Stephen Jesse Jackson has been marked by three life-changing altercations. Most people know of two of them—or think they do—and, as a result, have tagged him Exhibit A in the case for the NBA as a safe harbor for stone-cold thugs. There was the nationally televised brawl three seasons ago in Auburn Hills, when Jackson followed Ron Artest into the stands and fought with fans, earning him a 30-game suspension and the NBA an everlasting scar. Two years later, Jackson was in the news again, charged with criminal recklessness for firing a gun outside a strip club. But those events look different in the light of the third, which occurred long before either. It's the one in which he didn't take part, and the only one in which he wishes he had.
The housing project in Port Arthur, Texas, now quaintly named Gulf Breeze, was known simply as Longs 15 years ago. Donald Buckner Jr. took the younger half-brother he called Stevie a lot of places but Longs was not one of them. Stevie understood, well aware of what drugs and poverty could drive folks to do; no one grows up in a town surrounded by six prisons and misses that lesson. Stevie was a 14-year-old burgeoning basketball star when Donald hooked up with a new girlfriend living in Longs. Only she had an ex who hadn't conceded that their relationship was over. Donald visited her one night and the ex called him out to settle it Port Arthur style. "In my neighborhood, no one minded catching a fair one," says Jackson, "and my brother didn't back down from anyone." So they fought, with Donald getting the best of it until the ex's brother and a cousin jumped Donald from behind, attacking him with a bottle and lead pipe. By the time Stevie heard about the fight, Donald was lying comatose in an ICU, 17 staples in his head. Stevie was bedside when a single tear slid down Donald's face as he exhaled for the final time. "You can't tell me seeing his brother die that way hasn't had an effect," says Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh. "To me, it's why he is always coming to the help of his teammates."
And before you write this off as one more athlete apologia, consider this: Security tapes outside that Indianapolis strip club show a group of men, one with a hand in his back pocket and another under his shirt, approaching Pacers guard Jamaal Tinsley and threatening to "spray his car," Walsh says. (The two groups had exchanged words inside.) When a scuffle broke out, Jackson retrieved his licensed 9mm from his car and fired it in the air to scatter the combatants. The men ran for their car and Jackson walked to his. Thinking the confrontation over, he barely had time to jump as the attackers' gray Chrysler plowed into him. Jackson flipped over the windshield, landed on the trunk and fell to the ground before, as he recalls, he choked on his blood and passed out.
That part of the story didn't garner much attention. Walsh knew the details, but he also knew they wouldn't matter to fed-up Pacers fans. First the brawl, now this? So he built a package around Jackson and got back a quartet of choirboys from Golden State. "Jack got booed every time he stepped on the court," Walsh says. "I didn't want to trade him; I had to."
Jackson was raised a devout Baptist—his grandfather rebuilt a church where he worked as a deacon—and he believes in a God who keeps a running score. As he sees it, all that went wrong in Indiana was a test. That the chaos landed him in Oakland—a city that feels like a bigger Port Arthur—on a team with a personality as fiery as his and with a coach who respects him enough to make him a captain, is proof he passed that one. "God spared me because I wasn't there for any drama," he says. "He knows what could have happened, and didn't."
As Al Davis can attest, Oakland has a soft spot for outlaws. Jackson's new franchise was filled with men seeking redemption: Baron Davis, who had battled two head coaches in New Orleans; Don Nelson, who had ruined the Warriors in a previous stay as GM/coach; even Chris Cohan, whose purchase of Golden State had coincided with a 12-season
playoff drought, the longest in team history.
Their collective frustration evaporated last spring amid a sea of yellow shirts inscribed "We Believe." Davis and Nelson got the props after the Warriors toppled the Mavericks, the regular season's juggernaut. But it was Jackson who put all 6'8" and 218 pounds of himself under Dirk Nowitzki's chin, mad-dogging the league MVP into a playoff career-low 38% shooting, while scoring 33 in the series clincher.
Over the summer, Jackson did his time for the gun charge—100 hours of community service. He picked up roadside trash, assembled carnival fences, counseled inmates and reflected on the tricky gap he'd shot to get to the NBA. After wasting a scholarship to Arizona in 1996 when he couldn't score high enough on his entrance exams in five tries, he was stranded in Phoenix until then-Suns GM Bryan Colangelo saw him playing pickup and decided to make him a second-rounder. But the Suns released him at the end of camp, and what followed were two broken feet—one while playing for Australia's Sydney Kings, the other trying out for the Bulls—and stints in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. By Jackson's estimate, he was cut by 15 teams before sticking with the Nets in 2000.
So don't tell the man he doesn't belong in the league—"A lot of people think I'm just an athletic thug"—or that he's bound to flip out again. As Jackson (who received a seven-game suspension for the gun charge) sat on his couch in early November, watching the Warriors lose their first rematch with Dallas, he heard his former Pacers teammate, TNT analyst Reggie Miller, say, "I'll give him a clean slate until something happens." Jackson leaned toward the TV and barked: "Nothing's going to happen! You gonna be waiting a long time!"
Judy Jackson worked graveyard at a refinery so she could spend days shepherding Donnie, Stephen and sister Bianca to school and church. But Donald Sr., according to Stephen, didn't let fatherhood get in the way of running in the streets. Jackson inherited both parents' inclinations, a fact hidden by a demeanor more street-lovin' than God-fearing. The hunched shoulders and tattooed arms, the splay-footed shuffle and a smile that borders on a sneer—not to mention the languid launch of a three in an opponent's grill and the high-risk, high-dribble crossover—radiate a get-off-me-chump 'tude. Of course, fans take one look and think, Well, no wonder. "I've told him he's his own worst enemy," Walsh says. "How he looks isn't who he is." Walsh's advice has had little effect, although Jackson no longer keeps a red bandanna in his locker as a shout-out to his Blood-haunted hood.
Fans also don't see the respect Jackson has from every coach and teammate he's had. "Love him," Tim Duncan says of the man he considers one of his all-time favorite teammates. "He's had his issues, but he's got the right thing in mind." No matter how many minutes he played when he was with the Spurs, Jackson would kick chairs and sling towels whenever coach Gregg Popovich pulled him from a game. Still, says Popovich, "I know his heart. He's a sweet man."
The Warriors, who have seen both sides of the man, have done their best to cultivate his accessibility. When the Oakland Public Library passed on having Jackson as a guest reader in a kids' program, the team suggested that this told kids there are no second chances. Jackson ended up being such a hit when he read that his picture will grace the library's annual report. More recently, a request to photograph the new tattoo on his torso, two hands holding a gun framed by a church window, was stiff-armed by his squad. The artwork symbolizes his hope of never having to use a firearm again.
Back in Port Arthur, he's a one-man economic development program. His music label, Secret Society Entertainment, signed a handful of local rappers. His school, the Stephen Jackson Academy, is "An Education Your Child Needs with the Care He Deserves," as the banner over the door of the three-story building states. Running K-6, it will reopen next fall after a year hiatus, and ground will soon be broken for a gym. All of it has been funded by Jackson. "Stephen is finally maturing," his mother says. "What I have a problem with is, if you learn from your mistakes, shouldn't that count for something?"
It's not that easy. The two faces of Stephen Jackson are so distinct he has names for each. Stack Jack, a nickname his rappers hung on him as the man with stacks of cash, is the hyperanimated side, forever riding to the rescue, on the street or in the game. Stephen is the relaxed, charitable jokester. "The guy everybody loves," he says. Almost everybody. On Halloween, Jackson's high-rise pad was busy with friends and team officials. While waiting for the first group of trick-or-treaters, he tried to get a kiss from Sofia, the 14-month-old daughter of a front office member. Stephen leaned forward, lips pursed. Sofia pulled back, turning her head as if she'd been presented with a forkful of liver.
Goodbye, Stephen. Hello, Stack Jack. Triggered by the snub, he donned a mask, a crazed clown with snaggled teeth and a bulbous nose, and stuck the terrifying mug in little Sofia's face. Sofia, without hesitation, kissed the clown. "Let me see this again," Jackson said. When he took off the mask, Sofia turned away, squinching her nose; when he put it back on, he got another smooch. "Ain't that a … I've got to put on a mask to get a kiss," Jackson said, his lips twisting as if Stephen and Stack Jack were wrestling in his mouth.
It's a battle not likely to end soon. While it might cost him the affection of most, Jackson says keeping Stack Jack around is vital. "He's the better basketball player."