LOS ANGELES – Six weeks after the Golden State Warriors made him their new coach, Mark Jackson’s Sunday mornings are often spent not in a gym, but in a Van Nuys church. Jackson can be found helping his wife setting up chairs, vacuuming, arranging his flowers as they transform the Van Nuys Seventh-day Adventist Church into True Love Worship Center International, a multicultural, non-denominational church the Jacksons run twice a week.
The NBA lockout has kept Jackson from guiding the Warriors, but he still has his own congregation to lead.
“God had the audacity and the sense of humor to have an NBA head coach as a pastor,” Jackson said during a recent sermon.
Jackson spent 17 seasons as an NBA point guard and ranks third all time in the league in assists, trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd(notes). He worked as an analyst for ABC in recent years until the Warriors hired him as their new coach on June 6.
While Jackson doesn’t have any experience as a coach – not even as an assistant – the Warriors hired him, in part, because of the leadership skills he demonstrated during his playing career – many of the same qualities he displays as a pastor.
Jackson and his wife, former R&B singer Desiree Jackson, are both ordained ministers. They attended a conference in 2002 in the Bahamas, where another pastor told them they’d someday open their own church. Two years ago, they started renting the midsized church in Van Nuys and began True Love Worship Center largely by word of mouth. Their congregation is now more than 300 strong. In addition to the Sunday service, they also lead a Wednesday evening bible study.
Because the Jacksons rent the church, they have to convert it for their services each week. Their goal is to eventually buy a property for their own church.
“We opened the church because people were constantly asking for ministry and they were looking for life-changing statements and activities from us,” Desiree Jackson said. “We’re out here in California in the land of ‘La-La,’ etcetera. You just know that what God has placed in you, can be life-changing to someone.”
Desiree preaches when her husband is not able to attend – which was often the case during the second half of the NBA season when he was announcing the Sunday games on ABC. He often received text messages from his wife and the church’s deacons updating him on the service.
When Jackson was on one trip last season, he received a call from a church member who was contemplating suicide.
“I was on the phone with this guy for an hour basically pleading to him, ‘Don’t do it. You have so much to live for. I don’t want to be in the church telling them that you gave up. I don’t want to look at your wife and your two beautiful daughters saying that you gave up,’ ” Jackson said. “To make a long story short, I got off the phone an hour later and he told me it was OK. He thanked me. We were in tears crying.”
Jackson was still playing in the NBA when he was ordained as a minister in 1997 at a church in his native Brooklyn, N.Y. Desiree was later ordained at the same church. Jackson admits his faith was tested this year when his brother, Troy, a former player at the University of Louisville, died in his sleep while attending All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. Jackson delivered the eulogy for his brother at a packed church in Long Island.
“Two hundred and fifty people got saved at Mark’s brother’s funeral,” Desiree Jackson said. “He did an altar call at a funeral. These were elite people from across the board from also the NBA, in the scene and behind the scenes. But the thing is that you know the calling was on [Jackson’s] life when you’re broken and you’re ministering at your brother’s funeral.”
Jackson long has been able to command the attention of a room. The Warriors quickly discovered as much when, in his introductory news conference as coach, he announced, “Put this in bold letters: The Golden State Warriors will make the playoffs next season.” The Warriors have qualified for the postseason just once since 1994 and went 36-46 last season under coach Keith Smart.
Jeff Van Gundy, who previously coached Jackson and worked with him at ABC, texted Jackson to warn him not to be so bold. But during a recent sermon, Jackson said his prediction was based on confidence. He later said people should be surprised he didn’t vow the Warriors would do more than make the playoffs.
Van Gundy “texted me and said, ‘Don’t do that. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself. Shut your mouth.’ I text him back, ‘Shut your mouth,’ ” Jackson said during the sermon. “He’s my guy, and he was trying to protect me. …I’m not talking about what happened in the past. I’m not playing, I told him. He said, ‘Things have been this way, this way, this way.’ I said, ‘Look here, I don’t care what it’s been.’ ”
Jackson understands why some people question his lack of coaching experience. To aid his transition, Jackson has hired veteran assistant coaches Michael Malone and Pete Myers. He also recently added Wes Unseld Jr. to his staff. Jackson believes he is ready, crediting Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who also went from TV analyst to coach with little experience, as a role model.
“I understand what people said and say about me as a candidate,” Jackson said. “I’ve never coached, according to their theory. I’m an inexperienced guy, I’m a risk, and I understand all that.”
Jackson also understands that his success – or lack of it – with the Warriors will determine whether other NBA teams will give chances to other coaches lacking experience.
“I had to make sure I took the right job because of the [coaches] coming behind me,” Jackson said. “The person that is going to chase the obstacles that people are going to talk about. That’s why it was important for a guy like Doc Rivers to be successful, for me and to make it easier for someone to pull the trigger.”
“If I would have died 100 years from now and never coached in the NBA, I would have been fine and had peace with that,” he said.
Jackson can’t communicate with Warriors players – or even discuss them publicly – during the lockout. But prior to the work stoppage, he traveled to meet Stephen Curry(notes) in Charlotte, N.C.; Monta Ellis(notes) in Memphis, Tenn.; David Lee(notes) in St. Louis and Dorell Wright(notes) in Los Angeles.
Prior to the lockout, Jackson also sent all the roster players, including draftees, a letter telling them it was time to start thinking bigger and better. He wants to make the Warriors a tougher, more defensive-oriented team.
“If you play hard in this league night in and night out, good things will happen,” Jackson said. “That’s the one thing that’s consistent. You show me a team that didn’t make the playoffs, and nine times out of 10 times I’m going to show you a team that didn’t play hard, that didn’t compete on a nightly basis. I believe in my ability to lead, I know what it takes, and I believe this team has certainly underachieved.”
Wright and Curry have both said they were impressed with Jackson during their meetings. Wright has even considered visiting the church after the lockout ends.
“I have never seen him preach,” Wright said. “But from just watching him [on TV] and the way he commentates, I know he gives the word pretty good.”
So will Jackson mix religion with his coaching? He admits that coaching the Warriors will be his priority, and he’ll rely on his wife to run the church.
“I’m not going to compromise my job,” Jackson said. “I have total confidence in my wife’s ability to [preach].
“I believe this is God calling me to minister and calling me to be a head coach of the Golden State Warriors.”
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