Why We Watch: Jerry Stackhouse, Who Remembers

Jerry Stackhouse has never been anyone's favorite player but his own, but he's still here.
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There have been other Jerry Stackhouses. One of these scored more points than any other player in the NBA, in 2000-01. Another was one of the best high school players of his generation during Bill Clinton's first term in office. All of these players are alive, diminished in brilliance if not in orneriness, in the Stackhouse who is—astonishingly—still playing in the NBA. If he is inevitably not quite any of those other Jerry Stackhouses any longer, he is still recognizably himself.

The 2012-13 version of Jerry Stackhouse is like Jerry Joseph in reverse, a young never-was assuming a new identity for a second chance. Stackhouse hasn’t really had anything approaching a significant NBA role since 2007-08; he has played in just 89 games over the past four seasons. The biggest impact Stackhouse has made on the league during that period came he replaced Joe Johnson on Atlanta’s team in the Shooting Stars contest at the NBA All-Star Game last season. Most people doubtless assumed Atlanta had decided to use two retired players.

And yet here Stackhouse is, in his 18th season and first with the Brooklyn Nets, receiving meaningful fourth-quarter minutes and actually doing something with them, including knocking down threes at a rate previously unseen during his long career. Stackhouse has been playing so (surprisingly) well so far this season that he was even able to able to adroitly son Hawks coach Larry Drew after hitting five three-pointers against the Boston Celtics.

"I was in a playoff series against this team last year, and didn't even get in the game," he said. "Who was the smart guy that decided that?" Jerry Stackhouse said that.

***

That is how you know it’s still him in there. No one has ever been surer of Jerry Stackhouse’s abilities than Jerry Stackhouse. He’s had to be; great as he has been at scoring points, he has never been anyone’s favorite player, with the obvious and unsurprising exception of himself. He’s never had the game or the personality for that sort of stardom; for all his point-scoring, Stackhouse has mostly been overshadowed, and generally rightly. He has never even been anyone’s favorite player from the University of North Carolina to be drafted in 1995.

That would be Rasheed Wallace, of course, who is still stealing Stackhouse’s shine all these many years later. It's doubtful that either imagined, back in 1995, that either one would be at all relevant in the NBA in 2012-13. It's hard to see how anyone might have imagined that last year. But here we are, and there they are.

Of the two of them, maybe Sheed projected to be comfortable with his current role at career's end. Sheed projected to be a ton of things, which means that his present Rascally Big Man Off The Bench role never was off the table. But Stack always seemed to be too proud to accept such a submissive role; it seemed reasonable that he would willfully ignore the moment when his fast-twitch muscles cashed in their collective 401(k) and opened a bait shack somewhere. He'd ignore it until he couldn't, until the league retired him.

And he hasn't really accepted it so much as tolerated it. He very much remains the guy who did a not-bad 360 after Vince Carter took the 2000 dunk contest behind the woodshed, then nodded to himself like, "Yeah, what now, Vince? I got you." That's what has gotten Stackhouse so far, but also why it is so strange to see him get this far. He considered himself a deserving starter when he wasn't even the sixth man on the Mavs' mid-decade teams. He is salty with Larry Drew for not playing him ahead of Marvin Williams in a six-game playoff series loss.

It seemed a virtual certainty that Stackhouse would go out like his similarly assured (if far more iconic) teammate Allen Iverson, blind to his own encroaching basketball mortality to the very end, insisting even as he slid down the bench and toward the exit that the team would play better if only he got more touches, if only he were allowed to play his game. When Stackhouse's career entered its coming-off-the-bench phase after he was traded to the Mavericks, there was always a barely manageable and only intermittently managed fury there. "Nobody in this league is going to tell you that they don’t want to start," Stackhouse said. "I’ve bought into it, hoping there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But do I feel I could be starting on this team? Hell yeah."

It feels like forever ago, but we’re not that far removed from Stackhouse's me-first then and his player/coach now. Do I feel like that’s incredible? Hell yeah.

***

But it seems, to look around the league, as if there's an assistant on every bench no one would have thought would ever have been there, early in their careers or even later—Bob McAdoo, Chuck Person, Nick Van Exel, Sam Cassell. You might say you'd be surprised to see Latrell Sprewell back-benching it with a clipboard for, say, the Bucks next year. But, in context, you shouldn't be. The NBA rewards confidence, even if the game at some point punishes those whose confidence is misplaced; it never excommunicates those whose self-belief is pure and true. If you're good enough to make the league, there is always a home for you there. It keeps career arcs fungible, constantly living. That's how, as different as they were and are, Sheed and Stack can wind up in the same place, against any reasonable projection and also quite logically.

In some sense, though, it seems as if Stackhouse has been at this point in his career forever. Some of that might just be the name, admittedly. His is an old man's name, belonging not to a professional basketball player but to a shop steward in North Carolina who played some ball back in his day, sure, but got married too young, had kids, and never figured out how to show any of them that he really loved them. Still, it fits him. Because Stackhouse has always come across as a man older than his years, nostalgic for a time that maybe never existed, keeping on because why not, filled with a self-assurance that no slight—no unending, years-long series of slights—can erode.

When Jerry Stackhouse leaves the game—finally, someday—he won't leave behind all that much. He was never given that option, not that he cared or even really noticed. His legacy probably amounts to that strange scoring title—Allen Iverson scored more points per game in '00-01, although Stackhouse scored the most points—and the time he changed into sweats after playing the Jazz so he could smack Kirk Snyder. Stackhouse will pop up in some arena a decade from now, singing the national anthem, and you’ll remember him, but only vaguely. There’s no signature game or play.

You’ll have forgotten him. But then, you did that a long time ago. Stackhouse will remember, though. He'll remember every slight and every bucket, little things that only he ever knew in the first place. He’ll be damn sure he could still play 20 minutes if you needed him. He'll tell you he was open on the last play. He might even be right.

Illustration by Aaron Hadley Dana.


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