NEW YORK – From across the gym, Don Nelson heard his most beloved player's description of him and bellowed to Stephen Jackson, "Older white guy?" The Golden State Warriors' un-exiled star held his arms to his sides, palms up, as though stumped for a comeback. Jackson started laughing, his teammates roared too, and he finally barked back to Golden State's coach.
"Well, I didn't want to say old man."
Nelson doubled over in laughter, and here was the reason that Jackson is so indebted to him, why in a lot of ways he played the best basketball of his life for him a year ago.
"It's amazing that an older white guy understands me more than anybody I've been around in my whole life," Jackson said. "He sees through all the tattoos and all the stuff people say about me. He knows how I love the game."
Over the summer, Jackson was visiting friends in New York when Nelson called with a question that no coach had asked him since high school.
Did he want to be a captain?
For a moment, Jackson slipped into a goose-bumped silence.
"Coach," Jackson finally said, "you're going to make me cry."
No one had ever entrusted Jackson with so much standing on a basketball team, so much responsibility, and sure, maybe he had never earned it until now. Yet, the gesture of a part in a tri-captaincy moved Jackson, the 6-foot-8 forward, to the brink of tears. It wouldn't be long until he called his mother in Texas with the news and treated his buddies to a champagne toast.
"My whole day stopped," Jackson said. "It was like I just won a championship.
Funny, but it's easy to forget that Jackson knows what that feels like too, because he was the third-best scorer behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker on the San Antonio Spurs' 2003 championship team. Maybe his jagged NBA career would've gone smoother had he taken less money and re-signed in that protective San Antonio cocoon, but the contract details never did work out. If you want validation as a winner in this league, though, it comes from no higher authority than the Spurs dynasty, and general manager RC Buford swears by Jackson as a coachable player and a trusted teammate.
"He's a natural leader," Nelson said. "You want your players listening to him. I made him captain for a selfish reason: It makes my job easier."
Yet, no one remembers Jackson, 29, for his title run in '03, but those two lost nights as an Indiana Pacer when he barreled into the stands with Ron Artest in Auburn Hills in 2004 and later in 2006 when he fired a gunshot into the sky in the parking lot of an Indianapolis strip club. That trigger pull earned him a felony pop, and inspired the best thing to happen to Jackson's basketball life since his season with the Spurs. He would go to the Warriors in January, where Nellie plugged him into the lineup of a serial loser and watched his relentless, wiry game play an immense part in resurrecting the franchise. With the Warriors as an eighth seed, Jackson averaged 22.8 points and defended bigger, stronger players on the way to slaying the No. 1 Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference playoffs.
Between then and now, though, there was a summer of 100 hours of community service in Indianapolis that he completed with a bright, mature disposition. "He really used it as a life lesson, and not something to be bitter about," Golden State GM Chris Mullin said. The NBA suspended him for seven games to start the season as punishment for the gun felony, and the Warriors would lose six of those games with Jackson able only to play cheerleader and mentor in practices.
"It was killing me not to be with the team," he said. Still, he returned Sunday night in a victory over Toronto to start the Warriors' five-game Eastern trip, and make no mistake: Golden State's a profoundly different team with him. So far, Nelson and Mullin have marveled over how seriously Jackson has taken his tri-captaincy with Baron Davis and Matt Barnes. No one had ever shown such belief in Jackson, and the Warriors hierarchy understands that what once had been one of his fatal flaws – loyalty – could turn into one of the forces for change in his life.
They gave him ownership in these Warriors, greater consequences beyond himself for screwing up, and Jackson embraced the burden.
"This makes me think more now," he said. "It gets me thinking about leading more by actions than word.
"Whatever I do, I think about my team first and how important I am to them."
So, Jackson promises to steer clear of those wild tantrums that always get him technical fouls and ejections, those moments of temporary insanity that have haunted him most of his life. As a gift from Baron Davis, he's reading John Maxwell's, The Difference Maker: Making Your Attitude Your Greatest Asset, and trying to understand how to funnel his fury into Good Jack instead of Bad Jack.
At practice Monday in Manhattan, you could see Jackson's presence – his charisma, his charm, his energy – resonate in the gym. As Jackson talked on a sideline bench, Davis, stuffed inside a steel basketball cart, wheeled his way to Jackson's feet and started crooning love song lyrics.
"We're all back together, all silly again," Jackson nodded with a laugh.
These Warriors had a remarkable run late last season, and they're trying desperately to recapture it at 2-6. For Jackson, it starts with letting go of so many old demons and avoiding old traps. He knows people want to call him a thug, and he knows those who've grown to know him through the years insist that his essence defies all those simple stereotypes.
"Stereotyping is so easy these days," Jackson argued on Monday. "If people know anything about tattoos and the bible, the bible says that the body stays in the dirt and your soul goes to heaven. So our body is just a shell. So if people know anything, they'll know that tattoos are just art."
Nevertheless, Jackson has done damage to his image with his own destructive deeds. Mostly, he's been his reputation's own worst enemy. He should be one of the game's great success stories, a kid who didn't play in college, bouncing through outposts in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, LaCrosse and Fort Wayne, before gaining his footing in the NBA. "Hey, I'm one of those guys who tried out for just about every NBA team before I got a job," he said.
Someday, Stephen Jackson wishes that people would see him as an American success story, and maybe that's still out there with the Warriors now. Rest assured, it wasn't for his public image that he had his newest tattoo carved into his chest this summer, but his own peace of mind. Beneath the ‘C' on his uniform, there are two praying hands holding a gun near a church window.
To Jackson, this was his past and future meeting in the middle of his body.
"It wasn't to bust balls, but it was a tattoo for me," he said. "I swore to myself that I'll never be in an incident again. I was just praying to God that I'll never have to use a gun again. It's just something that I want to help me when I want to think about where I came from, and where I am now. I'll just have to look at that tattoo and remember to keep a level head."
After all, the Warriors' old white guy sees beyond the tats and cornrows and bad history, and Don Nelson believes in Jackson. He's a captain now. This is his team, his time. Stephen Jackson can't screw it up again.