Stephen Jackson was at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport late last week, minutes from begrudgingly boarding a connecting flight to San Francisco, when his cell phone buzzed in his pocket.
The call was coming from a number with a 210 area code he didn’t immediately recognize, so Jackson let it go to voicemail.
Then came the text message.
It was from Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and contained six words that caused Jackson to step out of line, right there at the Delta gate: “Pop wants to talk to you.”
Moments later, Jackson was on the line with a voice from his past. Gregg Popovich told him the Spurs were on the verge of acquiring him from the Golden State Warriors, who days earlier had acquired him from Milwaukee.
“I teared up,” Jackson said, recalling the story Monday at the Spurs’ practice facility, “because this was something I always wanted to come back to.”
Jackson’s bags would make it to the Bay Area, but Jackson would not. The plane went wheels up without him. Delta re-directed him to San Antonio, a place Jackson spent two of his first three NBA seasons and considered home, even when it wasn’t.
Remarkably, not much has changed since the summer of 2003, when Jackson left in the afterglow of the Spurs’ second NBA championship for a free-agency payday in Atlanta.
Popovich is still the Spurs’ coach. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still the Spurs’ foundation. They have the same playbook and the same culture of “pounding the rock” Jackson remembers from his first tour in silver and black.
Even the GM is the same.
“R.C. still looks 16,” Jackson said.
In another sense, everything is different now.
Since last playing for the Spurs, Jackson has gone from 24-year-old playoff hero to NBA pariah and back.
The swashbuckling small forward has played for five other teams in nine seasons between stints with the Spurs. He has been arrested. On Nov. 19, 2004, Jackson took part in the most infamous brawl in NBA history, the so-called “Malice at the Palace,” when he went swinging into the stands in Detroit to retrieve then-Indiana teammate Ron Artest.
In 2009, he helped lead Golden State, a No. 8 seed, to a monumental playoff upset of top-seeded Dallas. The next season, the Warriors dealt him to Charlotte, who last June traded him to Milwaukee, where he languished this season while feuding with coach Scott Skiles.
Obtained by the Spurs in a trade-deadline deal last Thursday that sent oft-maligned small forward Richard Jefferson to Golden State, Jackson — now 33 — hopes to recapture some of the magic that marked his first shift in South Texas.
“This is the only place I’ve won a championship,” said Jackson, a Port Arthur native who Wednesday against Minnesota will play his first home game at the ATT Center since the 2003 Finals. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t think about it.”
On paper, Jackson seems like the anti-Spur, a loose cannon often teetering on the edge of impropriety.
Monday, for instance, Jackson — a career 16.1 points-per-game scorer who averaged 10.5 in 26 ill-fated games with the Bucks — described his propensity for clutch shooting with this phrase: “I still make love to pressure.”
Somehow, it’s difficult to imagine those words coming out of, say, Duncan’s mouth.
And yet, there is another side to Jackson, one inexorably linked to even the most sordid elements of his history, and a reason the Spurs had been trying to reacquire him almost since the day he left.
“He’s a diehard teammate,” said Duncan, simultaneously the staid arbiter of the straight-and-narrow Spurs Way and one of Jackson’s biggest fans. “He’s a guy who lays it on the line for his team.”
Jackson also has an unlikely ally in Popovich, a no-nonsense coach renowned for running his team with a drill sergeant’s discipline.
“He’s got an edge to him,” Popovich said. “I like his edge.”
To those who know him, that’s always been Jackson. Swaggering and sometimes misguided, but with a big heart usually in the right place.
The night in October 2006, when he was arrested and accused of firing a gun outside an Indianapolis strip club? That was simply to protect a Pacers teammate, Jamaal Tinsley.
Jackson, who notes he had teeth knocked out in the incident when a car clipped him, pleaded guilty to felony criminal recklessness and received community service.
The “Malice in the Palace?” He only charged into the crowd that night to ensure Artest made it out alive.
For that, Jackson earned a 30-game suspension.
“Every situation I’ve been in was me coming to the aid of a teammate,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t me acting wild on my own.”
That part of the story, Jackson believes, has been lost between the lines of the past.
“I don’t regret any of it,” Jackson said. “Obviously, I lost money because of it and got a bad rep because of it, but I’ve always been a team guy, and I’m always going to be there for my teammates.”
Properly channeled, that is the attitude coaches and teammates have always loved about Jackson. If he will literally fight for his teammates off the court, surely he will figuratively fight for them on it.
“Pop’s going to have to rein him in at some point,” Duncan said. “But all in all, that’s the kind of edge that we want from him.”
Yet for all the edge Jackson offers the Spurs, the Spurs have something to offer Jackson as well.
In San Antonio, Jackson has a chance to not only redirect the trajectory of his roller-coaster career, but perhaps to end the ride on his own terms.
He has one more season left on his contract after this one. He’d like for the move back to South Texas to be his last.
The way Jackson sees it, the call he took from Popovich in the Minneapolis airport last week didn’t just represent a change in airline itinerary. It was a lifeline to a better landing.
“It’s been a long road, but to end up back here is great,” Jackson said. “I get to be around family again, people I call family, and play good basketball and win.
“That’s all I want to do.”