Did the Warriors Fire Head Coach Jackson in Part Because He Was Too Religious?

"Bombastic" pastor coach fired after leading Golden State to best consecutive seasons in two decades.

Mark Jackson

The Golden State Warriors fired head coach Mark Jackson Tuesday after what ESPN calls the “the franchise’s most successful coaching tenure in the past two decades” but one “filled with drama and distractions.” Sources report that Jackson’s fiery disposition and interpersonal conflicts with staff and management undermined his success on the court. However, was another reason for Jackson’s ouster his heavily religious approach?

The former Warriors head coach’s heavily religious practices have been widely known throughout the NBA. Just two days prior to Jackson’s firing, USA Today published an article contrasting the approach to religious beliefs of Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Jackson. Noticing a Muslim player’s discomfort during one team prayer, Rivers, who is a deeply religious person himself, decided to change the team’s tradition to be more inclusive, allowing a moment for players to pray silently rather than a player- or even coach-led prayer.  Jackson, who pastors a non-denominational church in Van Nuys, CA, is far more conspicuous in his personal faith.

The USA Today piece began the section on Jackson by underscoring the prominence of his Christian beliefs:

Jackson's strong Christian beliefs and practices are well-chronicled: The former All-Star point guard who found God later in life and has perhaps the most devout locker room in the league sees great value in sharing his spirituality with his players. This has been the case since the start of his time as coach in the summer of 2011.

After the service, the players met the seven who did not attend for practice at UCLA. San Francisco radio host and Golden State color analyst Tom Tolbert, who played three seasons with the Warriors, described the team’s atmosphere:

"You go in (the Warriors locker room) before the game to just kind of chat and see what's going on, and no one is there. They're all in chapel. ... It's like the entire team. And then when chapel is over, pretty much the entire team comes parading into the locker room. It works for them."

This year while the team was in LA, eight of the fifteen players chose to attend Jackson’s Easter Sunday service, riding a team bus 18 miles from their Beverly Hills hotel to his church in Van Nuys.

As many analysts have pointed out, including ESPN’s Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg Wednesday morning, Jackson’s decision to keep his family in LA—in part to allow him to continue pastorship of his nondenominational Van Nuys church—certainly ldid not sit well with execs, who would have preferred a coach living in the area.

However, general manager Bob Myers gave no indication Tuesday that either Jackson’s choice not to relocate or his religious practices played into the team’s decision to part ways with the successful coach. ESPN reports:

General manager Bob Myers thanked Jackson in a statement Tuesday for "his role in helping elevate this team into a better position than it was when he arrived nearly 36 months ago."

Myers said it was a difficult decision but that the Warriors "simply feel it's best to move in a different direction at this time."

Under his tenure, Jackson led the perennially losing franchise to a 121-109 record and consecutive NBA finals appearances for the first time since the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons. The Warriors went an impressive 47-35 last season and improved upon that this season with a 51-31 record. Team owner Joe Lacob explained that some decisions are not made "exclusively on wins and losses," and that they felt Jackson had done his job in raising the level of the team's performance, but now it was time move on:

"Obviously (the decision) was not made exclusively on wins and losses.. There's a different CEO that may be required to achieve success at different stages of an organization's development. When you're a startup company it's one thing, when you're a small-growth company it's one thing and when you're a mature company that's trying to reach a billion in sales -- or in this case win an NBA championship -- perhaps that's a different person. And we just felt overall we needed a different person."

Most analysts have pointed to Jackon’s “bombastic” style and multiple interpersonal issues with team execs and fellow coaches (including his dismissal of two assistants in a 12-day span) as the true reason for his ouster. One major point of contention was the team’s refusal to pick up his contract option for 2014-15 last summer, which heightened pressure on Jackson this season. But Jackson’s increasingly high-profile religious practices involving a majority of the team and devotion to his pastoring duties might have been icing on the cake.

After the announcement of his firing, in a message to ESPN, Jackson thanked the team and players, ending his remarks with “God bless!”

"Thanks to the Warriors organization for the opportunity you gave me. Thanks to the great fans for all of your support!! Thank you to my players!! Who I love!! We accomplished a lot together!! I wish you all nothing but the best! God bless."

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