NBA Finals: Once ready to walk away from basketball, Reggie Jackson is now 1 win away from title with Nuggets

DENVER — Nuggets forward Jeff Green snagged a late steal in the last minute of their Game 4 win, just another veteran doing the little things in this big NBA Finals puzzle.

At that very moment, another veteran, point guard Reggie Jackson, felt he was in Green’s place, feeling how close the Nuggets are to winning their first NBA title.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be back, like I know it’s a great run but you almost start believing, is it for you? You’ve been chasing something for so long, it’s been eluding you. Is it actually for you? Seeing him, he had a moment, he couldn’t move,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports on Sunday. “I told him, ‘I was living vicariously through you.’ Myself, [DeAndre Jordan], a couple vets, we couldn’t say anything for a couple minutes. It’s so close.”

The backup point guard is one win away from his first title — against the team that denied a rookie Jackson his first chance at a ring, the Miami Heat in 2012.

“It’s fun to look at different moments in this series, especially the older guys,” Jackson said. “It’s setting in. Guys, we’re so close. We’re not gonna let up. We can feel it.”

Denver Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson smiles after a play in an April game at Ball Arena. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson smiles after a play in an April game at Ball Arena. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Jackson couldn’t have predicted being here, in Denver, let alone the NBA Finals. He started the season with the Clippers, believing they had a strong shot of playing in June, but he couldn’t have pictured that either.

That was a resurgence from his darkest days as a professional, when he contemplated retirement during a period that should’ve been Jackson at his height, where all the gifts, the sacrifice and the work were supposed to come together.

“No, I can’t believe I’m here now,” he said. “Especially after Detroit, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play anymore and then being resurrected in LA [with the Clippers]. The build-up there, the fun there. Then being traded, it’s coming full circle.”

Jackson was ready to walk away from it all. Retire. With years remaining on his contract, a five-year, $80 million deal he signed in the summer of 2015, Jackson’s relationship with the game deteriorated so much because his body wouldn’t cooperate.

Nagging ankle injuries wouldn’t go away and he went from being one of the more underrated point guards in the league to an afterthought. After being underutilized in Oklahoma City, he’d finally begun to fulfill his purpose — remember his prideful strut around the Palace of Auburn Hills floor when the Pistons clinched a playoff spot in 2016 — against the Thunder.

His first 1½ years in Detroit, Jackson averaged 18.5 points and seven assists on nearly 44% shooting. The next two years he couldn’t stay on the floor, and even though he returned in 2018-19 to play all 82 games, the 28-year old Jackson couldn’t recapture the magic.

His numbers were respectable (14.9 points, 4.8 assists), but not to his expectations.

“I didn’t wanna do it no more,” Jackson said. “Couldn’t find the reason to keep getting up and continuing to push and get better, something I’m passionate about and love to do. But I felt like my body kept failing me.”

There’s an amount of work that goes into maintaining a status of being a productive NBA player, let alone continuing to climb. Rehab and his own thoughts became the daily exercises, not being on the floor.

“I felt like I was never gonna be able to be healthy and to be able to compete,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’m letting people down, my teammates, an organization. You know, the coaching staff, having high hopes and in Detroit at the time, making progress and making [it] back to the playoffs after being gone for so long.”

Jackson is an intuitive type. He asks, “How are you doing?” and then watches ahead of listening. Being a military brat, living in so many places, having to be the new kid and adjusting on the fly gave him an extra sense of perception.

“You get used to being uncomfortable, then you get comfortable and uncomfortable. And who you are and how you relate to the world,” Jackson said. “And how you introduce yourself. I think it helps with empathy. You see yourself in a lot of people, for more than who they are. You see the spirit of a person.”

Some days it’s exhausting to be so aware, so he values his alone time, rare as it may be. But when he asks the question, there’s a genuine interest so even if he can’t relate, he wants you to know his energy is in that place, in that moment.

“A lot of us just want to be seen. We don’t see each other enough,” Jackson said. “It’s just taking an extra moment to let somebody know that they’re seen, valued, you matter. It’s funny how much body language tells everything.”

During that period, though, Jackson knew he was hard to be around. By his own admission, he was “sulking.” And he was aware, which made him retreat even deeper into himself and his own thoughts.

“It was hard trying to stay positive, really believing I would come back and then never hitting those markers,” he said. “You’re trying to give as much advice as you can, but [at the] same time, you got to let the team grow without you.”

If the game, if the team was going to grow in a different direction, Jackson wasn’t going to fight it. He went through the stages of most relationships, bargaining and then looking for a lifeline after being released from the Pistons weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020.

Paul George, a close friend, helped pull Jackson from the muck not long after — he saw Jackson. Jackson wasn’t sure the game was loving him again, but he was willing to give it another try. Jackson was thankful, effusive in his praise for team ownership, coaching and teammates in Detroit, some of whom are on the Nuggets roster — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith.

But being in Denver required more winding turns.

It’s full circle in a way, unfinished business in another — but then again, so are so many places on the Reggie Jackson map. By the time his family settled in Colorado when Jackson was in high school, he’d already lived in six places — the only NBA player born in Pordenone, Italy. The nomadic nature of pro sports can leave one both with the feeling of familiarity while also yearning for stability.

So once Jackson was traded from Los Angeles at the deadline for Mason Plumlee, he wasn’t in a huge rush to leave yet another place he’d allowed himself to call home. The days went on, as his older brother kept reminding him, to pack his things and get ready for the next place on the Reggie Jackson map.

First Oklahoma City was home, then Detroit, then finally, Los Angeles. All required life adjustments, not just basketball adjustments — then being waived by Charlotte led to Denver signing him immediately after.

Jackson knew he was still productive, and that the Nuggets had a good chance of going this far — but he was feeling the push and pull yet again.

Three days left, two days left. The duality of coming back home was a source of optimism, but what he was leaving behind made it hard to get out of bed in those days in between. He was leaving home, in a new sense.

“Then it got down to the last day, I had to come out here for the game, you have to pack,” Jackson said. “You have a couple hours. It’s hard. I knew mentally I would have to, but I had so much love for the organization, the city and what’s being built there. The bonds and everything.”

Reggie Jackson and Paul George hug during a 2021 game with the Los Angeles Clippers. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Reggie Jackson and Paul George hug during a 2021 game with the Los Angeles Clippers. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

He would’ve liked to have finished what he helped start, especially with his long-standing friendship with George. Those two brought the Clippers to within two games of the NBA Finals in 2021, with Jackson averaging 20.3 points in the West finals on 46% shooting. But he also wouldn’t have minded seeing them in the second round of the playoffs this season, which didn’t come true as they were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in five games — without George for all of it and Kawhi Leonard for most of it.

“I think just, you get older, you realize everything has a timing,” Jackson said. “Sometimes things last forever. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we’re here for a season, sometimes we’re here for a reason.”

He’s close to fulfilling the reason, as one of the vets giving wisdom and inspiration to the young horses who’ve carried the Nuggets to the doorstep of history. He hasn’t played as much as he would like, but understands his role at this moment.

“I can’t wait till, hopefully, we get this done and then everything, the emotion comes at once,” Jackson said.

From retirement to maybe, a ring.