It was his postseason ritual. Every spring Jim Jackson, his team not in the NBA playoffs, would pack his bags and head to Chicago to visit his boyhood pal from Ohio, Bulls guard Ron Harper. "I wanted to get a feel for what the playoffs were all about, to soak up the atmosphere," says the 6'6" Jackson, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, "so that one day when I got there, I would have a little insight."
For three straight years, from 1995 through '97, Jackson made his pilgrimage. He would stay at Harper's house. He would ride to games with him and sit with Harper's family in the United Center stands. He would even join Harper, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in their early-morning weightlifting sessions at Jordan's home.
Along the way Jackson gained an appreciation for how hard the Bulls worked and for how Harper had reinvented himself. Once a big-time scorer with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers, Harper had willingly become a role player for Chicago, crashing the boards, diving for loose balls and often taking the toughest backcourt defensive assignment. "He was a role model for me," says Jackson, a smooth shooting guard who averaged 25.7 points for the Dallas Mavericks in 1994-95. "I saw how he gave up part of his game to win a championship."
Last Saturday, after waiting seven years and 446 games to make his playoff debut—the ninth-longest such drought in NBA history—Jackson finally got to put the lessons he learned from Harper to work. As Isaiah Rider's backup at shooting guard, he scored 12 points in just 14 minutes, including a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter, and did all sorts of Harper-like dirty work as the favored Blazers whipped the Phoenix Suns 95-85 at the Rose Garden. "I loved it," Jackson, 28, said of his first dip in playoff waters. "It was everything I expected it to be."
From the moment he first took the court, at the start of the second quarter, Jackson performed like a postseason veteran. He called out switches on D, swung the extra pass to forward Walt Williams in the corner for a huge fourth-quarter three and clawed through a screen to get a hand in Phoenix guard Rex Chapman's face, forcing an air ball in the final minute. It was a typical Jackson performance this season, as plain and unadorned as the JJ tattoo on his right arm. Although he averaged only 24.0 minutes and 8.4 points, far off his career marks of 35.4 and 18.6, respectively, he was an invaluable contributor off the bench, keeping the Blazers' machine well oiled. "He could be a starter," Portland coach Mike Dunleavy says, "but he's willing to do whatever the team needs."
After the game Jackson hugged Rider as a shower of red-and-white streamers fell from the Rose Garden roof. Suddenly all those losing seasons with the Mavericks, New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors were a distant memory. "This is the reason I came here," said Jackson, who rejected bigger money from the Clippers to sign a three-year, $5.8 million free-agent deal with Portland. "I wanted to be in a winning situation."
Last year, when his Warriors failed to reach the postseason, Jackson couldn't bring himself to visit Chicago again, but that doesn't mean his ritual springtime meetings with Harper are finished. "This year," Jackson says, "he's coming to visit me."