Mark Jackson knows a thing or two about playoff basketball. He played in 131 postseason games during his 17-year pro career and sat courtside for the NBA Finals five times as a lead analyst on the national broadcasts.
But as the Warriors square off with the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Jackson is getting his first taste from the coach’s chair and he said it’s a rewarding experience.
“It’s probably better,” the Warriors coach said. “To sit back as a mature adult and a coach, I know what these guys put into it. It really makes me emotional when I think about their moment and what they deserve.”
While many ex-players wind up on the sideline, Jackson took a somewhat unconventional path to his first coaching gig. Rather than serving his time as an assistant after retirement in 2004, Jackson jumped on the opportunity to live out another childhood dream.
In his first season off the court, he joined ESPN as a studio analyst and one year later, he took a seat at the broadcaster’s table for the Yes Network providing color commentary to Marv Albert’s play-by-play of the New Jersey Nets. At ESPN, Jackson climbed the ladder quickly, earning a spot on the network’s lead broadcast team alongside Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, creating catchphrases like “Hand down, man down” and “Mama, there goes that man.”
“As a kid ... I would sit in the corner, listen to Knicks games as an Earl Monroe fan and I would be the player, Earl Monroe, I’d be the announcer, Marv Albert, and I’d be the head coach, Red Holzman,” Jackson said. “I had a dream and a vision to be all three of them.”
The Warriors raised eyebrows when they hired Jackson despite his lack of experience in June 2011. But Warriors legend Chris Mullin, currently an ESPN analyst, said his former teammate at St. John’s University and the Indiana Pacers earned his stripes playing quarterback on the hardwood.
“As a point guard, you’re the coach on the floor,” he said. “You’re in charge of not only knowing where everybody’s supposed to be, but also where they’re most effective. You’re making decisions all the time.”
Mullin isn’t surprised that the Warriors earned a playoff berth in Jackson’s second season at the helm. He said coaching is natural to Jackson and his leadership skills stood out when he played a high school basketball game against him in New York City more than three decades ago.
“He was very vocal and enthusiastic,” Mullin said of the then-sophomore point guard. “Even at that point in time, he was giving direction to the seniors and the juniors.”
Jackson also benefited from his six years under the headset, which allowed him to see the game from new vantage points.
“You look at things from a different perspective,” said former NBA coach Flip Saunders, who is currently an analyst at ESPN. “There’s no question that I’d be much better [at coaching] now.”
As a broadcaster, Jackson received the opportunity to meet with the likes of Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich before games and, in the process, he observed how different coaches move the needle, manage pressure and respond to wins and losses.
“People would pay thousands of dollars to have that opportunity,” Jackson said. “I was blessed to be able to do it and I stole from it.”
Guard Jarrett Jack said his coach knew how to sell himself to millions of TV viewers across the country as a broadcaster and the skills carried over to coaching.
“He had a personality and just an air about him that just spewed confidence,” Jack said. “And I think that’s the thing that mostly has been taken on by this team.”
Whether it’s a result of his time on the court, on the mic or just from being around the game his entire life, Jackson is proving that he’s a natural motivator in the locker room. In less than two years, he’s transformed the culture at Oracle Arena, turning perpetual underachievers into blue-collar believers.
And as the Warriors’ series with the Nuggets progresses, Jackson is trying to savor the moment, the joy of witnessing his young team competing in the playoffs for the first time.
“Watching these guys that are tied together, watching this group that believed in each other, watching this group that came early and stayed late and worked their tail off — they deserve this,” he said.