OAKLAND — There will be a lot of eyes looking at the man sitting courtside when the Golden State Warriors host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night at Oracle Arena.
No, not injured star LeBron James.
Mark Jackson will return to the building for the first time since the Warriors fired him as coach after last season. Jackson will be part of ESPN's national telecast, sitting on the opposite sideline of the court he called home the previous three years — and not far from Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
The evening promises to be an interesting spectacle for viewers, an emotional reunion for players and possibly awkward for Jackson, his former bosses and his successor.
“It will (feel strange) at the beginning, but then everybody's doing their job,” said Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who strongly opposed Jackson's firing last May. “I'm sure he's happy to be covering basketball and commentating and at peace with where he's at. I'm sure the fans will give him a great reception, which he deserves for the work he did while he was here.
“I hope that happens, and we'll get to the business of playing basketball like usual. Obviously, when we're on the court, we won't be hearing what he's saying on the telecast, but I'm sure guys will appreciate having him there and honor him for what he was able to do while he was here.”
New coach Steve Kerr has been through a similar scenario. He returned to Phoenix as a TNT broadcaster during the 2010-11 season after serving as general manager of the Suns the previous three years.
“It felt very strange. It was awkward. I'm sure there'll be some weird feelings for Mark,” Kerr told reporters following Thursday's practice. “The biggest thing is we want to welcome him. He did a lot of great things for this team. He's got a lot of strong relationships with people on our roster and in our organization. So I want Mark to come in here and enjoy himself and visit with old friends. It should be a good night for everybody.”
Jackson did not respond to a message from The Associated Press seeking comment on his return.
Most players said they have stayed in contact with their former coach, regularly communicating through text messages. Others said they haven't had contact with him in a while knowing the transition could be uncomfortable for Jackson and the organization.
What just about everybody on the roster — and the coaching staff — has regularly acknowledged is that Jackson played as big a role as anybody in helping the perennially losing franchise become a winner.
Jackson took the Warriors from 23 wins to 46 to 51 in his three seasons. He became the first coach to lead the franchise to consecutive playoff appearances since Hall of Famer Don Nelson in 1991 and 1992.
“He taught us a lot. He really helped turn this organization around,” forward Draymond Green said. “He really helped build that foundation defensively, offensively, and coach Kerr has come in and he's taken it to a different level.”
The Warriors enter the game with an NBA-best 28-5 record. And while many have used the strong start as vindication for Jackson's firing, players said it's building on what their former coach helped start.
“He knows how we feel about him in the locker room. Those three years meant a lot to us,” Curry said. “He set the tone and changed the identity of what it meant to be a Warrior, play Warrior basketball and be a relevant team in the playoffs. I would say he was very successful at his job for those three years.
“Obviously, it didn't end the way he expected or the way most of us expected. But he can hold his head high that he did his job the best way he knew how and made an impact on a lot of guys on and off the court.”