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No ordinary ballplayer

Jackson's back story ranks him among my favorites

Posted: Monday May 7, 2007 3:41PM; Updated: Monday May 7, 2007 3:45PM
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When I am introduced to someone new and asked what I do for a living, I explain I am writer who covers sports, specifically the NBA. The next question asked -- with nearly unfailing inevitability -- is if I have a favorite NBA team. Answering that the Atlanta Hawks are my team seems to encourage a pause in the conversation. Nobody knows anything about the Hawks. A basketball fan proclaiming allegiance to the Hawks is like a politico asserting their support for Kucinich in '08 -- there will always be more questions than answers.

Seeking to salvage the conversation, the follow-up question from my interrogator is usually, "Who is your favorite player?" This is much more difficult question to answer; I like many different players for different reasons. I like Steve Nash for his ability to run a perfect pick-and-roll. I like Rasheed Wallace for his amusing obstinance. I like Joe Johnson for his silent excellence. I like Stephon Marbury because of all he's overcome. I like Nick Collison because he watches (and has strong opinions about) The Hills.

And I really like Stephen Jackson, for several reasons. Yes, this is the same Stephen Jackson who famously went into the stands, swinging wildly, at the Palace at Auburn Hills, the same Stephen Jackson accused last summer of firing a gun in a strip club parking lot. The same Stephen Jackson who recently opened an elementary school in his hometown. The same Stephen Jackson who, against Dallas, scored at will and gave Dirk Nowitzki nightmares on defense.

Jackson entered the NBA in the fall of 2000 as a member of the New Jersey Nets. Then Nets coach Byron Scott had never heard of Jackson when he showed up at training camp as a free-agent invite. Actually, Jackson was unknown to just about everybody -- myself included.

A few years earlier, Jackson had been a highly regarded prep star. He committed to Arizona, but couldn't qualify academically. He hung around Phoenix for two years and played a lot of pick-up ball at the Phoenix Suns' facility. The Suns grabbed him in the second round of the 1997 Draft, but he couldn't crack their roster. Thus began what Jackson calls his "overseas tour," as he traveled the world bouncing a ball in exchange for a paycheck.

"I mean, in the Dominican Republic, it's the third world, so anything's possible," Jackson said. "Someone might pull out a gun in the middle of the game, throw beer bottles on the court. Anything's possible. Australia wasn't too bad. The basketball was good and the competition went well, but it was a nice place. Venezuela is similar to D.R., but it was more like the States."

His arrival in Jersey came just when I had moved to New York City to work at SLAM, and I spent a lot of time in that Nets locker room. While most of the reporters followed around Scott, Marbury and Kenyon Martin, Jackson didn't demand much attention, and I ended up spending a lot of time talking to him, hearing his stories about playing ball in strange places as he consumed his customary pregame meal of candy and popcorn. I was there at the 2001 All-Star Weekend when Jackson played in the Rookie/Sophomore Game. After the Rookies lost, the players were all presented with checks for $3,000. When one of Jackson's higher-paid fellow rookies complained that $3,000 wasn't an amount worth his time, Jackson replied: "Shoot, you don't want it? Give it to me. I can make that go a long way."

A few years later, after winning a championship ring as a contributing player with the Spurs, Jackson ended up with my Hawks. He teamed with a few other players and formed a clique called "The Four Horsemen." They celebrated their unity by purchasing fur coats, the better to battle The A's notoriously chilly winters. Jackson found his big payday a year later when the Hawks did a sign-and-trade that sent Jackson to Indiana, and a few months ago he was sent to Golden State in a trade that basically re-made the Warriors as a running team.


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