Steve Kerr Faces Challenge to Win Over Players Upset About Mark Jackson's Firing

Ric BucherNBA Senior WriterMay 15, 2014

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images

Sometimes what is not saidor tweetedspeaks the loudest.

Since the Golden State Warriors announced Tuesday that Steve Kerr had been hired as their new head coach, replacing Mark Jackson, there has yet to be a welcoming tweet, interview or anything else seen or heard from one of the players.

That, one of them said, is not by accident.

"That is out of loyalty to Coach Jackson," said the player, who requested anonymity. "It has nothing to do with Steve. Just meeting him when he worked our games, he seems like a nice guy. It has to do more with how Coach was done. Guys loved Coach Jackson. They'd run through a wall for him. It hasn't really set in that he's gone and someone else has been hired."

There is far more to the resentment over Jackson being fired after 47- and 51-win seasons than a coach popular among his players being let go because of his relationship with ownership and/or management. If it was only that, it would be reasonable to expect that all Kerr needs is time to convince the team he is equally worth their allegiance. He certainly has the pedigree for it, at least by today's standard that actual coaching experience is not necessary: former player, extremely affable, bearer of five championship rings and a disciple of two of the most successful coaches in the last two decades, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich.

The players' pointed silence is about Jackson, despite their pleas that he be retained, getting axed less than 72 hours after their season ended with a first-round Game 7 loss on the road to the Los Angeles Clippers. It's about Jackson, as a first-time coach, having to settle for a four-year, $8 million deal, while Kerr, a first-time coach, signed a five-year, $25 million package, totally guaranteed. It's about the vast majority of the players and staff sharing Jackson's Christian faith and attending services to hear him preach at his non-denominational church, while knowing that Kerr developed a similar bond with team owner Joe Lacob over two decades of shared golf and venture capital interests.

GM Bob Myers and owner Joe Lacob parted ways with Mark Jackson this spring over management issues.
GM Bob Myers and owner Joe Lacob parted ways with Mark Jackson this spring over management issues.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

And, yes, it's about Jackson and the vast majority of the roster being black and Lacob, president Rick Welts, general manager Bob Myers, assistant GM Kirk Lacob and Kerr being white.

"Guys are going to look at it from a race standpoint," the player said. "It shows what this was all about when they cut him as quick as they did. Guys question, 'Is this really about winning or is it about the way you want the place to look like?' "

The subject of race in the NBA has come to the forefront thanks to recorded comments by Clippers owner Donald Sterling that indicate he's fine with minorities working for him but not mingling socially with his personal assistant. While reviews comparing the NBA to Major League Baseball and the NFL generally earn the league high marks for diversity, it remains a point of contention for many players that rosters are 85 percent black while the rest of the league's other strata hold the reverse percentage.

Players far and wide were outraged by Sterling's remarks and the Clippers players turned their team-issued gear inside-out as a sign of protest before Game 4 of their series with the Warriors, but league sources say the Golden State team alone seriously discussed not playing the game.

Consider that a reflection of both how unified the Warriors are as a team and how strongly they feel about the upper ranks of the league harboring men who think as Sterling does.

Lacob, of course, gave Jackson his first job and hired Welts, the first openly gay executive in professional sports. Talk to the man, as I have, and there's no reason to believe he is prejudiced toward anything other than results that don't meet his lofty expectations.

But anyone able to have frank conversations with NBA players, as I have for more than two decades, knows that a vast majority believe there is an inherent aversion to coaches, administrators and players who are "too black." Whether it's the discomfort of being confronted by a different culture or a fear that it damages the league's marketability to mainstream, corporate (and mostly white) America, those players are convinced that discomfort/fear is behind the league's dress code, uniform and taunting rules and hiring practices.

Whether that belief is merited is the subject of another story; what matters here is only that there are Warriors players who hold it and will watch very closely to compare upper management's treatment of Kerr compared to Jackson this coming season.

The Warriors, collectively, are regarded as a high-character group and are almost certain to give Kerr every chance to show that he is the upgrade over Jackson that Lacob has promised. 

Warriors players have been slow to publicly embrace Steve Kerr as their new coach out of loyalty to former coach Mark Jackson.
Warriors players have been slow to publicly embrace Steve Kerr as their new coach out of loyalty to former coach Mark Jackson.USA TODAY Sports

"There aren't any idiots in that locker room," the player said. "We have solid guys, great guys. I'm not saying he won't be able to win the team over. But that will be his biggest challenge. Can he take us to a place Coach Jackson couldn't? We were one basket away from going back to the semifinals a second year in a row. That means Steve has to get us to the conference finals or the finals. Guys are going to be very conscious of that. If you've known him for 20 years, why wasn't he on your list before this? Did he not want the job then? Coach Jackson changed the culture and this is how you do him? If this is your loyalty to Coach, what's your loyalty to me? I know it raised questions with all of us."

Kerr clearly has a leg up on "managing up and sideways," to borrow Lacob's phrase, better than Jackson thanks to his established friendship with both Joe and his son Kirk. Having worked in Myers' position, with Welts as a colleague, for the Phoenix Suns, also helps.

"Managing down," however, is where, by Lacob's own admission, Jackson showed a rare and unique talent. If the Warriors were a house divided last season and the coach represented the line of demarcation, not much has changed. The only difference is which side of the house needs the other side to change its mind about him.  


 Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.