Why We Watch: Stephen Jackson, Who Is Stephen Jackson

The best rapper in the NBA. The fan-punchingest teammate. The quickest trigger. The one and only.
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Stephen Jackson is the most talented rapper in the National Basketball Association. Stephen Jackson once followed a teammate into the stands without hesitation to fight a group of fans because, in the words of the man himself, “that's the definition of a teammate, being together, being there for your teammate.” On his chest Stephen Jackson has a large tattoo of two hands that are simultaneously praying and clutching a firearm. Stephen Jackson hit six of seven 3-pointers and got fouled on two other 3-point attempts, making five of six free throws, in the decisive game six of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. As he said to Ric Bucher in 2004, moments like that are “what I live for. I make love to pressure.”

 

These are some of the best known “accomplishments” of Jackson’s career, the lines on his C.V. that your eyes are naturally drawn towards.  All that wild picaresque is the backbone of his career, a series of gambles, measured or otherwise, that collectively defy our attempts to judge, or even fully comprehend.

Taken together, it’s enough reason to watch – no, to study – Stephen Jackson. Anyone who’s been paying attention to what has come before should realize that the remainder of his NBA career merits our rapt attention. And yet there is the fact that Jackson, peerless an exemplar of NBA over-the-toppery as he is, plays for the San Antonio Spurs, the supposedly joyless, cynical, undead franchise that has haunted postseason play for 15 years. A team that is so dull that the mere thought of actually tuning in to watch the San Antonio Spurs, even to catch a glimpse of a player as idiosyncratic and indelible as Stephen Jackson, will send many NBA fans headlong into the arms of whatever's on The Food Network.

This is stupid. Jackson only has so many years left before he leaves the Association, and of all this is likely to be the part you most won’t want to miss. Forget what you think know about the Spurs. They are not who you think they are, but that’s not what’s at stake. For the time being, concentrate on Stephen Jackson.

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Jackson has always been a talented and deeply flawed player. Despite his booming personality and unquestioned self confidence, some of Jackson’s best years have come when he assumed a secondary role. Captain Jack hasn’t always accepted that role graciously. But when he has, he has been both especially effective and a unique joy to watch. He’s done so in San Antonio more readily than anywhere else.

At this point in his career, Jackson’s offensive arsenal is largely limited to his high-arching 3-point shot. You’ll find him perched atop the curve of the 3-point line, or slinking quietly into the corner, lurking in spots that are familiar to any San Antonio shooter. But something about Jackson’s shot provides an extra bit of electricity. Maybe it’s the fact that it sails so high yet drops in so softly. Maybe it’s the big toothy grin that follows each make, or the pinky, ring and middle fingers of each hand that he so prominently displays while jogging back down the court.

By no means are these the league’s most outlandish 3-point celebrations. There are no blown vocal chords or holstered guns. They are all rather tame, actually, when compared to the peacock-ish celebratory techniques favored by younger generations. On the court, Jackson's wild-eyed, truth-serum-soaked style achieves a certain calmness, albeit one rendered big and bold-faced by his palpable and magnetic confidence. Jackson moves with the easy, eager air of a chucker, of a guy who remembers all the makes and none of the misses, but his shot selection and personal aesthetic seem pretty sane nowadays. So does he. Jackson takes what Timmy, Tony and Manu give him, and seems happy to have it.

Not every night is a Stephen Jackson night. More often than not, the general NBA fan is in the mood for the aerial theatrics of younger, more athletic players. Having a drink with Jackson might provide the conversational equivalent of such theatrics, but over the years his playing style has lost the reckless-yet-rewarding feel that it had between his co-starring role in San Antonio’s 2003 title run and his crazed performance in the co-leading man role during Golden State’s 2007 first round upset against Dallas. Jackson’s always been quick on the draw, but nowadays he appears to have a better sense of just how many bullets are left in the chamber.

Jackson still walks with the air of an outlaw, of course. He does so because that is what he is, and because no amount of accrued time in San Antonio’s broader corporate culture of silver-and-black understatement can divest him of the renegade status he earned when he barreled into the stands of the Palace at Auburn Hills during his time with the Pacers. But unlike some members of the NBA’s untouchable caste who gave the aughts its motley vibe – Artest, Iverson, Arenas – Jackson’s relaxed transition into the winter of his career has endowed him with a certain nobility.

There’s something painful but lovely about watching a player during the closing years of his career. It’s sad to realize that Jackon, whose pathological application of principle and irreverent refusal to respect the NBA’s proscribed pecking order have provided us with so much drama and humor over the years will soon be back in Port Arthur, Texas, and so far away from the bright lights that so brilliantly illuminated both his talent and his flaws. But that realization prompts us to reflect on what that man has meant to us and to the game.

“The game.” It’s a grandiose but empty notion to reference. Yet I can’t help but feel that something about Jackson’s contributions to the league, however trivial they may seem at first glance, should endure. The ill-advised tattoos. The ill-advised shots. The ill-advised public statements. The moments of wild, careening transcendence. The long moments, the whole years, of total batshit mania. But there is steely substance hidden somewhere amidst the insanity.

I get the sense that some are anxiously awaiting the day we’ll have forgotten about all this old-weird-NBA nonsense. But it’s exactly players like Jackson, the natural show-stealers who starred in a few critically acclaimed independent productions but never landed that leading role in a big-budget Hollywood feature, whose careers we should make a special effort to remember.

When the careers of superstars come to a close, we pay attention. They get farewell tours, solemn sit-downs in which some ESPN type urges them to consider their legacies. The exits of the character actors who give the league its texture, in contrast, often slip by without much discussion. One day, one year, they simply aren’t there anymore. Jackson is of that second caste, and on that trajectory, if not quite at the end of it yet.

This likely won’t be Jackson’s last year in the league, but it may be the last high-water mark of his relevance. He will go out shooting, of course, but this may be his last chance to make those shots count. If there was ever a time to celebrate all the energy and error that Stephen Jackson has brought to his sport, it’s now. The celebrating doesn’t require much in the way of effort. Just remember to watch Stephen Jackson while you can, and he’ll give you something to watch.

Illustration by Dustin P. Watson/Darkwing Illustration. Buy a print of it here.


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