Marcus Thompson on Mark Jackson, race in the front office, and reporting with conviction

When Mark Jackson was terminated from his position as the Golden State Warriors head coach, I was fascinated. Not with the decision: while it was strange to see a coach with a team on an upward trajectory lose his job, I saw the writing on the wall (so did Jackson). What stunned me was the—anecdotal, I must admit—divide between analytically-inclined media personalities defending the firing, and the immediate skepticism black, basketball loving friends.

This confusion was less about whether or not it was the right move at the time. (Jackson’s replacement, Steve Kerr, has had historic success and a championship. Every axiom about the clarity of hindsight easy applies.) Instead, I wondered, why was there such a difference between these two factions in how this move was perceived?

Columnist Marcus Thompson had the same questions. Better yet, he gave some worthwhile answers in his conversation-starting blog post at Mercury News. Thompson defended Warriors owner Joe Lacob—the key decision maker in Jackson’s firing—from accusations of racial bigotry, and yet, urged people to acknowledge that race was very much a factor. Earlier this week, the Bay Area native and I spent over an hour chatting about how race inter-mingles with the way we interpret basketball, why he chooses to address taboos, and how religion impacts the Warriors locker room.

Leadoff hitter: Longform that lays off the first pitch.

How would you recommend the average sports fan parse out how race affects the game?

The first thing I would recommend is that sports fans recognize that race is as a factor. Now, I don’t always think it’s bad, although here’s a long history of race in this country, and most of it is negative, if not vile. But people refuse to come to the reality that race and sports mix because athletes are so well paid: It can’t be racism because they’re so well paid, as if that negates all racial issues in that area.

In the NBA, the players are predominantly young African American men, while coaches and owners are predominantly middle-aged white men. In any other area of life, we would look at that and say “I wonder how that’s looking racially?” But we see sports as an escape, and we don’t like to think about it in that way.

That doesn’t mean it’s not present, though. Take the NBA age limit. NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to raise it. That’s completely a racial issue, although Silver is not a racist. But the entire concept of thinking it’s possible to tell grown African-American men that they can’t work until they’re 21 is born from the racist history of our country.

Fortunately the stakes are lower. Nobody’s dying. It’s hard to talk about cops shooting young people because people are dying. And it’s hard not to be venomous and angry. It’s hard not to be righteous about it. We’re talking about hoops! Are you serious? Sports is the place we can have the conversation. We can talk about the age limit and the dress code and what it meant, and Allen Iverson and why he was so popular and polarizing, and Jordan and what made him such a cultural icon. All that has to do about race.

So we can’t talk about how there might have been some cultural and racial differences between Jackson and Lacob. one is an African-American man from Queens, NY who came from nothing; another is a Jewish white guy from Massachusetts that came from nothing. if we can’t talk about the clashes they might have based on these two cultures, then we really ain’t ready for real dialogue and discussion.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has taken up that cause too. In 2012, he argued in favor of an age limit for Grantland.

Kerr and Silver are looking at the age limit from an owner's’ standpoint. Owners don’t want players coming in too young because it’s harder to gauge talent. It’s harder to know if you’re gonna hit or miss on a 19-year-old. You know when you invest that hundred million dollars in a 22-year-old it’s a more likely investment. It makes sense!

I don’t think anyone is saying “Man, black people are making too much money, we gotta stop them!” The real concern is that NBA owners are swinging and missing on 19-year-olds.

So people see the age limit as competitive balance.

Yup. But, to look at the age limit entirely that way would be to disregard our country’s history. How would a 19-year-old African American kid who’s probably the head of his household and its chief earner supposed to hear he can’t work yet? Is he supposed to put himself in the shoes of the owner and say “Yeah I see how it’s tough for you to figure out if I’m the real deal, so I’ll wait”?

Think about it this way: by making an age limit rule, NBA leaders are putting themselves in bed with the NCAA. You could argue, then, that not only do owners not want athletes to earn money they’re qualified to earn, but they want them to work somewhere else for free!

In your viral blog post  for The San Jose Mercury News  you reference fans questioning the intelligence of former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson. How did race figure into this?

From the beginning, fans were saying the guy was dumb and nothing more than a preacher. How’s a black man in a coveted leadership role supposed to feel about fans questioning his intelligence? Or assuming that his white assistants are the real leaders because he allows them the opportunity to coach.

That’s a double-standard that doesn’t exist the same way with white coaches. When former Warriors coach Don Nelson [let his assistants run the huddle], he was training coaches. When [Lakers coach] Phil Jackson let the assistant run the chalkboard during timeouts, he was training coaches. But when Mark Jackson does it, he’s dumb and doesn’t know what he’s doing it and [former assistant] Mike Malone is the one really coaching.

Even if a black coach is wrong about racial bias, you can understand why he might think his white employers don’t want him over a racial issue. It wouldn’t be a shock! He would have more validity to call the owner racist—and that’s not what I’m saying he did or felt that way—but if he said that, he would have more validity for that reaction than us calling him crazy.

It blows me away that people could say Mark Jackson’s firing had nothing to do with race. I’m not saying either Jackson or [Warriors owner] Joe Lacob is racist. But when your white boss is telling you that don’t know what you’re doing and that you gotta bring somebody in, you’ve got to understand that comes off different to a black man than it does for a non-black person. It’s demeaning, like calling him boy.

How has the sabermetric revolution affected our ability to judge and determine a basketball player’s intelligence?

I think it’s created a class system in basketball that doesn’t value what you know, but rather values how you express what you know. For example, Mark Jackson might say Steph Curry is a “knock-down shooter.” But, if he wants to be accepted as someone that knows shooting, he would have to say something like “Steph Curry’s effective field goal percentage is 10th all-time.” Both of these statements say the same thing, but without the vernacular. Sabermetrics has created a class system of people who know and people who don’t, when in reality, there are people in the sabermetrics crowd and those in the traditional scout “eye-test” crowd that don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

Being well-versed with incremental improvements in how we understand the game doesn’t necessarily mean some people are more intelligent than others.

Charles Barkley has said before that people who couldn’t play got into stats. Some of that is true. I, myself, turned to sports journalism because I myself wasn’t a great athlete. I had to learn about the analytics because knew I wasn’t growing pro. You do look at the game differently when you’re not a player. You have no other choice.

But if you don’t understand how to calculate per possession offensive rating, or if you like Jamal Crawford, who is an inefficient scorer, does that make you dumb? No! I just watch Jamal Crawford because I think that dude is a beast with the crossover.

For me, that’s the problem: the conversation has become about intelligence and it really shouldn’t be. It should just be about understanding the game a different way.  

From your vantage point, do you see black coaches and front office execs feeling a specific pressure to adjust their understanding of the game that goes beyond a changing conviction about the analytics?

I do! you look at a guy like [former Grizzlies coach] Lionel Hollins. When he got fired from Memphis, the reaction was similar to Jackson. Dude just took them to the Western Conference Finals, how could you fire him? And, ya know, they replaced him to run a more efficient, analytically-friendly offense under Dave Joerger. But the next season, Memphis struggled until the players said, “Man can we just do what we were doing?” and then they returned  to what they were doing with Hollins, and all of a sudden they’re good again. I don’t know if Lionel Hollins was on board with sabermetrics or not—but for the ownership, it wasn’t a matter of Hey, let’s start incorporating some of this (analytic) stuff, and even though you may not know it, we’re going to bring you on board with it. We’ll all learn it together. Instead, Hollins got let go for a guy that knew the vocab even though the he ended up running a similar playbook.

All coaches have a weakness, but they aren’t hired for their flaws. They’re hired for their strengths. I remember when Mark Jackson got fired, I would do radio shows and [black] people would always say off the air, "See how we gotta be perfect, we can’t mess up at all.” Whether that’s true or not, whether there’s a legitimate reason for being let go or not, it makes no sense for anybody to act like that shouldn’t be the reaction. How often do you find the retread black coach? You just don’t find them! Maybe you get two chances, that’s it.

When I hear [former Clippers coach] Vinny Del Negro is a rumored replacement for coaches on the hot seat, I just shake my head.

The NBA is a small circle where everyone knows each other and that’s how hiring is made. It’s not an open position where anyone applies. If you say Kerr is not a great coach, you’re lying. But, he just so happens to be tight with Joe Lacob! And, he just so happened to be considering Lacob’s son, Kirk, for an internship with the Phoenix Suns before he got fired [as the GM]. I’m not saying Kerr wasn’t good, but that Lacob already knew his worth because Kerr already had the platform to show to display it. . We can’t act like this don't exist, fam.

Here’s the thing: It’s not even wrong! Trust me, if I was an owner, I’m looking out for my people, too! It ain’t even wrong to look out for your people. Just acknowledge it for what it is. There’s somebody out there who could be just as good but nobody knows he’s good because he’ll never get the chance to show that he’s good because he don’t know anybody.

Black coaches just don’t have the same opportunities to make natural connections.

No they don’t. If it’s a matter of access and connections, there’s no way you can live in America and say race has nothing to do with that. Am I crazy for thinking that?

Nah, you’re on point. Do league execs see increasingly white coaching staffs (and persistently white front offices) as an issue worth addressing?

Not yet. I don’t think so. I think you can always say “it’s about getting the best people, it’s about who has the quality resume.” I think they are looking for the best people. I also think teams are reaching to nontraditional places to get the best people. You see that in [Heat head coach] Erik Spolestra—it’s not just the former player or guy who’s the assistant for 30 years getting hired, let’s see what the video scout talking about.

But I don’t think there’s a recognition that anyone is “bleaching” the bench or front office because the intent is good. It’s not even always a race issue For instance, people are starting to recognize that women have just as much, if not more understanding of basketball, and that’s starting to make sense. And you’re seeing more young people in the front office and on the bench than we did before. In some ways, some believe that offsets the lack of color, because there is diversity in that way. They can’t see it because “Hey, we’re younger and we got women!"

You see race and religion as important to talk about in sports. What’s it like to be a journalist that steps on those uncomfortable or taboo areas?

That’s a tough one. I don’t think it's like anything, because it’s normal for me! You end up putting yourself out there with your opinions about basketball, but when you start talking about things of life, you find a sharper reaction. It’s no longer just the opinion of a reporter or a piece of information. You gotta brace yourself for the gravity of their response.

At the end of the day, I don’t care, because there’s one crazy lady that I’ve been married to for 15 years that thinks I’m her world. So the rest of y’all, you just need Jesus (laughs).

Yeah, the confidence you have in your faith can give you the confidence to be convictional when you’re presenting your opinion to the masses.

I agree with my critics that I’m terrible! That’s why I’m on my knees praying!

Tell me about a moment where you were glad you brought out the elephant in the room.

With regards to religion, when Jeremy Lin was with the Warriors we had time to chat because he was at the end of the bench and not playing. I knew he was a Christian so we would talk about stuff. Life, faith, basketball, all that. Then when he goes to the Knicks and he blows up.

When Linsanity happened, the Knicks were trying to shut him down, because he got so big. Everyone wanted a Jeremy Lin interview. So I hit him up. I was like “Hey man, my paper wants a story on you, they want an interview.” He was like “Don’t go through the Knicks, they tryna shut me down. But I’ll give you an interview.” We talked about how his faith helped him deal with all this and put his success in context. People were emailing me like “Man, I just read this with my son,” and “Dude, I just showed your article to my church!”

And then, with race, the Mark Jackson article at the Mercury is the best example. I promise you it was just a blog rant. I was using it for the people on Twitter to explain the race stuff with Jackson since I couldn’t do it in 140 characters. My friend Michael Lee, from WaPo at the time (now at Yahoo) texts me and says it's the best thing he read all year. When he said that I was like, “What? It wasn’t even a story! My paper never ran it in print.” Then I was talking another coach on a radio show who told me he read it! After that SB Nation’s Paul Flannery called me and wanted me on his podcast and I was like “Hold on, white people read this?”

That’s an apologetic right there for diversified newsrooms.

I bring it up because if I felt like other people would bring it up, I wouldn’t bring it up.

Let’s talk about Colin Kaepernick, another Bay Area athlete. If you look at his Instagram feed, a couple months ago, you saw more typical athlete posts, inspiring and vaguely religious. But now, he’s moved towards #BlackLivesMatter type activism. Do you see a growing consciousness, not just in Kap, but in the black athletes you cover?

I see a growing recognition of their power. They were raised in a culture who says what they think. Especially with social media—say whatever you want! They’re 20-somethings in an era where people don’t have a filter, and it’s a real hedonist society anyway, it’s all about what I want, what I think. it’s hard to sleep with yourself at night when your whole bit is “I say and do what I want to do.”

I think LeBron was huge in it. People criticize LeBron (for not being as vocal about Tamir Rice), but he was huge in showing how to do express political opinions without tanking your career. The bigger you are, the more you’re held accountable on social media. You see how it is on Twitter, people will say what they want to say, talk to you any old kind of way on Twitter, and they deal with that pressure.

The Warriors have some level of fame in evangelical subcultures for their faith. Has that remained? How has Jackson’s departure and Kerr’s hiring changes affected team chemistry?

It’s not the same, but it’s one of those things where the religious principles are similar, but there isn’t a Christian label on them. They’re not gonna throw a scripture on ideas like teamwork and community. Curry’s still the leader of the team and operates with an attitude connected to his religious convictions. He goes the extra mile to be inclusive, and he seeks to be humble—that sets the tone. Steve Kerr is a well-read man and embraces many of the concepts Mark Jackson did, although he doesn’t attach it to a Christian standpoint. (At least not overtly.) Team chemistry hasn’t taken a hit, even though those overtones are gone. The team still goes to chapel. Curry is devout. Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are pretty serious. But the coach isn’t going to preach post-game (laughs).

Stick to sports: In which we stay in our lane.

Tomorrow night kicks off the US Figure Skating National Championships. Bradford's going to die of embarrassment that this is here, but hey, as an unashamed figure skating fan, you're welcome for reminding you to help out your favorite Winter Olympic sport by giving it some eyeballs. 

 (In case you forgot, her name's Ashley Wagner.) 

I grew up spending this time of year watching Michelle Kwan skate with my eyes between my hands.

Delay of game: All you can read before the clock expires.

The son of a sharecropper who played Major League Baseball. Monte Irvin nearly beat Jackie Robinson in breaking baseball’s color barrier. Then, he became MLB’s first black executive and served a critical role in the Hall of Fame’s inclusion of Negro League players. He was a good Giant, who will be missed by Willie Mays and me [Morgan] both. I’ll always appreciate that he would never let me forget my favorite sport’s complicated, disappointing, and painful history.

“I wasted my best in the Negro Leagues. I’m philosophical about it. There’s no point in being bitter. You’re not happy with the way things happen, but why make yourself sick inside? There were many guys who could really play who never got a chance at all.”

Ya estamos en 2016. Jeremy Guthrie is a hapa pitcher for the Royals who spent his Mormon mission in Spain, where he learned to speak Spanish. Now as a Major League Baseball player, Guthrie has been known to translate to the press for his Latino teammates. Why? Because until 2016, aka this year, Major League Baseball thought it was okay not to make Spanish translators mandatory in clubhouses. Even though one in four MLB players is himself Latino. I can’t even begin to tell you how angry this makes me, so you can read Jose Bautista, of the famous bat flip fame, tell you how sucky this reality is. Or, you can read Pedro Martinez’s autobiography. Or how about Carlos Beltran wincing when he hears Latino teammates forced to explain their mistakes in a second language.

If only we could petition for bilingual beat writers.

Watch the President and First Lady love Jackie and Rachel Robinson. I have nothing to add to this.

Sorry fans, Manning’s PED problem is yours too. Here’s Valerie Dunham [Fire emoticon goes here!]:

Sports fans are not simply spectators—we are consumers, enabling the systems that silently encourage athletes to abuse their minds and bodies for the sake of our entertainment. We enable, for instance, the systems that take advantage of the free labor of college athletes; and we are part of the systems that routinely take men and fashion them into gods, devils or pawns. When documentaries like The Dark Side surface, our question should not be “Is this athlete good?” We know that he is not—not in the infallible way we expect he should be. Rather, we should ask, “How can we hold the system accountable?” and “Is my part in this system still righteous?”

Implicit racism, also a thing festering inside NFL locker rooms. We saw this with the NBA. And we couldn’t ignore it in MLB.Once again, it’s a good time to be white because guess what: “White position coaches and assistants in the NFL are more than twice as likely to be promoted to coordinator than their black counterparts, regardless of their performance, experience or coaching background.” All of this is part of a new study that accounts for many things including “the performance of each coach's team or individual unit, his age, his degree and whether he had been part of a championship staff.” Surprise, white coaches are 114 percent more likely to become a coordinator.

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Morgan and Bradford.