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The Devil and Stephen Jackson

Inside the mind of the Spurs' controversial super-sub

Stephen Jackson looked at his buzzing phone and tucked it away, unanswered. He hurried to catch a connecting flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that would take him back to Oakland and to the Warriors franchise he once helped to a historic playoff upset. Before he reached the gate, Jackson’s phone buzzed again, this time with a text message. R.C. Buford, the general manager of the Spurs. Buford wanted to know if Jackson could talk to Coach Gregg Popovich. Jackson already knew what the conversation would entail. How could it be anything else but a return to San Antonio, the place where he found his basketball identity? After saying a short prayer, Jackson called Popovich. He spoke with Popovich and Tim Duncan, and rerouted his flight, life, and career. The Spurs finalized the deal and obtained Jackson for Richard Jefferson at this season’s trade deadline.

A career had passed since Jackson left the Spurs nine years ago. He brawled in Auburn Hills, fired a gun into the air and got run over by a car in Indianapolis, and drew suspensions from five different teams. He also co-starred for a deep Pacers team that would have contended for a title had the fight not shredded the team’s fabric. He provided the backbone of the “We Believe” Warriors. And he nudged the Charlotte Bobcats into fleeting respectability in the franchise’s only playoff berth.

More than any other organization in the NBA, the Spurs are equipped for all that Jackson brings. They are prepared to benefit from the absolute teammate, the man who attends chapel before games and sang in his church choir as a youth. They tolerate the occasional, well-documented episodes, the infractions that appeared on police blotters and newspaper headlines. It is the good in Jackson, he is convinced, that leads to the occasional bad.

NBA teams are on a permanent search for consummate, complementary parts. The easy job is spotting the talent in a Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant. The harder job is crafting the roster with players who accentuate the talents of those star players and blend their own into a mixture that will best suit their team.

Jackson has been miscast in the starring role a couple of times in his nomadic career. He’s more comfortable and productive in a supporting role. In this title, he is who he wants to be and has been since high school. He is quick to tell people that he is a wonderful addition to any roster and fast to add that Duncan calls him the ultimate teammate. Others echo these statements. But being low-maintenance is one of the primary qualities of most complementary players. They require little pushing, motivation, or coddling compared with most stars. This is where Jackson’s career and reputation are at odds. He tries to be there for teammates in ways that directly lead to confrontation and trouble. In Jackson’s case, the question becomes, is there such a thing as being a cruddy consummate teammate? There are deep-rooted reasons for why Jackson is who he is.

How easy is it to buy a gun in Port Arthur?” Jackson repeated the question. “As easy as it is buying candy.” That is Jackson’s candor, which enamors some and exasperates others. Most NBA players, most people in the spotlight, deflect even the slightest hint of controversy. Jackson’s next “no comment” will be his first.

“This is how I always explain it to people if you’ve never been there. Now, there’s one high school. When I was there, there were two high schools. There’s one main street, eight sets of low-income housing. Everybody knows everybody. Sixty percent of everybody is doing the same thing, selling drugs, gang-banging. And the other 40 percent are people working hard, trying to make an honest living, churchgoing people. The opportunity to make it out is very slim. There’s been a million basketball players to come out of there and I’m the second one to make it to the NBA. It’s a hellhole.”

Jackson loves that hellhole. Port Arthur sits about 90 miles east of Houston on the Gulf Coast. The area prospered from an oil boom more than 100 years ago, but by the time Jackson arrived economic hardships prevailed. Jackson’s grandparents owned and ran a restaurant. His mother, Judyette, raised him. Jackson never knew his father, while his stepfather served a 10-year prison sentence during his youth. In all corners of Port Arthur, Jackson was surrounded by uncles, aunts, and cousins.

As a child, Jackson spent time with the dealers, slangers, ballers, and hoopers. He glided in and out of Port Arthur’s dangerous circles. He remembers shooting dice in a friend’s backyard when several rounds of gunfire erupted from in front of the house. When Jackson relayed the story to a friend a couple of days later, the friend responded, “Really? That was some of my people going to shoot some guys they had beef with. They probably didn’t know you were over there.”

Jackson did not own a gun then. He said most of the people in the community were reluctant to include him in the more serious crimes because of his blooming basketball skills. If one person makes it out of Port Arthur, the entire town makes it.

Jackson’s older half-brother did not. Donald Buckner, more than 10 years older, taught Jackson about life. Jackson shared his first drink with him. Jackson was 14 when Buckner got into an argument with the jilted ex-boyfriend of the girl he was seeing at the time. Buckner prepared to fight the ex-boyfriend one on one, but two other men jumped in and attacked Buckner during the fight. One cracked a bottle over Buckner’s head from his blind side. He died at just 25 years old.

“That’s where it started with me,” Jackson explained. “When I lost my brother, it kind of messed me up because in my city, I know everybody. I kind of felt untouchable. When my brother got killed, I know the guys and been knowing the guys all my life who did it. I felt like I should have been there. I felt like I could have done something about it. After I saw him in the hospital with 17 staples in his head, barely breathing, I left the hospital and went looking for the guys and the whole time I’m looking for the guys, I’m really thinking, What am I going to do when I see these guys? And I’m really thinking about hurting somebody.”

“It’s like every day I wish I could have been there because a lot of the stuff I learned and the person I am now is because of him: how to be loyal. How to be there for your friend. How to talk to girls. I never want someone to say that I wasn’t there to help my brother. I never want to say that again.”

Jackson was practicing left-handed layups when Andre Boutte noticed him. Boutte asked Jackson his age. Jackson responded that he was 12. “Being in Port Arthur, it was just a waiting game, really,” Boutte said.

Port Arthur residents planned their schedules around the state basketball tournament. Lincoln High became a staple there under James Gamble, who captured four state tournaments before retiring. Boutte took over the program around the same time he first spotted Jackson.

“By the time Stevie came to the program, it was well established,” Boutte said. “The tenacity and so forth, he always possessed that. But it was always team first for him. When you go to programs that have rich traditions, whether it be in high school, whether it be college or professional, it kind of directs you and lets you know.”

The basketball came naturally, but he still struggled to stay on a straight course. He often spent weekends during the summer at the house of Josh and Hal Pastner and played with their AAU team. The Pastners made the three-hour round-trip drive from Houston to pick up Jackson. “One of the reasons I wanted him to stay with us was because there was just a lot of struggles in his community and I could see him being pulled by peer pressure,” Hal Pastner said. “I knew he was going to head [in] one way, which would not have been too positive, or through our guidance we could help him stay on the right path because I knew he had a chance.”

Lincoln captured the state championship Jackson’s junior year. Facing academic ineligibility, Jackson transferred to Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy before his senior year.

“I wasn’t the greatest at school,” Jackson said, “so I studied basketball.”

Jackson planned on attending the University of Arizona with his close friend Mike Bibby. When he failed to reach the required SAT and ACT scores, he instead spent a semester at Kansas’s Butler Community College. Jackson soon returned to Arizona, where Virginia Bibby, Mike’s mother, paved the way for Jackson to work out for the Suns. Phoenix drafted Jackson in 1997 with the 43rd pick, but waived him before the season.

That ignited Jackson’s global basketball tour. In the Dominican Republic, he dined at restaurants where customers checked their gun clips at the door, but kept their weapons as they ate. In Venezuela, a man jumped to his suicide near Jackson as he exited a cab. He broke one foot in Australia after playing in only four games and the other during a tryout with the Chicago Bulls.

He had tried out for 17 teams when the Grizzlies invited Jackson for a tryout because of his relationship with Bibby, their young draftee. Jackson did not make the team, although Lawrence Frank, an assistant with the Grizzlies, recommended Jackson when he later arrived as an assistant coach to the Nets. Ed Stefanski, then the Nets general manager, watched him closely in summer league and the organization invited him into training camp. Jackson started the bulk of the season in place of an injured Keith Van Horn.

“I partied too much,” Jackson said of his time in New Jersey. “I was still 19, 20 years old. I was coming from a little small city where there’s 40,000 people, so being in New Jersey, New York, being with a big All-Star like Stephon Marbury, he’s calling me every night to go out with him. I didn’t know how to say no.”

Byron Scott, New Jersey’s coach at the time, told reporters that Jackson “had a golden opportunity and he did not take advantage of it.” His playing time mostly evaporated. The Nets had no interest in retaining him by the end of the season.

“His heart was definitely in the right place,” Frank said. “He had a great competitive spirit and drive. He was very, very young. To me, obviously what changed his career was going to San Antonio the following year and basically being a redshirt. That’s where he really understood what it took to be a professional.”

Popovich told Jackson that the Spurs planned to sit him for most of the 2001-02 season. If he could not handle that, he would be gone. If he did not arrive early to practice, he would be gone. If he did not leave late, he would be gone.

Jackson initially scoffed at all this. He still went out early and stayed out late. “He was very emotional,” said Danny Ferry, the former Spur who is now the team’s vice president of basketball operations. “When things were good, they were good and when things were a little rough, they were a little rough. But he was always a great teammate.”

Jackson played in only 23 games that season. But the dedication of his teammates started to make an impression. Mike Brown, an assistant, worked with Jackson to harness his emotions and forecast each consequence for each action. “He was younger then and really hungry and wanted to have a good future and get a good contract, and here we were sitting him on the bench for a year,” Popovich said recently. “But I think honesty really works well with him. He went through that whole year, which impressed me.”

Jackson found parallels between the Spurs and Lincoln High. Here, he found players who cared about winning as much as he did and an organization in solid footing with a strong tradition. He could step in, contribute, and keep the championships coming. “They had 14 guys on the team, and all 14 guys cared about winning and working and taking care of themselves and preparing,” Jackson said.

He spent the season learning Popovich’s spacing: when to idle in the corner for a 3-pointer, how to spread the court to give David Robinson and Tim Duncan space to operate. As he improved, Jackson breathed youth into a veteran team. Steve Kerr recalled the day when Jackson received his first pair of custom Nikes with his name and jersey number. “Finally they came and it was like Christmas morning,” said Kerr, who is calling the Western Conference finals for TNT. “He came into the locker room and he opened up the box and he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ Everyone was just dying laughing. That was Jack. He was just so excited by being in the NBA. He just injected life into all of us.”

The Spurs purposefully placed Jackson’s locker next to Duncan’s, and the two formed a tight, if improbable, relationship. “Tim Duncan gets the biggest kick out of Jack because they’re different in a lot of ways, emotionally and the way they approach things,” Popovich said. “But he really respects Jack’s competitiveness.”1

Jackson played sensationally in the 2002-03 postseason and nailed key shot after key shot, including several 3-pointers in the final quarter of the clinching Finals win over his former team, the Nets. “I make love to pressure,” Jackson famously declared afterward.

The Spurs offered him $10 million over three years after the season. He declined in search of more substantial financial stability. The market dried as he waited for a deal that never came. Jackson ended up in Atlanta with a contract of $2.1 million over two seasons. “This is where I wanted to be all along,” he said at the time. Jackson’s confidence did not distract from the reality of the situation. His agent, Dan Fegan, misjudged the market. Jackson was heavily criticized for leaving the Spurs for a smaller contract and the gamble of playing in Atlanta with hopes of landing a larger one.

The move ultimately derailed both Jackson and San Antonio. Jackson became a proven, established scorer. He also began talking to officials too much. “After I started doing that, it went downhill,” he said. “I started getting kicked out of games. I started talking too much.”

Atlanta floundered with an uneven, unproven roster. The ownership traded the roster’s veteran players. By default, Jackson and Jason Terry were named captains. The player who would eventually be called Captain Jack accepted the title like a burden.

In 2004, Indiana provided Jackson with the contract he first envisioned after that breakout year in San Antonio: a six-year, $38 million deal. The Pacers expected Jackson to round out a championship team. Instead, he proved one volatile personality too many. When Ron Artest bolted into the Auburn Hills stands in 2004, Jackson saw one teammate against hundreds. He did not think. He reacted and joined Artest in fighting in the same way he wished he’d been there for Buckner. “A lot of people really don’t understand how it feels to be with a guy who you call your teammate and you’re with more than your family during the course of a season,” Jackson said a few months ago. “How do you expect me not to go help him?”

Jackson is now nearly as linked to the brawl as Artest in images that are ingrained into the minds of even the most casual NBA observer. He drew a 30-game suspension and the community’s ire in Indianapolis. A basketball-minded city mostly turned away from the franchise. Jackson alienated the base with the brawl and his constant bickering with referees.

“Most of the issues he’s had are because he feels like he has to stick up for somebody on the team,” said Donnie Walsh, the Pacers’ former president. “He’s a very smart guy. If he has issues, he understands why he’s got it. The one thing you find out about Stephen is, he knows. He knows as much as anybody that’s talking with him.”

Indiana never again resembled the formidable team that walked that delicate tightrope between infallible and implosion. Jackson felt betrayed when Artest asked to be traded. He was there for Artest. Why would Artest not be there for the team? “He put our team, our careers, our livelihoods, everything in jeopardy,” Jackson said. “One person did that.”

Jackson also felt he was there for his teammate in another defining, derailing moment. He fired his gun at Club Rio, an Indianapolis strip club, in 2006 when he noticed teammate Jamaal Tinsley and others arguing with a man he thought was wielding a gun. The cousin of the man Tinsley argued with hit Jackson with a car. Jackson jumped, but still collided hard against the hood of the vehicle. Jackson said he had to fire the gun to disperse the crowd and again did not consider the repercussions: the outright danger of firing the shots, violating his probation from the fight in Auburn Hills, and the punch the already suffering Pacers image would suffer.

“At that time, that could have hurt me being loyal,” Jackson said. “But a lot of times, I don’t think about it because that’s the person that I am. In some crazy sort of way, if I died helping a teammate or a friend or someone that I love, I think I could live with it. My family probably couldn’t, but I think I could.”

The strip club incident broke apart the team’s already frayed standing in the community. Walsh traded Jackson to the Warriors in 2007 as part of an eight-player deal. Jackson experienced several highs and lows with the Warriors in a brief span. “It was short-lived, but it worked out well when he was here,” said Chris Mullin, Golden State’s executive vice president of basketball operations at the time.

During the summer, Don Nelson called Jackson as he was fulfilling his community service. “He became teary-eyed,” Nelson said. “He was somewhere in Michigan picking up trash on the road when I called. He was in a uniform that they wear, bright-colored orange, and he was explaining that to me.”

Jackson embodied a reckless, talented Warriors team and pushed Baron Davis to play to his talent. They pulled off what many regard as the greatest upset in the NBA by toppling the top-seeded Mavericks in 2007. Jackson drew ejections in Games 2 and 5 in the series, but scored 33 redeeming points in the clinching game. Jackson also took Dirk Nowitzki, the league’s MVP, out of the series through his sheer defensive physicality. “I always said that if he could be a team’s third-best player, he’s a real big asset,” Nelson said. “If he has to be the second-best player, he’s not as good. And when he had to be the best player, it just didn’t work out.”

The honeymoon, as with most of Jackson’s stops, was short-lived. He petitioned for and received a three-year contract extension, even though he had two years remaining on his current deal. Jackson asked for a trade and to relinquish his captaincy. “Being a captain was overrated to me anyway,” he told reporters. “You didn’t do anything but go at the beginning to talk to the refs, and I didn’t want to do that.”

The Warriors traded Jackson to Charlotte in 2009, and a rare splendid era in Golden State ended nearly as soon as it began.

“It was one of the real special moments in my career, those two years together,” Nelson said. “The franchise decided to go in a different direction. I’ll never understand why, but that’s their decision to lose their good players and go to ground zero again. But we had it going for those two years and everybody enjoyed themselves and the team was a very close-knit group. It was a different group, but you had a fun group to be around and be with.”

Jackson didn’t stay in Charlotte long. The Bobcats sent him to Milwaukee last summer in a cost-saving deal.2 Before the trade, Jackson sat glued to the television as the Grizzlies outlasted San Antonio in the league’s first eighth-seeded win over a first seed since Jackson played for the Warriors. Jackson saw his friend Zach Randolph pulverize San Antonio in the post. He knew the same would not happen if the Spurs had him. Instead, Jackson bickered in Milwaukee with coach Scott Skiles. Jackson brings positives and negatives to any team — the positives are wasted, and the negatives exacerbated, if he’s relegated to a lottery team.

“To me, he was more of a college coach,” Jackson said of Skiles. “Me, personally, I need a coach that I can respect, that’s proven in this league and doesn’t mind taking advice from his players. When you have a great coach like Gregg Popovich, who asks about our opinion and cares about how we feel and what we think and what goes on off the court and at home, it’s easy to play for those guys because you know they genuinely care. He was a young coach, a coach that really hasn’t proven himself in this league as far as winning, so I saw a lot of things that I didn’t agree with that he was doing and we were losing at the time, so we never could work together.”

This is another one of Jackson’s fundamental blocks. He has seen people he regards as tough up close. People that will literally fight and kill. No coach, in Jackson’s mind, fits that description. Those that try are tuned out. Right or wrong, Jackson sticks with what he feels is right.3

Jackson’s assessment of Skiles is wrong. The Spurs more closely reflect a fine-tuned collegiate organization. Popovich is the iconic coach. His personality is reflected throughout the organization, and he is the longest-tenured coach not only in the NBA, but in all four major sports leagues. Graduates of the program like Kevin Pritchard, Sam Presti, Kerr, and Ferry mostly went on to success running other franchises. If the comparison needs further parallels, Popovich and Buford continually refer to the organization not as an organization, but as a program.

“He respects the program and he respects the guys he’s with,” Popovich said of Jackson. “It’s going to happen where he’s going to lose his cool a bit. Overall, it’s worth it to us because he won’t lose it to the point where he’s going to affect the team negatively, because if that happens, he won’t be on the floor.”

Popovich played Jackson during the defining run of the team’s first win over the Thunder in the Western Conference finals. Jackson scored all five of his points in the fourth quarter and helped silence Kevin Durant in that span.

“He had a pretty important role for one of our better teams,” Buford said. “I think that there’s always an appreciation for some of Stephen’s strengths. I think our players and our coaches have always had a place in their heart for Stephen.”

Jackson is also experiencing the same transition that happened to Steve Smith. Jackson uprooted Smith and helped San Antonio to a title early in his career. Now, a 34-year-old Jackson is backing up a rookie, Kawhi Leonard. Jackson is fine with it. He knows that Popovich will fiddle with his minutes. A game or series may not suit his strengths. Yet Popovich knows that Jackson will enter with the same mentality whenever called upon, a trait that eludes some veterans.4

“That’s the beauty of Jack,” Kerr said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s 21 or 35. It’s just his nature. He’s going to take any big shot. He’s fearless. That was the element that he added to that team then. I think he gives it now, too. Just the element of not just being unafraid of the big shot, but loving it and relishing the moment. Not everybody’s like that.”

The building at 235 Proctor Street in Port Arthur is one of the first newly constructed buildings in the city’s downtown in about 50 years, according to Deloris Prince, the city’s mayor. The building holds the Stephen Jackson Academy. The center opened six years ago and serves as an after-school academic hub and includes basketball courts.

Hurricanes Rita, Humberto, and Ike all hit the city hard. The devastation prolonged economic hardships and caused population relocation. Jackson wanted to provide a facility that would last.

“He’s our hero,” Prince said. “We’ve never thought of him as reckless and thuggish. We’ve never thought of him that way. A basketball game is a basketball game. You’re expected to perform one way in a basketball game and another way off the court. But Stephen is a warm, community child. That’s the side that we know.”

The facility represents another side of Jackson. He conducts clinics, attends schools, holds fund-raisers, and helps feed the needy at each of his NBA stops. The efforts provide little counterbalance to his other more publicized transgressions.

“Yeah and no,” Jackson said when asked if he cares how people ultimately regard him. “I do care because I have kids and I don’t want people to tell my kids somewhere that, ‘Your dad was an asshole or a thug.’ I hate that. I’m not a thug or a goon. I’m loyal and I’m just down for mine. I’m a real guy. In a way, I do care. But in a way I don’t. At the end of the day, the people who are around me, the people who matter to me, the people who I respect and love, they know my heart and know me.”

He leaves behind a trail of mixed feelings wherever he plays. There is always the inevitable parting, but the teams performing the breakup often have more respect for Jackson upon his departure than on his arrival.

Walsh: “He’s a fun guy. I enjoyed him. He’s different, but in a good way. In a good way that sometimes hurts him.”

Stefanski: “I’ve seen him numerous times since he left Jersey and I left Jersey, and he has thanked me more than once for giving him an opportunity in the league. He’s always been a gentleman around me.”

Nelson: “He’s a one and only, as it should be.”

Jackson is a person whose past influences his present and will probably shape his future. Is he a good person who occasionally mixes in the bad? Or a bad person sometimes inclined to do good? The answer, with most like Jackson, is not as black and white as the familiar jersey he wears again.

“A lot of people mistake my passion for the game with being a thug or a gangster,” he said. “I’m far from that. I’m just a guy who come up in the hood and came from nothing and made something and hasn’t changed. I’m still going to be in Port Arthur all summer walking around with no shoes on, eating crawfish, barbecue, going fishing. I’m going to be the same guy, and I take pride in saying that because a lot of NBA players are not touchable. They’re not real. But I take pride in being a regular guy that people can walk up to and I’m not Hollywood. I want people to understand that that’s the person I am and I’m not changing for nothing.”

Filed Under: San Antonio Spurs, Teams

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA’s prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams

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