OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA – Five minutes before Mark Jackson was to conduct his initial rehearsal as a head coach at any level — ahem, exempting a brief AAU fling — he sat in the Warriors’ locker room by himself and let his wired emotions guide him.
Jackson reached for his cell phone and called Lou Carnesecca. He told his groom for four varsity years at St. John’s he was about to go on the court for his first practice and thanked him “for the seeds you sewed in my life.” He said he’d forever be indebted “for how much I learned from you as a person and a player,” and wanted him to know “a piece of you is going out there on the floor with me.”
In classic Carnesecca style, the “old coach” offered Jackson some “scholarly” advice: “Don’t let your best player inbound the ball.”
Jackson then called Rick Pitino, his coach as a Knicks’ rookie and presently Mark Jr.’s Louisville drill sergeant. Pitino instilled Jackson with so much confidence that season he had him believing he was as good as Magic Johnson. The draft’s No. 18 pick was so pumped he performed better than any NBA newcomer.
Pitino did not pick up. Jackson was glad. “These calls were tough to make,” he said, clearly upset. It took a while to regain his composure. “The more God in me, the more sensitive I become and the more I appreciate people in my life.”
Jackson left a “seeds you sewed” message for Pitino and called Jeff Van Gundy.
Van Gundy has long been an ardent advocate of Jackson’s intrinsic coaching ability, never concerned whatsoever about him lacking ceremonial experience. Their lanes have repeatedly interlocked, twice with the Knicks, in Houston at the end of Jackson’s 17-year playing career, and as ABC/ESPN cohorts.
“Jeff helped me throughout every phase of the interviewing process,” Jackson said. “We’ve discussed countless coaching situations at breakfast, dinner, before games, after games, whenever. It was like iron sharpening iron.”
Van Gundy also did not pick up. A message paralleling Pitino’s was left for him as well.
With high noon 60 ticks away, Jackson called his wife, Desiree. She answered.
“I thanked her for being an incredible wife and mother. Thanked her for sacrificing her singing and acting careers,” he said.
“I thanked her for putting them on the back burner while her husband and father of our four children is away. I’ve got great kids. I can’t take credit for that. She’s there every day and I’m not. She is a great source of strength.”
I’ve lost track how many times over the last few years, as one NBA rejection notice after another piled up — Grizzlies, Knicks, Bulls, Suns, Hawks and Timberwolves — I heard Jackson prophetically proclaim, “You never know who can cost you a job or help you get one.”
Ordained minister or not, that perspective was a better reason than most for Jackson to submerge hurt feelings.
The Warriors are principally owned by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Lacob supervises the basketball side. Guber is the entertainment maharishi.
Lacob, a renowned risk-taker responsible for starting up 70-some startup companies, has become pretty adept at recognizing unfeigned leaders. Yes, the three other top candidates had experience, but Jackson grabbed Lacob immediately with the way he spoke and acted and didn’t let go.
“If I pick well,” he said at last Monday’s practice, “it makes me look good.”
What especially impressed Lacob about Jackson is how well he picked. Every great leader needs a great No. 2 man and Jackson wanted accomplished assistant Mike Malone as his first lieutenant.
Three things clinched Jackson’s appointment for Guber; two phone calls and a spur-of-the-moment roundup of 9- and 10-year-olds for a basketball tournament.
“Pat Riley and I are friends. I know he wouldn’t scam me,” Guber said during a phone interview earlier this week. “He called and told me Mark would be terrific, a worthwhile choice, that he’s a natural coach.”
The other call was from Don Cronson, who negotiated Jackson’s first two contracts before the divorce from his agent. He and Guber were Syracuse classmates when John Mackey and Billy Hunter ran football and Dave Bing and Jim Boeheim played basketball.
“It tells you a lot about Mark’s character that his ex-agent would reach out to let me know how much he thinks of him,” Guber underscored.
In 2004, Kenny Smith asked Jackson to put together a squad for an AAU Christmas Shootout he sponsored at Valencia’s Spectrum Club. Mark Jr. went to school and recruited nine friends, including Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini’s son. Jackson had two days and an hour’s practice at night on a rain-soaked outdoor court surrounded by homeless people sleeping on the lawn. Communication, not skills, was stressed.
Shortly before the first game, club officials notified Jackson’s ragtag team his players couldn’t wear mismatched shorts and T-shirts. Hurriedly, tank tops — numbers put on the back with athletic tape — were purchased from the club’s shop.
Then the fun began. Team play was a must, above all passing. The kids were so psyched to be playing for Mark that they heeded his advice with gusto. There were many times during the game where they brought the ball up court with only passes, never dribbling, then shot and scored. And the Westside Blazers decisively defeated four elite California club teams.
Peter Vecsey covers the NBA for the New York Post.