching vacancy after coaching vacancy — Oklahoma City, Orlando, New Orleans, Chicago — is filled by a college coach or league retread. At practice Monday, Bogut was asked if Jackson's current role reminds him of being a videographer at a former girlfriend's wedding. “That's a good analogy,” said Bogut, who burst into laughter. “I'd call it a 'caterpillar to a butterfly,' but it is what it is. Hopefully, he's enjoying it.”
Thing is, Jackson claims to be doing just that. Ask him if it's awkward to be at Oracle Arena in what may be an unprecedented circumstance — analyzing a team playing for a championship after he couldn't take the same team past the first round of the playoffs — and he says it's not difficult at all.
“Great question, and the answer is no. As a kid, I dreamt of playing in the NBA, I dreamt of coaching in the NBA and I dreamt of announcing in the NBA, and I've fulfilled each and every one of those roles, and I'm extremely blessed,” Jackson said. “At the end of the day, I am absolutely winning, and I thank God for the platform that I have. I've seen people fade to black when they were fired or let go. I'm fortunate enough to have a job and a topnotch job working with incredible friends that I've known for over 25 years.
“ESPN and ABC have been great to me. So we move on. It's absolutely — and I'm not exaggerating — easy for me. I'm too blessed to be stressed. I'm about to be part of an incredible team calling another NBA Finals. Doesn't get any better.”
Jackson has limited his postseason interviews to network conference calls. Every time he participates, he is asked the appropriate questions but never bites the bait. He has praise for everyone, including Lacob, who chafed at many of Jackson's methods — including his use of Christianity as almost a cult of sorts, to the point of busing the players to his church in the San Fernando Valley during last year's playoff series in Los Angeles. Monday, Jackson reflected on the vicious booing by fans during Chris Mullin's jersey retirement ceremony and how Lacob and the organization have battled through it admirably since then. He didn't have to say one good word about Lacob and general manager Bob Myers. He managed to say a few.
“Well, it seems like yesterday, and at the same time, it seems like a long time ago. It says a lot about the incredible fan base that has been loyal through thick and thin. It says a lot about ownership, about management, and coaching. That includes guys on my staff and this current staff. And it's about the players,” Jackson said.
“It's been an incredible run for them, and they're on the cusp of having a chance to win it all. It's a lot of hands and a lot of recognition across the board. You've got to give Steve Kerr and his staff a lot of credit and this group. It's been a heck of a run for the entire organization and as good a fan base as you'll find.”
He claimed he wasn't choked up, as it seemed on the air, when Green hugged him and he was asked about the scene by broadcast partners Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. “To me, people [overblew] the emotional — a guy came over and said thank you,” Jackson said. “If you came to my church, you would say, 'Well, he cries every week.' People say thank you. People show appreciation. I'm an emotional guy. That was all it was. One guy saying thank you and me appreciating his thoughts and his feelings. Other than that, there's no emotion. To me, I'm calling games between two teams. I read articles that I shouldn't be doing it. To me, it's laughable. I'm absolutely winning and having the time of my life calling games with incredible friends and incredible people.”
Yes, he twice said he's “absolutely winning.” It will be the first and only time we compare Mark Jackson with Charlie Sheen.
“I just want to add something,” Van Gundy interjected. “He bought me dinner the other night, and I said thank you, and the dude was bawling when I said thanks to him. This guy, he is emotional. He's crazy.”
Maybe a little too crazy, it seems, to land another NBA coaching job. One reason he's playing nice, of course, is to convince owners and GMs that he isn't the out-of-control dictator as painted by Lacob. But Kerr has provided the blueprint for the modern pro coach — compassionate criticism, blasting music amid long-shot-heaving circuses before practice, organization-wide camaraderie — and that doesn't bode well for Jackson. Nor does it help that Bogut persistently dogs him and keeps his name in a negative public light.
Again, Jackson refused to retaliate when Bogut came up. “He has played well,” he said, before flipping the topic to the collective group. “They've had a total team effort. They've done a great job of buying in and following the game plan and filling the role that is the blueprint of Steve Kerr and his staff. Collectively, they've got to be extremely proud of what each and every one of them have done to possibly win a championship.”
Isn't Bogut, like Curry and others, playing better under Kerr?
“Well, he was healthy this year,” Jackson said.
It hasn't reached the point, though, where he actually would admit to pulling for the Warriors. “As far as who I'm rooting for, I work for ESPN/ABC,” said Jackson, suddenly the company man. “I'm rooting for a great game, and that's been consistent from the day I signed my name on the dotted line, and that's not going to change.”
Call him No-Distraction Jackson. There will be no championship ring for the ex-coach, of course, but his dignity in an adverse situation should be commended.
“I think the two regular-season games he did, it was really weird,” Curry said. “But past those games, it's been somewhat normal. We don't really think of the connection to last year as much just because we've been wrapped up in the here and now. We've talked all year about how important he was to changing our identity as a team and an organization and what he did for us those three years. And we obviously still believe in that. But we're about this year, and we've moving forward.
“It's a healthy kind of situation.”
So much so, we now can respect the caterpillar while raving about the butterfly.