OAKLAND — During this frustratingly unpredictable season for the Golden State Warriors, few on-court stumbles were more galling than a 103-94 home loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 14.
After that game, coach Mark Jackson proceeded to an interview room and addressed the media in even, direct tones. He didn't pound the table. He didn't hang his head.
"We just didn't get after it like we normally do," Jackson said.
Less than 10 minutes later, Jackson was back on the court, not to unwind or to deconstruct the game with his assistants, but to preside over Fellowship Night, an annual Christian gathering at Oracle Arena. About 1,200 people had stuck around after the game, and by now had drifted to the southwest corner of the facility to listen to Jackson preach the gospel.
The setting was anything but intimate. The court was bathed in stark arena lighting, and colorful electronic messages scrolled everywhere. The final score remained on the scoreboard, the clock frozen at 00.0. A cleaning crew wound its way through the rows of empty seats, but Jackson seemed unaware of anything but his audience.
He didn't need any warm-up shots, either. In an instant, Coach Jackson had become Pastor Mark.
"Somebody say, 'Thank you, Lord,'" Jackson urged into his microphone after a very brief introduction, and they did.
"Come on, now. Somebody say, 'Thank you, Lord,'" he repeated, and they did, louder this time.
"I know some folks that would have lost the game and not showed up," Jackson boomed, his deep voice rising. "I said, I know some folks that would have made some mistakes, lost the game and would not have showed up."
Jackson's listeners seemed thrilled he was presiding. They were diverse in age and ethnicity, and they greeted his sermon enthusiastically, calling out words of praise and completing Bible verses for him when called upon. Some filmed Jackson with their cell phones. The service lasted more than an hour.
The climax of the event was an old-fashioned altar call. "I double-dog dare you to give your life to Christ," Jackson implored.
They descended to the court in an intermittent trickle, each stopping to hug Jackson. By the time the migration ended, some 40 people stood behind him like a choir. Many of them were children.
"God made him head coach for a reason," said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who had spontaneously joined the service after watching the game as a fan.
Jackson would agree. He believes God led him to the Golden State job, just as he was guided into the ministry. He has proven adept at both, leading the recently downtrodden Warriors to back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in more than 20 years, and co-founding a church in the San Fernando Valley.
He may be as surprised as anyone that it has happened this way.
<strong>'God told me to tell you this'</strong>
Jackson was raised nominally Catholic, his attachment to his local parish in Queens, N.Y., more or less confined to CYO basketball and Easter services. He attended a Catholic high school (Bishop Loughlin) and a Catholic university (St. John's), but neither was in any way a religious decision. Evangelical Christianity, Jackson said, used to make him uncomfortable.
He remembers riding in a hotel elevator during a road trip at St. John's. Jackson accidentally hit the button for the bottom floor, a conference level, instead of the lobby.