NBA at 75: How Stephen Jackson changed our minds about Stephen Jackson

Golden State Warriors, NBA at 75, San Antonio Spurs

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During his career, Stephen Jackson was vilified for his outspoken opinions. In retirement, he’s become a thought leader for the NBA community.

In the mid-2000s, before the NBA was the neo-liberal corporate ally it is today, Stephen Jackson was public enemy number one. It’s an off juxtaposition, considering Jackson’s work in 2020 as a boots-on-the-ground activist for racial justice and police accountability applied pressure on the NBA to adopt a sudden Spring Awakening on African-American issues it had long ignored, suppressed, and rebuked.

During the pandemic, Jackson used his platform as co-creator and co-host of All The Smoke podcast on Showtime to galvanize the country around the assassination of young African Americans and people of color at the hands of police.

Jackson used his celebrity to build a coalition across the nation to organize protests after the murder of his friend, George Floyd, a man he called “twin” for the similar features they shared. Jackson’s organic efforts were quickly mimicked by the league, which rushed to burnish its image as a corporation that elevated Black voices and supported its player’s right to protest. Ironic, since under David Stern and before, the league did everything in its power to stifle players organizing over political issues, including going so far as to suspend them when they chose to protest the anthem peacefully.

That Jackson would galvanize Americans of all races and backgrounds to unite over police brutality isn’t a surprise to those who watched him play during his prime in the 2000s. Jackson was a beloved teammate and helped make playoff contenders out of several lottery-bound legacies. He helped turn around the luck of the Charlotte Bobcats (2009-2011) and Golden State Warriors (2007-2009), was the heart and soul of a contending Indiana Pacers team (2004-2007) and was the sixth man on the championship-winning San Antonio Spurs team in 2003.

Stephen Jackson wasn’t even supposed to be here

The Port Arthur, Texas product was a high school state champion and was recently honored this year during the Texas UIL state tournament. As a late second-round pick, Jackson had to work his way through development leagues before finding his place as an elite two-way player who made every team he joined better. Jackson attended Butler County Community College but didn’t play there, instead relying on his street cred as an elite baller in pickup games with friends on the Phoenix Suns. That was enough to convince Suns team president Danny Ainge to gamble on his potential in the 1997 NBA Draft.

Even then, it would take three more years of proving himself in the CBA and overseas in Australia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic before he finally earned an NBA roster spot.
Throughout his career, Jackson was more than just a 3-and-D wing, scoring over 20 points per game in three different seasons and averaging 15 points per game over his 14-year career.

For casuals, Jackson is best remembered as one of the main instigators of the Malice at the Palace brawl between his Pacers and the Detroit Pistons in 2004. But as we saw in the 2021 documentary about the brawl, Untold: Malice at the Palace, many fans were just as guilty, as was the league, who failed to properly secure the arena with enough security or a contingency plan for violent fans.

As a result of that incident, Jackson was suspended for 30 games and his reputation was stained, even though he did not incite or start the fight. A Pistons fan started it all by throwing a cup of beer at Pacer teammate Ron Artest, who then charged into the stands. Jackson followed him into the melee to bring him back while looking after his teammate.

Without the help of the league, or a PR-backed campaign, Jackson reclaimed his honor by continuing to be the teammate he always was, even the one who followed Artest into the stands.

The suspensions of Jackson and others thwarted the Pacers’ chance at a championship. When Jackson was traded to Golden State, he found a team of fellow outcasts to bond with and play for.

Jackson was the vocal leader of that historic team, which became the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series. Jackson locked up future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki a few weeks after he was named that season’s MVP. It was a masterclass in fronting and footwork, as Jackson frustrated the big German, getting inside his personal space and mind. It took Nowitzki years to bounce back from the embarrassment of being shut down by a smaller defender.

The Charlotte Bobcats were the butt of the NBA when Jackson arrived in 2009. But once he arrived, he put in quick work in elevating the newish franchise’s luck by and leading the Bobcats to the franchise’s first playoff appearance. He also finished 12th In league 2010 MVP voting, tied that season with Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, and Chauncey Billups.

The Nets, Spurs, Hawks, Pacers, Warriors, Bobcats, Bucks, Clippers.

Just about everywhere Jackson went, he made the team he joined better. His teammates could always count on him giving his all. On him guarding the other team’s best player. On him wanting the ball in crunch time. Jackson played at a time where the media, the league, and fans lacked the empathy to see him as a complete player and person. They harped on the negative. They focused on his upbringing. Judged him on the way he dressed and spoke. And when he went up into the stands to protect his teammate, he was vilified without regard for context.

Jackson is a champion, the ultimate teammate, a dawg, and someone who has worked hard to make things better. He’s made mistakes but tried to own them. He should be remembered for all he did on and off the court, as someone who respected the game and never backed down from a fight, especially when it wasn’t popular to do.

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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