Mark Jackson placed enough oomph behind the metaphor to make it seem almost literal.
“I’m fighting for my life,” Jackson said after the Golden State Warriors' Game 6 win against the Los Angeles Clippers, before clarifying: “basketball life.”
Five days later, Jackson suffered basketball death by the hand of an ownership group that had enough. He was smart, funny and charismatic, but also stubborn, abrasive and bellicose. Jackson thrived on having enemies. Eventually, he’d made the wrong ones.
The 2013-14 Warriors coaching staff has ended like a Shakespearean play, with plots and counterplots leading to death for all. Not even the video guy survived the final act.
Mike Malone was able to escape Jackson’s ire with a head-coaching gig in Sacramento, but others were not so lucky. Jackson and Jackson’s loyalists (Pete Myers and Lindsey Hunter) clashed with Brian Scalabrine, which resulted in Scalabrine’s D-League exile. Then Jackson’s group clashed with Darren Erman, leading to Erman secretly recording what became his own pink slip.
Jackson isn’t to blame for everything that happened in these quarrels, but his “us against them” ethos likely exacerbated the rifts.
While it’s true Jackson got the players on his side -- valuable allies to have -- Jackson’s other alliances may have hurt him.
The September introduction of Hunter, a friend of Jackson’s, was regarded as a destabilizing force, according to multiple sources. This marks the third consecutive time his hiring has coincided with a head coach getting fired within a year. Hunter had a reputation as an undermining individual from his days in Chicago and Phoenix. While he did not sabotage Jackson specifically, he made life difficult for others on staff.
It’s quite possible Jackson couldn’t have survived even with a cohesive coaching staff.
It all started off on the wrong foot, with Jackson deciding to coach the Warriors while living in Los Angeles and presiding over his church as pastor. Management found this arrangement less than ideal, but Jackson flat out refused to reconsider.
Being a pastor meant a lot to him, and he wasn’t giving it up for anything. Though he claimed an Oakland apartment, his family lived in Los Angeles and he spent a majority of the offseason there. It was the first of many instances when ownership perspective was met with a firm rebuke.
Jackson just wasn’t a compromiser, and perhaps his players loved that about him. With ownership, such an attitude could only go so far. Bosses generally like to have their input listened to at the very least.
The firing has taught us a few things about Joe Lacob's group, if not a few things about the new class of NBA owners in general. We’ve learned 51 wins is not enough for everybody. Lacob is heavily involved in team operations and expected a top-four playoff seed.
We’ve also learned that the Warriors aren’t the New York Knicks. Stephen Curry might be a budding superstar, but he doesn’t get to hire and fire coaches. Perhaps this Jackson firing will harm the relationship between Curry and management, but Warriors brass is willing to take that risk. That’s bold, maybe hubristically bold, but Lacob didn’t buy this team to live in fear of his employees.
The Lacob group wanted to be in charge of the operation that it, in theory, controls. It isn’t alone, either. To quote Kevin Arnovitz’s annual rundown of the top coaching candidates, “League execs insist there is no consideration more important in hiring a head coach than whether he conforms to the sensibility of ownership -- not personal background, whiteboard skills, media relations, city or even pedigree.”
Jackson didn’t conform, and now he’s gone. Is that fair? Fairness is beside the point in a hypercompetitive environment where tenures are short and glory is fleeting.
Jackson probably could have avoided the fork in the road that led to this, but he chose to do it his way. He worked a second job in Southern California, emphatically flaunted his faith and hired less than highly regarded friends. Maybe he needed to make these kinds of choices to be successful, but he wasn’t successful enough to validate his decisions in the eyes of management.
If you’re going to do it your way, you need to win big. Jackson didn't.