Prelude, 1997-00: You get drafted 43rd by Phoenix, and they waive you on the eve of the season. It sucks, but getting cut is not even close to the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Basketball is life, but it’s not real life. None of it is easy. You head to the CBA, to Australia, to Venezuela. You ball out, because you’re Stephen Jackson.
New Jersey, 2000-01: You’re 22 years old, and the Nets give you a shot. Your formative professional influences are now Byron Scott, Kenyon Martin and Stephon Marbury. You get free, fresh socks every game. Starbury takes you under his wing. The team goes 26-46, and you average 8.2 points in 21.6 minutes per game. People in the league know you now.
San Antonio, 2001-03: In the offseason, you’re signed by the smartest franchise in the NBA. Later, ex-Spurs assistant coach Mike Brown says you were “probably the most talented player on the team.” Duncan, Parker, old David Robinson and Bruce Bowen are on the same team. You’re wild, though, and you only play in 23 games that first season.
The following season, San Antonio wins 60 games and the title, beating your former team in the Finals. You’re the Spurs’ third-leading scorer in the playoffs, right between Tony and Manu. You make big shots. You’re Stephen Jackson. You’re about to get paid.
Atlanta, 2003-04: You misjudge the free agent market, or at least that’s what people say, and you land in Atlanta. You put up 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game. It’s basically you, Jason Terry, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and a bunch of dudes. You’re the tenth-highest paid player on a team that wins 28 games. At least it’s Atlanta.
Indiana, 2004-07: You get traded for Al Harrington; you’re a Pacer now because Larry Bird, Indiana’s Team President and one of the sharpest basketball executives alive, likes you. You play for Rick Carlisle, alongside Ron Artest, on whom you immediately imprint. When he scrambles into the stands to fight some fans, you go, too, leading with your fists.
They’ll never say you’re soft. They’ll never say you’re not a rider.
Golden State, 2007-09: You get traded for Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy; you’re a Warrior now, not because you’re not playing well, but because you’re Stephen Jackson. Your first game back in Indiana, you hang 36 points on the Pacers. You’re a two-way star, a talent actualizing his prime, versus Dallas in the playoffs. You make people believe!
Over the next few seasons, you bond with Baron Davis and Matt Barnes, and in Nellie’s permissive system, you bump up your averages:
2007-08: 20.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 14.9 PER
2008-09: 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 16.1 PER.
Charlotte, 2009-11: You get hurt, wear out your welcome in the Bay Area, and get traded to the Bobcats for Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic. Michael Jordan likes you. You score 43 points, a franchise record, lead the team to its first playoff appearance, record Charlotte’s first triple-double, and finish 12th in MVP voting. You are Stephen Jackson.
Milwaukee, 2011-12: You get traded to the Bucks, because now you’re just some oddball asset, in exchange for Corey Maggette (to the Bobcats) and John Salmons (to the Kings). You almost don’t show up, but you do, and then the Bucks trade you back to the Warriors for Monta Ellis. Two days later, Golden State trades you to San Antonio. Whatever.
San Antonio, 2012-13: You are 33 now, and you’re definitely Kawhi Leonard’s backup. He’s 20. He’s who you used to be. At first, it’s nice just to be off the merry-go-round. In the 2012 playoffs, you join the 50-60-90 club, playing 21 minutes a night. It’s all good, until the Thunder knock out the Spurs. You feel less necessary. People are forgetting.
In 2012-13, you average 6.2 points in 55 games. You remind Serge Ibaka about the order of things. San Antonio cuts you loose before the playoffs, then makes the Finals. It’s not easy. You’re almost gone.
Los Angeles, yesterday: You get signed by the Clippers, who need wing depth after your buddy Barnes, J.J. Redick and Reggie Bullock are lost to injuries. You’ve suited up for more than a quarter of the league’s teams now. The first 11 years of your career, your average annual PER was 14.1, a bit below league average; the last two seasons, it’s 9.4 and dropping. You’re renowned more for your persona, off-court exploits, and overall toughness than for your basketball performance. You’ve always been able to play, though. People either believe in you or think you’re emblematic of everything the NBA needs less of. You’re a little crazy, a little tired. You’re older, but still potent, a well-worn battle axe. You’re going to play in Boston on Wednesday night.