Mark Jackson slides a jazz tape into his car stereo and accelerates to the pace of his fellow New Yorkers on the Brooklyn- Queens Expressway. Though the rainy winter morning is more dreary than dreamy, Jackson reflects on what he has just left behind: his family's two-story brick house in Queens, where he has lived since he was seven and where he still shares a room with his kid brother. Then he muses over what lies ahead: Madison Square Garden, where, as a 22-year-old rookie point guard, he will lead the New York Knicks onto the floor that afternoon against the Atlanta Hawks. Life is happily warped like that for Jackson these days: Roll out of your boyhood bed, hop into your black BMW 735i and head into your lifelong fantasy.
In a blink, it seems, Jackson's Catholic Youth Organization wish has become NBA reality. The hometown Knicks gambled on him, calling his name in the first round of the draft, right there in front of his friends and family, and then early in the season peddled one veteran playmaker and waived another so he could run the team. Now his shrewd play and spectacular passing have put him at the top of this season's rookie crop. Through last week, Jackson was averaging 12 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.54 steals and, most notably, 10 assists a game. His feeding frenzy is threatening the rookie mark for assists (690) that was established 27 years ago by Oscar Robertson.
When Jackson reaches the Garden, it's as if he has left his living room and dribbled over to the park around the corner. As the Martin Luther King Day crowd files in, teachers from P.S. 136, the elementary school Jackson attended, and friends from his junior high. I.S. 74, approach him easily and offer encouragement. An usher he has known since his days at St. John's corners him and rambles on about a current Redman's predilection for gold neck chains. While Jackson's parents, Harry and Marie, settle in near courtside, Mark's 15-year-old brother and roommate, Troy, performs one of his jobs as a Knicks ball boy: pushing a mop under one of the baskets.
Jackson knows that most rookies would get tied up in knots operating in front of so many familiar faces. "People said there would be a lot of pressure on me, a kid from New York City," he says. "But I said, This is going to be a lot of fun. I'm going to come here ready every day to play, because I have a reason. There are 20,000 people expecting me to do the job, and that's what I want."
By this midseason game against Atlanta, the Garden fans, even those who don't know him personally, have come to expect that Jackson will, at the very least, keep the Knicks in the game—and perhaps even get them a victory. Jackson is the first Knick introduced, which is coach Rick Pitino's way of assuring that the first cheer from the crowd won't be of the Bronx variety. Jackson draws an even more enthusiastic response from the Garden's denizens when, eight minutes into a nip-and-tuck first period, he patiently spearheads a three-on-two break, deftly drawing the defense toward him before peeling a pass off his right hip to Patrick Ewing for a thunder dunk. A moment later Jackson drills a three-point jumper to put the Knicks ahead.
Calmly taking on heavy responsibilities in front of the homefolks is old stuff for Jackson. During his four years at St. John's, the Redmen won 101 games and went 23-9 at the Garden. As a junior, Jackson set an NCAA season assist record of 328; as a senior he was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and led the conference in three-point shooting accuracy (49.4%). Pitino, who coached Providence last season, beat St. John's three times in 1986-87 by gearing his game plan toward stopping Jackson. Still, the pro scouts weren't sold on Jackson; he's only 6'3", and there were doubts about his speed afoot. Even Dick McGuire, New York's director of scouting services and a former St. John's playmaker, was among the skeptics. "Back then the quickness was a question, now it's not," says McGuire, who has already seen his own 38-year-old record for assists by a Knicks rookie (386) toppled by Jackson.
"In basketball, speed isn't important at all," Jackson says. "A great player like Larry Bird has basically no speed at all. The bottom line is getting your opponent at a disadvantage. I thought the scouts and the critics rated basketball players like they rated ice skaters—the pretty ones got the 10s. They weren't looking at the job I was doing and how I was doing it. I wasn't flashy, I was just getting it done. I can say this now because there's nothing they can do, but only one or two of the scouts actually know what they're talking about."
To those who know what they're talking about, add some 4,000 Knicks fans who, at the NBA draft in New York last June, chanted for their team to pick Jackson. When the Knicks' first choice, No. 18 overall, came up, three quicker point guards had already been plucked: North Carolina's Kenny Smith by Sacramento (No. 6), California's Kevin Johnson by Cleveland (No. 7) and Wake Forest's Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues by Washington (No. 12). The gallery made it deafeningly, almost threateningly, clear whom the Knicks should take. "We want Mark!" the fans screamed for several minutes.
Says Jackson, "Next to graduating from St. John's [with a degree in communications], those five minutes from when the Portland Trail Blazers picked 17th [guard Ronnie Murphy from Jacksonville] until the New York Knicks chose me were the greatest five minutes of my life. I'm sitting there, the fans are screaming and chanting, and I'm ready to break down. I'm getting ready to cry, and all of a sudden Kenny Smith walks up and sits next to me. That's the only thing that saved me. He gave me a tremendous amount of support."
Smith, who's also from Queens, has emerged as Jackson's main rival for NBA Rookie of the Year. The two played point and counterpoint during their high school careers. Smith got the publicity at Archbishop Molloy, Jackson got the state title at Bishop Loughlin, but through it all they remained close friends.