If ever an athlete has taken his surname literally, it's Jerry Stackhouse. The Detroit Pistons' shooting guard resides in a modern 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home in suburban Orchard Lake that makes The Palace of Auburn Hills look like a bungalow. The Stack House includes a three-story indoor palm tree, a hot tub the size of a pool and a pool the size of a lake. The basement doubles as a first-rate sports bar, replete with four big-screen televisions, a nine-foot pool table, and Ms. Pac Man, Galaga and Frogger consoles.
It's also in his basement that Stackhouse entertains guests with a spectacle fit for The Discovery Channel. Once a week or so he nourishes the six piranhas in his aquarium with a handful of live fish. The guppies hit the surface and then, in the blink of an eye, disappear in a cloud of blood, bones and gills. The piranhas that employ the proper block-out technique get a well-balanced meal. The ones slow to react go hungry. "If you miss your chance the first time around," says Stackhouse with a wide, vaguely sadistic grin, "it could be a while before you get a good meal again."
As Stackhouse well knows, similar rules apply in the Darwinian fishbowl of the NBA. When Stackhouse entered the league in 1995 as the third pick in the draft, Fila rolled out his signature line of sneaks and Sprite featured him in its ad campaign. A high-flying, telegenic scorer from North Carolina, the 6'6" Stackhouse appeared to be a prime candidate to fill the pending Jordan vacuum. When he didn't, Madison Avenue redirected the spotlight to players such as Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant. Stackhouse all but fell out of sight. "It was sink-or-swim time," he recalls.
He swam, and now, at 26, he has established himself as one of the game's elite players. After making his first All-Star appearance last year, Stackhouse is playing the best ball of his life, racking up points like a pinball wizard. At week's end he led the league in scoring with 29.8 points per game, single-handedly keeping his overachieving team in contention for the postseason. With Grant Hill gone to the Orlando Magic, Stackhouse had led the 14-23 Pistons in scoring 33 times and was first in assists (4.7 per game) while often taking the toughest defensive assignments. "I don't think there's another player who does more for his team than Stack, and that includes Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury," says Detroit guard Dana Barros. "He's a one-man band."
A relentless attacker who ranks among the league's strongest finishers, Stackhouse is best known for his midair frills, which make him a highlight-show staple. But there is an unmistakable Rust Belt grit to his game. He scores the bulk of his points on mid-range jumpers and spends more time on the line than a lovesick teenager. (Only Shaquille O'Neal had attempted more foul shots than Stackhouse through Sunday's games; it should go without saying that Stackhouse led the league in foul shots made.) That Stack-house is invariably double-and triple-teamed—in what opposing defenses might call Jerrymandering—makes his tumescent stats more impressive still. "Give him single coverage, and he'll get 40 points every night," says Pistons forward Ben Wallace. "What can you say? Stack is the Man."
The first time Stackhouse was thrust into a similar role, the results were less than spectacular. As a 20-year-old rookie he was hailed as the savior for the Philadelphia 76ers, who had won 24 games the previous season. Given carte blanche with the ball, Stackhouse scored prodigiously. But he was surrounded by second-and third-rate talent, and the team dropped to 18-64. The following season the Sixers drafted Iverson, another trigger-happy guard, and Stack-house became a second option. Stackhouse downplays any animosity between himself and Iverson—and vigorously denies the widespread rumor that their respective entourages had a battle royal—but the dissonance was apparent on the court.
Stackhouse was elated to be traded with Eric Montross and a second-round draft choice to Detroit in December 1997 for Theo Ratliff, Aaron McKie and a first-round pick, but he was again cast as a subordinate, this time to Hill. Agitated by his diminished status, Stackhouse pressed and forced shots, which only made him play worse. Rock bottom came during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when he lost his starting spot to Joe Dumars and Lindsey Hunter and averaged a career-low 14.5 points. Stack-house says he had no problem backing up Dumars, who played with tidal consistency and is now Stackhouse's boss as the Pistons' president of basketball operations. "But Lindsey Hunter?" says Stackhouse, still incredulous. "If my game isn't at the point where it stands out over Lindsey Hunter's, something's wrong."
Compounding his frustration, players his age and younger—Bryant, Carter, Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett—were flourishing. "They were popping up, and I'm thinking, I know I'm just as good as those guys," Stackhouse says. In the summer of '99 he returned to Chapel Hill, worked out with a personal trainer, shot hundreds of jumpers every day and, as he puts it, "rededicated" himself to basketball: "I kept telling myself, The cream rises."
While Stackhouse has regained his toehold as a star, he's still fighting a perception that he suffers from elephantiasis of the ego, shoots too much and can't excel within the framework of a team. "The word is that he doesn't play well with others," says one Eastern Conference general manager. The Pistons say that the rap is as misguided as an O'Neal free throw. "He's putting up 30 shots because we need him to," says Wallace. "He's a great teammate and a great leader, not selfish at all." (That Stackhouse ranked third in the league in assists among shooting guards at week's end seems to bear this out.)
"I have a newfound respect for Stackhouse," says Magic general manager John Gabriel. "He's done a better job than anyone thought he would of galvanizing the Pistons. He plays hard, and as a result, they play hard."