Point guard Mark Jackson's black Ford Expedition has sat, abandoned, in the parking lot of Denver's McNichols Sports Arena since Feb. 15. Covered in snow and stained by road salt, the all-terrain vehicle serves as some wintry monument to how quickly one's fate can change in the NBA. Jackson left his truck at McNichols just before the Nuggets took off on a six-game road trip that, for him, turned out to be permanent. On Feb. 20, the league's trading deadline, Denver was three hours away from tipping off against Indiana when Jackson got a call in his Indianapolis hotel room: He had just been traded to the Pacers.
The 31-year-old Jackson responded by dropping to his knees and whispering, "Thank God." His ego had been in dire need of a boost. Despite leading the league in assists, he had been passed over in January for the Western Conference All-Star squad, marking the first time in 15 years the league's top setup man had tailed to receive an invitation to play in the game. Jackson's heady, steady style had come to be viewed as so anachronistic that he had been traded three times in the last four seasons.
But now the Pacers, the very team that had peddled him to Denver last June, had dealt swingmen Vincent Askew and Eddie Johnson for center Lasalle Thompson and Jackson. Not only were they reacquiring him for their playoff push, but they were also committing to pay him through 1999-2000, when his three-year, $10 million contract is up. In effect, Indiana coach Larry Brown, who often knows more about what he doesn't like in a point guard than what he does, was admitting he had made a mistake in jettisoning Jackson. Says forward Antonio Davis, "All I can think about is. Why did we get rid of him in the first place?"
Before the deal the Pacers, who have reached the postseason for seven straight years, were just 24-27, but Indiana won live of its first seven games after Jackson replaced 24-year-old Travis Best in the starting lineup and is within 3� games of the Magic for the eighth and final Eastern Conference spot. "It's like we were lending Mark to the Nuggets for a little while," says Pacers sharpshooter Reggie Miller, who phoned Jackson several times a week during the first part of the season. "Hopefully, Mark is going to take us to another level."
In Indiana's 104-85 win over Milwaukee on Feb. 28, Jackson handed out 19 assists; two days later he had his third triple double of the season (17 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds) to spark a 101-85 victory over the Lakers. "I'm not a savior, I was just a piece of the puzzle that was missing in Indiana," says Jackson. "I bring to the table some things that were needed, like leadership, unselfishness and professionalism. I've always been more about substance than flash."
With an average of 12.0 assists, Jackson is 1.5 per game ahead of Utah's John Stockton, the NBA leader in that category for the last nine seasons. And yet the more the 6'3", 185-pound Jackson has improved at the point, the less his skills have seemed to matter in today's wham, bam, slam and jam NBA. There's no question that he's a world-class plodder. His feet barely leave the court when he runs, and the heavy wrist tape and the two thick black ankle supports he wears—"My Forrest Gump braces," he calls them—don't exactly conjure up images of Carl Lewis.
Jackson puts his stamp on the game in a dozen subtle ways. His is the no-look pass that finds the hot-handed teammate. He is the one who chats up the ref after a bad call, barks at a loafer on defense or offers a calming nod from the free throw line in the final moments of a close game. Jackson may average a mere 10.4 points a game, but he has a hand in nearly every move his team makes. It's a hand the Nuggets sorely miss already. "It's hard catching the ball down at your ankles and making shots now," says Denver swingman Dale Ellis.
"I'll give you one word to describe Mark Jackson: fabulous," says Nuggets forward LaPhonso Ellis, who pitched a fit when Jackson was traded. "He's absolutely fabulous. And I don't care what he looks like doing it, he always gets the job done."
Such testimony is sweet vindication for what Jackson believes is the proper way to man the point. "I used to ooh and aah at dunks when I was a little kid," he says. "But I would go crazy over what created that dunk: the pass, the pick, the steal, the little things that not many people see. The great ones can completely control a game without scoring a point. And to a basketball purist, that's like a singer hitting the perfect note or a poet writing the perfect line or a dancer hitting the perfect step. It's art."
A lost art, Jackson adds, citing his All-Star snub. "Forget leadership, forget passing, forget playing smart or playing hard," he says. "You watch what gets rewarded on the highest level of this game and you start realizing you better grab the ball and learn to be selfish."