Twelve days ago, on an off day for the Warriors, I visited the team’s practice facility in downtown Oakland to visit with coach Mark Jackson. I was writing a story on Jackson’s dual roles as NBA coach and ordained minister, and the Warriors had been promising a one-on-one interview, though
it was hard to fit into Jackson’s schedule.
Finally we settled on a day and time, and the Warriors told me the coach could give me 15-20 minutes. Because of the serious and personal nature of the story, I would have preferred more, but figured that was enough to make it work. A Warriors PR man led me onto the practice court, where I sat with Jackson. The PR guy left the room. He returned 15 or 20 minutes later, and I saw Jackson make a subtle gesture to him, as if to say, “I’m good.”
The PR man left again, and Jackson sat with me until I had no further questions — more than 35 minutes.
As his reputation would suggest, he answered everything frankly and colorfully, even questions pertaining to the sex scandal into which he stepped two years ago. Most of the transcript follows. I left out some of the background on his religious initiation and meeting his wife, Desiree Coleman-Jackson, because it has been well documented elsewhere.
Because the topic is religion, and specifically evangelical Christianity, there is a good chance you have a preconceived opinion of Jackson, perhaps as either a valiant man of God or a hypocrite. My purpose in writing the story (which you can find here) was to paint a more complete portrait of a multi-layered man. My purpose in presenting the transcript is to let him tell the story in his own words. I boldfaced some standout lines here and there.
The evangelical church experience is very different than what you had seen in the Catholic church as a child. Was it hard to get used to?
“I can remember at St. John’s University. We was playing and you probably stay at a Marriott or something like that. And I can remember at St. John’s, getting on an elevator – this was before I met my wife – getting on an elevator, pressing the button and it does down to the bottom floor instead of the lobby. I accidentally pressed that. And it was a church conference. And the doors open up, and there’s people jumping and shouting and praising God. And I’m pressing the button, like ‘close this door.’ I was petrified. Because that’s not what I came from. I was like, ‘Man, close this door.’
“And it wasn’t until I met my wife… I remember saying when she was taking me to church for the first time, she said, ‘Well, this pastor’s dynamic. He speaks the word and prophesies’ and all that. And I said, ‘Look, let me tell you something.’ I’m Rookie of the Year, All-Star and all that. I said, ‘Let me tell you something. I’m not into these games. Somebody lay hands on me, I’m gonna make ’em look bad, because I’m just gonna look at them and let ’em know I’m not the guy to be acting.’
“God must have been eavesdropping. Because here I am the first time we go to church, and sure enough, within minutes – it was a prophet. The prophet just looks straight at me, and he comes towards me, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, this ain’t happening.’ And he comes towards me, speaks a word and next thing I know I’m laid out. And for the first time, I experienced ‘this is real.’ And it was powerful. I wasn’t looking for it. Matter of fact, I was probably looking to prove – not that God wasn’t able, but that the shenanigans… And I realized it’s real, and God is powerful, and He moved in my life in a mighty way.
“Fast-forward to today. You can come to my church and you’re gonna get people running around, you’re gonna get people jumping and shouting, people sweatin’ and crying, people hugging. Men saying ‘I love you’ to women, men not afraid to say ‘I love you’ to brothers. It’s incredible.”
What did you feel that was so strong it made you want to start a church, which is a serious undertaking?
“Well, I can’t take credit for that. If it was up to me, it probably wouldn’t have started. Once again, I’ve got an incredible wife, that when she hears God she’s gonna act on it. So one day she said that God basically told her that we should start a church. I knew what it entailed. I knew how much work it was, and there was a side of me, I’m like, ‘Uhh, no, not really.’ Because this is something heavy. And my wife kept on talking about it, and I kept on pushing it off and she said, ‘Well, Sunday we’re having our first service in our theater room at the house.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, man.’ So I know I’m the husband, love her death, not gonna hang her out to dry. I’m gonna be ready. But there’s a side of me, like, I hope Saturday you say maybe we’re not gonna go.
“Well, Sunday came. I don’t know which day it was, but we had the first service at our theater room at the house, and people showed up and it was great. The following week we got a conference room at a hotel.
“You look the first time and you see people being impacted, and you see people being changed and made whole, and people gaining a peace and a joy and a confidence that had been stripped from them, relationships being restored and confidence being instilled in their kids. It was incredible to see what God was doing through regular folks that just was willing to surrender and submit. And that’s how it really started. The credit goes to my wife, because if it was up to me I probably would have pushed it away, pushed away until God said, ‘OK, go!” Because I know what it takes.
“And being in it now, it’s a grind, but it’s an incredible grind that the pressure’s not on you, it’s on God to perform. And to believe that he could take regular folks like us and do what the ministry has been able to do in so many lives is powerful. You come to a service, and I don’t what week you come you’re gonna see me cry. You’re gonna see me choked up. You’re gonna see me sweatin’ and jumpin’ and praisin’. Because I’m still baffled at the fact that He’s – what He’s done in my life. And the promises that He’s been able to fulfill.
“And I tell the people when I’m at the pulpit, you may see 300 or 350 people. I see the stories. I know these people from four, five years ago. I know these people from four, five months ago. And to see how they are today, and to know that you played a small part, is powerful. It’s absolutely powerful. There’s people I didn’t know five years ago, or five months ago, that’d take a bullet for me and love me to death. So it’s incredible. And it’s humbling.”
Fair to say some people come to your church the first time because you and your wife are celebrities?
“And they still do. Not just the first time. I’m not naïve enough to think that that’s not the case, or that my wife is a singer, or that we’re an industry couple. But there’s people that have come, there’s people that’s still there for that reason. I can’t get caught up in that, because at the end of the day, for whatever reason you decide to come, my job is to do what God said do. And He’ll take care of the rest.
“There’s people who come just to see, and then leave. I’m fine with all of that. Bible says one waters, one plants and God does the increase. I don’t know if I’m watering, I don’t know if I’m planting. I just know that the promise is that God’s gonna do the increase. So I gotta do my job. And I believe that even they come for me, it was God’s plan to put me in this position to give them a reason to come and show up. So ultimately, the Bible says the steps of a good man are ordered by God. I don’t get caught up in that. And I just make sure then when it’s time to deliver, I’m delivering not my word, but His word.”
When was the last time you were at True Love?
“We played recently on a Saturday night, and I was on the first flight out Sunday morning. Landed, went straight to the church and preached. And I come back first thing Monday morning and practiced. If we don’t play on Sunday, and we don’t practice or we’re not away, then I’m there. You look at the schedule, you can pretty much tell when it’s taking place. But I’m there quite a bit. And I thank God for an organization that understands that, and I thank God for a church that understands I also have a call here.”
Do you write out your sermons?
“What I do is, I basically spend – let’s say I preach Sunday. So now Monday I’m still just soaking in the word but I’m just relaxing. Tuesday, I’m basically taking Tuesday and all week and jotting down – I know where I want to go, because God has spoken to me. Now I’m jotting down different things all throughout. As we close out the week, I begin to put together my sermon. Not word for word, but highlights and bullet points. And then I’m probably up till Saturday, and late, late into the morning Sunday, probably till 2 a.m., completing.
“Two weeks ago, when I did preach, it wasn’t until after the game, even though I had my sermon prepared, the title was changed and the word was totally different. I was preaching ‘it is finished’ – Jesus’ words. And I had prepared all week long the sermon about ‘it is finished.’ Whatever ‘it’ is in your life is finished. And then it wasn’t until after the game I’m sitting there and I said to somebody, ‘I’m finished.’ And automatically when I said it, it was like God said to me, like, think about it. He said, ‘It is finished.’ How fortunate are we that he didn’t say, ‘I’m finished.’ You know, ‘I’m finished.’ No, he said ‘it.’ Whatever ‘it’ is, is finished. He had every right, according to what we’ve done – sin, shortfalls, our mindset – everything we’ve done, He had every right to say, ‘I’m finished.’ But how fortunate are we that he said ‘it’ instead of ‘I.’ So it changed and kept me up a little later, but it was God speaking again.”
Does it ever feel like too much balancing basketball and your ministry?
“I mean, you get drained – physically, emotionally, spiritually. But the pressure’s not on me to perform. I think that’s where you get into trouble, when you believe the pressure’s on you to perform. The pressure’s on me just to be where God told me to be. And then I believe that everything else works out fine.
“I believe that me showing up, whether it be here or there, or wherever, the Bible says we are overcome by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. So our testimony is powerful. And I believe that showing up, and having a word, speaks volumes. The greatest sermon that was ever preached in my church in five years was on a Saturday, losing a beautiful mother and a beautiful daughter to a car crash; on the very next morning, the surviving dad and daughter, in Nike sweats and sneakers, showing up to church. You don’t have to say a word.”
I watched you preach at the Warriors’ Fellowship Night. What is Desiree’s style like, compared to yours?
“We’re different. I’m gonna Ali, I’m gonna jab you to death and then I’m gonna hit you with an overhand right after I wear you out. She’s Tyson, she’s Foreman. She’s coming right at you. And I think we complement each other. But she’s an incredible preacher, she’s an incredible singer/praiser/worship leader. And it’s an awesome experience. But she’s no-nonsense. I probably would’ve sat if I was in the Jeep in 1989, it probably would’ve taken a little bit longer to get to know, OK, your history, your background. I would’ve got to, ‘OK, are you saved?’ She’s, ‘Are you saved? Is Jesus Christ your Lord and savior?’ And then, ‘OK, we can talk about all the other stuff.’ ”
Preaching and coaching both involve effective communication. Does your style at the pulpit influence your style in the locker room?
“Yeah. I think no matter what, that’s who I am. Problem is if you try to be like somebody else or act like somebody else, then you gotta continue the role. As long as I’m who I am, I can be comfortable and be that person. They didn’t hire me to be somebody else, they hired me to be myself. And I can be natural with my players. I inspire them by delivering a word in the locker room. Telling a story.
“For example, we beat Memphis, I’m telling a story how the Sunday before, I woke up – the same Sunday that I had to wake up and get a flight. I had my flight prepared. I get up, put my suit on, I’m tired. We played Saturday night. And I’m thinking I’m looking great. I’ve got a suit on, and shoes, and I’m ready to go preach. We get to the airport, go there, then I get to the pulpit. Now the lights are different. And I’m in the pulpit and I realize my suit and tie and shoes don’t match. It’s different when you’re in the light. Right is right and wrong is wrong. As long as I was in the dark, I was clean.
“And I told them, this is a big game, and the bright lights are on. But this outfit I picked in the light. This outfit, this group of guys, they’ve all been selected when the lights were on. I know their story, I know their history, I know they’re gonna go to bat, and I’m totally comfortable with the folks watching. That mistake wasn’t made. So little things like that.”
That sounds like a sermon. You had a core message and a wider point, and you told it through a personal experience.
“Yeah. And that’s all I do. Shakespeare said – I’m sure one of my members would tell you – Shakespeare said, ‘There’s sermons in stones.’ And the best way to get people, in my opinion, to understand is breaking it down to its purest form. Tell ’em something that they can relate to. So I’m gonna use Muhammad Ali, I’m gonna use Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan. I’m gonna use a rapper of today, or something that’s relevant today, to allow them to understand ultimately who Jesus is and what his promises are.”
Any of your players ever come to you for ministering, outside of your church services?
“Yeah, yeah. That happens often. An old preacher once said preach the gospel, and if necessary use words. Basically, the way you live your life, the way you conduct your life, there’re people that see it. They know the stuff you go through, and they know how you handle it. And they want that peace, they want that joy. And whether it be as a husband – I said from Day One when I got the job, if I came in and won a championship, and guys didn’t become better husbands, fathers, friends, sons, teammates, I’m a failure.
“So it’s important when a guy comes over and begins to talk about him as a husband, him as a father, him as a friend and him as a teammate. What he has issues with. What’s going great in his life. Or they want to know about my relationship with God, and my testimony. That happens all the time. And I would feel like a failure if that wasn’t the case, because I gotta be doing something wrong.
“Again, I can remember telling the story. I went to eat, to meet somebody, and the guy ordered a turkey sandwich with cheese, bacon on white toast. With mayonnaise. And I’m sitting there, with my burger in front of me, and the guy ate the sandwich. But the mayonnaise was, like, right here. [Jackson points to the corner of his mouth.] Matter of fact, he had Thousand Island dressing also. So he’d dip it. And I was like, oh my goodness, this thing looks incredible. But we’re having a regular conversation. And when I went back to the restaurant the next day I ordered that sandwich, a sandwich I had never – but he made it look so good that I wanted it.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do with Christianity. That’s what I’m supposed to do as a man of God. Something you’ve never tried. Or even if you’ve tried it before, I’m supposed to make it look so good you have no choice but to say, ‘I want what he’s having.’ You’re gonna get me running around here right now.”
Forgive me for bringing it up, but you were involved in a scandal two years ago. How did you address that in your church?
“Head on. First of all, let me make it clear: It was – I don’t what we’re looking at now – eight years ago. I’ve been a pastor for five years. So when I addressed ’em, I’ve been everything that I told ’em that I was as their pastor. I dealt with it straight on. I never proclaimed to be perfect, and I don’t justify the mistake that I made. You own it. I got a wife that loves me, that trusts me, that believes in me, and thank God that didn’t throw me away when I made a mistake. That’s what we’re supposed to do, show the love of God. Because He had every right to throw me away. She had every right to throw me away. But the way I hit it was straight on. I made a mistake. But I made a mistake before I became pastor, before I made a vow to be your pastor. My wife had every right to throw me away.
“So hittin’ it straight on, and lettin’ ’em know, through the Bible, the people that God used in a mighty way. You know the stories of David, and you know the stories of powerful people, of Paul, people in the Bible that have – not justifying falling short, but justifying His grace and mercy. So it was a promise that it was gonna turn around. And what the Bible says, what the Devil meant for bad, God is gonna flip it, turn it into good. My job was to own it, and to never make a mistake like that again.”
What was the reaction in the church? Did you lose members of the congregation?
“No. No. No. Because they knew… Once again, I gotta be the greatest actor in the world, or made a mistake. They knew that that wasn’t me. They’ve witnessed me. At the end of the day, they trusted what they were seeing, what they witnessed. I can’t fake waking up Sunday morning and going to church – let alone, not church five minutes away, but a car and a flight and a car. You can’t fake that. And they know how much I love them. They know how passionate I am about what God is doing, not only in my life, but their life.
“And to me, the Bible says, ‘The Devil comes to steal, kill and destroy. But I’ve come that you may have life and have that life more abundantly.’ To me it was an attempt to try to assassinate me with something that had happened before, to assassinate the next move of God. And you got to get to a point where, same thing as coaching, you gotta know you’re opponent so well that you see what he’s trying to do. And I saw what he was trying to do. And I knew that we was on the cusp of something special here, and in my life. Because if he’s trying to throw his wild card, he knows you’re up to something, he knows God’s up to something. And he tried to mess it up.
“It’s testimony to somebody else who’s gonna read or listen. If you say, OK, you back up and now you don’t want to do nothing in life because you messed up, who wins? No. I decided to impact – be a better coach, be a better husband, be a better father, be a better pastor, be a better man. Because of that, there’s people being encouraged and inspired, whether it be in the church or on the basketball court or in life. We’ve seen so many people fold the tent. We all make a mistake. I made a mistake, and I own it. And I hurt a lot of people. But we serve a forgiving God. And the deal now is: never again.”
Do you want True Love to grow, or is it at the size you like it?
“Well, the thing that we look at is, whatever God says. I don’t look at it and say I want 10 members or 10,000 members. I want to do what God wants us to do as a ministry and as pastors. It’s his vision. There’s some people that say, ‘We want it to stay small, because we want to be able to come up to pastor and talk afterwards, and hug and all that.’ That’s great. I just want whatever God wants. The worst place that I can be, the only place that I don’t want to be in life, is outside the will of God. That’s the only place I don’t want to be. If I’m in the will of God, I’m just fine, no matter what anybody else says.”
Do you envision performing your dual roles of coach and pastor your whole life, or close to it?
“Again, I’m gonna hear what God says. I know that I will be used to witness, to share, to minister, to win souls. No matter what role I’m doing in life, I’m gonna shout with everything in me about how awesome God is, how awesome his grace and mercy is, and what he’s done in my life. That I know I’m gonna do until the day I die. Any other job, I don’t know.”