Stephen Jackson: The undersung star
He does it all on and -- more importantly -- off the court. So why don't people notice?
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Stephen Jackson and I are discussing author Malcolm Gladwell. Specifically, the impact that one of Gladwell's books had on his life.
"'The Tipping Point' helped me kind of look at things before I make decisions," Jackson says. "It was a different book for me. I wasn't a book reader. It was more of a book that gave me advice on how to handle different situations."
Different situations -- Jackson has had a few of those in his career. And, given the subtitle of "The Tipping Point" ("How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference"), it isn't surprising that he can relate to Gladwell's thinking about ways in which change happens in society. Jackson has been making a big difference for the Bobcats, who play Game 2 in their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night.
When he was with Golden State, Jackson and then-teammates Matt Barnes and Baron Davis met Gladwell on a road trip to Chicago. Coincidentally, they were all in the middle of "The Tipping Point" -- they were reading it for the team book club, started by Davis -- when Davis spotted Gladwell sitting in their hotel restaurant.
"He kind of reminds of that guy on that Dos Equis commercial," Jackson said, referring to the beer ads featuring "the most interesting man in the world."
Perception and reality often live in different neighborhoods in sports. And the perception is that Jackson is hardly the person who would find meaning in a Malcolm Gladwell book, much less describe meeting Gladwell as "special" -- as he did during our conversation.
You have to be careful when you refer to an athlete as "misunderstood," because it's often just a generous way of excusing the fact he or she is really a nincompoop. But when it comes to Jackson, "misunderstood" fits. The perception is that he's a thuggish problem child, mostly based on a couple of those "different situations" from earlier in his career. But that perception is so off-base that it makes you wonder if the sports world should get a Seeing Eye dog.
Jackson is a lot of things, and most of them should be admired. He's a winner. He's a leader. He plays hurt. (Case in point: He suffered a bone bruise in his left knee in Game 1 on Sunday but is expected to start Wednesday.) He practices hard. He usually guards the best player on the opposing team. He shuns being treated like a superstar. He enjoys playing like a guy who was cut by 16 NBA teams and had to play in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela before the Nets gave him a real opportunity.
He's emotional and has a terrible habit of jawing with the refs. But his coach, Larry Brown, would rather he cared too much about a play than take one off.
Yet Jackson receives almost no credit for any of those things, or for the career he's made from almost nothing, or for the man he's become after he made some high-profile mistakes. It's mind-boggling that he remains so underappreciated in a league that contains so many overrated, overpaid, self-centered players.
Trading for Jackson in November was just as important for Charlotte as Michael Jordan purchasing the franchise.
The Bobcats are appearing in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history -- which Jackson boldly proclaimed they would do the very first day he wore a Charlotte uniform. And all Jackson has done since being traded from Golden State is make himself look like a genius.
The Bobcats entered the playoffs with 16 wins in their last 23 games, with Jackson averaging 21 points per game. Charlotte suddenly has gone from a basement-dweller to the team nobody wants to play. Just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers, who lost to the Bobcats three times this season.
Although Charlotte lost the first game in the best-of-seven Orlando series, the expectation is that the Magic, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, will have their hands full, largely because of the identity and edge Jackson has brought to the Bobcats.
"It's not too many guys who play the game the way I play it," Jackson says. "I play the game with a chip on my shoulder. I play the game with a lot of passion. I play with more energy than a lot of guys. I play harder than a lot of guys. I want to win every night. I don't want to lose one game. I don't want to go home ever after a game and say that I didn't give my all for my teammates. Sometimes, it might lead to me blurting out some things I shouldn't say and getting a technical foul, but it's all in competing for the game."
So why isn't anyone heaping superlatives on him? Why, when there is a discussion about the best and most competitive players in the NBA, does Stephen Jackson's name almost never surface? And, since we're supposedly a culture that loves comebacks, why does it seem like no one is at all interested in his?
The lack of credit never concerned Jackson before, but it does now. He could always accept being stereotyped as a disreputable malcontent because the people who really know him, like his former teammate Tim Duncan -- a good guy by anyone's definition, and a consummate professional -- referred to him as the "ultimate teammate."
But now, Jackson openly admits he cares about how people perceive him. It irritates and baffles him that two mistakes -- the November 2004 Palace brawl with the Pistons when he was with Indiana, and a 2006 gun incident at a strip club which caused Jackson to be suspended for a combined 37 games and facilitated a trade from the Pacers to Golden State -- have stained his reputation like red wine on a cream-colored suit.
His messy departure from the Warriors only reinforced Jackson's reputation as bad fruit. The NBA fined him $25,000 last September for publicly demanding a trade. (Somehow, the powers-that-be must have lost their hearing during Kobe Bryant's similar summer-long "trade me" campaign.)
"For a long time, I didn't care because my family, my kids, my wife, the people I work with know me as a person," Jackson says. "But it's gotten to the point where it's kind of bothering me, because people don't look at me as being a great basketball player. They look at the mistakes I made five, six years ago. I don't think that's fair because a lot of people make mistakes and people aren't holding them over their heads. People have moved on and I have moved on. I think I made great accomplishments after I made those mistakes."
He has done some impressive work outside of basketball since those two incidents, but the stains linger. He started the Stephen Jackson Academy in his hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, a school for kindergarten through the sixth grade. In 2008, he launched another charitable giving endeavor, the Jack 1 Foundation, which carries his nickname. When he was with Golden State, he was one of the team's leaders in donating his time to visit schools and help whatever community endeavors the Warriors supported.
Gerald Wallace, who became the Bobcats' first NBA All-Star this season, didn't know what to think of Jackson at first. Would he be a volatile guy who undermined the team's success? Or would he be the missing piece the Bobcats needed?
Six months later, Wallace is dumbfounded as to why he ever worried.
"If you listen to you guys [the media] all the time, you think he's like, the devil," Wallace says. "We get him here and he's totally opposite. He's friendly. He's always laughing and he's always joking. It's different on the court with every player. He's passionate. He loves to play. He loves to win. But that's every player on the court. I think you guys just gave him a bad rep like he's a bad teammate and all this. When he got here, it was kind of a concern. But he's been a great teammate. No problems."
The media crucified Jackson for fighting fans at the Palace, and rightly so. It was a regrettable incident. But a number of players noticed that Jackson risked his own personal safety that night to defend teammates who were being beaten by fans in the ugly brawl. There isn't a player in the NBA who doesn't want a guy like that on his team.
Jackson's brother was beaten to death after being jumped by a group of people. So while Stephen knows it was wrong to go after the fans in Detroit, he also knows he wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he hadn't followed Ron Artest into the melee.
"I honestly regret punching that guy," Jackson says. "But I don't regret going in the stands behind Ron, because I was going to help my teammate. If you consider somebody being your brother and you're with them six months out of the year -- more than you're with your own family -- you're going to grow some type of bond where 'I'm going to be there for you' and we're considered brothers."
The only danger Jackson poses now is on the court, where he's averaged at least 20 points per game in the last three seasons. That includes the 2006-07 season, when he helped Golden State upset the No. 1-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. In Game 6 of that series, he hit 7-of-8 3-pointers to lead the Warriors with 33 points and close out the Mavs.
The Bobcats hope he has some of that magic left. But even if Charlotte doesn't pull off the upset over Orlando, Jackson has rewritten his legacy.
It's too bad most people haven't taken the time to read it. The tipping point in their appreciation of his talent and character should have been reached by now.
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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