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Mark Jackson's journey to Warriors shaped by faith

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POSTED February 3, 2012 11:13 p.m.

OAKLAND (AP) — Mark Jackson had just arrived at the scene of a fiery crash near his Southern California home.

A Chrysler LeBaron was ablaze, a familiar one. The Golden State Warriors coach had purchased it months earlier so a family that needed a car could attend his ministry. The sight was bad enough — and then Jackson saw a pair of feet. Nine-year-old Jayla Taylor had died, and her toes peeked out through the wreckage.

The image from the crash last October sticks with Jackson every day.

If he had not donated the car, Jayla and her mother Gilana — who succumbed 20 days later to severe burns and smoke inhalation — might still be alive. The father, Rodney Taylor, and 4-year-old Amayah might not be living with Jackson's family now, and Jackson might not feel so torn leaving them all back home for his dream job on the NBA sidelines.

Yet as with most things in life, Jackson does not question his decision nor does he question fate. He is a man who lives by faith, even though it has been tested so many times in his life — especially in the last year — he has lost count.

"I believe that trials and tribulations are transfers to where you're going to," said Jackson, who doubles as an ordained minister in Van Nuys, Calif., leading a non-denominational congregation of about 300 with his wife. "So there's a reason why the process must play out and you must be patient with the process."

Faith and fortitude might be considered critical qualifications for both of Jackson's jobs.

The former New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers point guard and ESPN/ABC broadcaster is a first-time coach at any level. With Golden State, he leads a team with one playoff appearance in the last 18 years and without an All-Star in 15 years — a challenge tough enough to test anybody's patience and belief.

He's being tugged in two directions, serving those several hundred congregants he dearly loves back home and making an impact with the young Warriors. He connects almost daily with his parish via Twitter, sharing prayer requests while also hearing comments from frustrated fans.

In many ways, Jackson's journey has prepared him for this role.

The son of a New York transit worker who rose from the city's playgrounds to St. John's to a starting role with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Jackson credits everything about his life to his faith.

He even pinpoints the moment.

Desiree Coleman, a Broadway performer and R&B singer, caught Jackson's eye on TV one night. Jackson turned to Dave Snowden, his best friend and roommate at the time, and told him he had found his wife.

The two met shortly after at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She turned him down there and again backstage at a United Negro College Fund function, including an offer for a first-class flight to Houston, a luxury hotel and courtside seats at the 1989 NBA All-Star Game.

Finally, Jackson convinced her to see a movie. At the end of the date, he sat behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee about to drop her off, when she changed his life forever.

"I'm thinking what normal guys do, sitting on top of the world. I'm thinking, 'OK, maybe a kiss. Maybe she can go lock the doors and we can go back to my place, whatever,'" Jackson said, candidly. "She says to me, 'Are you saved?' I said, 'What do you mean?' She says, 'Do you believe in Jesus Christ, your personal savior?'"

Parked in the middle of the street, the two joined hands as she broke down her definition of salvation. There, the young woman raised in a Pentecostal church gave the brash Knicks point guard with a Roman Catholic upbringing a new understanding of faith, one that spoke to him on a whole new level.

Two weeks later, Jackson kneeled down and proposed to her at his New Jersey home — diamond ring and all.

"I was stunned," she said. "I had actually not even got into dating yet."

Jackson has relied on his faith ever since.

Faith held back all the hate when Snowden was paralyzed from the waist down after getting shot a half-dozen times in the back in a random drive-by outside the Jackson family home in Queens the night of July 9, 1991. Jackson paid for all the medical bills, and now Snowden is the vice president of disabled services at the Garden, Radio City Music Hall and The Beacon Theatre.

Faith pushed him to give a stirring eulogy about his father in April 1999 in Brooklyn, some six months after Harry Jackson had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The younger Jackson, who finished second in career assists (10,334) behind only John Stockton (15,806) when he retired, found his future calling that day.

Faith kept him from flinching in the face of his followers during a sermon last Feb. 20, when another pastor whispered in his ear that Jackson's 35-year-old brother Troy — a famous streetballer nicknamed "Escalade" — had died of heart failure. Jackson hurried over to Troy's hotel room to identify the body and inform his mother.

Faith guided him again in August when that same pastor, Zachery Tims, was found dead at the W Hotel in Times Square of an apparent drug overdose. Tims, a pastor of a central Florida megachurch, would send Jackson words of encouragement in text messages every Sunday morning to inspire his sermon.

And most recently, faith forced Jackson to welcome the two surviving members of the Taylor family into his home in Calabasas, Calif., after the accident Oct. 1. Not even a year earlier, Rodney Taylor called him threatening to commit suicide while Jackson prepared to broadcast a game in Phoenix.

Jackson talked Taylor down over the next 90 minutes.

"Since I walked into the church three years ago, he's done nothing but help me put my life together," said Taylor, known by the congregation as "Brother 6-foot-8" for his size and stature. "I told him one day, 'If it wasn't for you and your family, I probably would have tried to take my life again after the accident.'"

Taylor first met Jackson at the Calabasas Community Center. Other former NBA players such as Mitch Richmond, Cuttino Mobley and Reggie Miller often dropped by for pick-up games.

The families grew closer beyond the normal pastors-parishioners relationship.

Jackson would surprise Taylor's daughter, Jayla, with gift cards to Barnes & Noble "and you'd thought I gave her an iPad," Jackson said. "She just wanted to read all day."

The Taylors attended the Jacksons' services at True Love Worship Center International by finding rides from others or taking public transportation. In three years, his wife Gilani missed only one Sunday service to take her stepson to the dentist for a toothache and Rodney missed one because he was out of town.

One night, Jackson called the family over to his mother-in-law's house and handed Rodney the keys to a Chrysler sedan he bought at an auction. Jackson had to convince the Taylors to take the gift.

The family would often drive the car right behind the Jacksons' on the way home from church, making sure they got home safely. About six months later, along Highway 101, an SUV swerved near the sedan driven by Taylor's wife, with Jayla inside. It's believed to be the cause of the single-vehicle wreck.

The crash happened on the opposite side of Jackson's highway exit. Both look back on the good deed and tragedy that followed as nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. Taylor, repairing his life again at Jackson's home, is now in good spirits despite the heartbreak.

"When I look at Rodney Taylor today," Jackson said, "that's winning."

Jackson realizes that his religious devotion might bother some fans impatient for victories — especially when the Warriors are stuck again in the back of the Western Conference.

But he believes that building character goes along with his task of building a winner.

For instance, Jackson has not cursed in at least 21 years, by his count. When he tried to get called for a technical foul late in a loss at the Lakers on Jan. 6 — so his players could see he was supporting them — he actually had to ask an official three times to call a technical on him before the surprised referee finally obliged.

"We're going to win ballgames," Jackson said. "But like I said to somebody, 'It'd be shallow for me to win ballgames and not develop men, husbands, fathers. That's a win to me and I'm not going to ignore that.'"

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