Wednesday December 3rd, 2008

If the Big Three automakers developed a vision for the future, if our richest financial leaders understood the crucial details of their own portfolios, or if Stephon Marbury emerged as a stabilizing force in the Knicks' lineup, it would be no more unexpected than this: Stephen Jackson has become an NBA team leader averaging more than 20 points per game.

"He's meant everything to us,'' Warriors coach Don Nelson said. "He's our captain, we've played him at every position except center, and he's responded well wherever he's been. He sure competes every night, and I love him to death.''

The Spurs used to say nice things about Jackson, too, when he averaged 11.8 points as a starter for their 2002-03 championship team. Then he incited the 2004 Detroit brawl by chasing Pacers teammate Ron Artest into the stands, and two years later he was arrested for firing several gunshots in the air outside an Indianapolis strip club. When Indiana unloaded him in 2007 as part of an eight-player exchange with the Warriors, Jackson was known less for his play than for his suspensions.

"When I got hit by the car in the strip club incident,'' he said of the fight in the parking lot, "that put a lot of things in perspective. I almost lost my job. I almost lost my life. I almost lost my ability to provide for my family and for my kids. And when I got traded, I was going to Golden State with the mind frame, All right, I've always been a humble guy. Why not be a humble guy now? Why start being arrogant and thinking that all of this stuff was given to me because I'm somebody special? I worked for this, God has blessed me with this. So I got back to appreciating life and the game of basketball, and just focusing in on what's important.''

The Warriors didn't mean to elevate Jackson's role so sharply. But their circumstances changed: Baron Davis moved as a free agent to the Clippers, and his replacement, Monta Ellis, tore up an ankle in an apparent moped accident that has sidelined him indefinitely. In the meantime, Jackson was signing a three-year, $28 million extension through 2012-13.

Jackson is the oldest Warrior at 30. He is the franchise leader in community relations work, and on the court he sets the example for his young teammates in the Warriors' latest cycle of rebuilding.

"He's straightened his life out and he's not in those same areas he was in when he was getting himself in trouble,'' Nelson said. "He's always had leadership ability. His desire to win brings people along with him, and he's always had a great desire to win.''

Even in his worst moments, Jackson retained value in the league because he was talented and he played hard. In the last year, he has tried to elevate the rest of his life to a level equal to his game.

"He's doing a good job of keeping our heads up,'' guard Kelenna Azubuike said. "It's been a tough year so far and it's going to get tougher, and he's done a great job of keeping us together.''

"The organization gave me some responsibility that I needed, because now I have to lead by example,'' said Jackson, who is averaging team bests of 20.6 points and 6.6 assists in an NBA-high 42.2 minutes. "I have to watch some of the things that I do, I have to watch what I say and try to control my emotions, and it's definitely helped me to be a better player as you're starting to see on the floor.

"Last year, I didn't get kicked out of one game, and I had my best season because I stayed focused and didn't worry about things I can't control. I can't argue with refs about calls knowing they aren't going to change them. It took me a while to figure that out, and with me being captain, I'm not going to help my team while I'm kicked out of the game and in the locker room.''

Jackson occasionally helps out Warriors employees like equipment/travel manager Eric Housen.

"He's one of the hardest-working guys in the league,'' Jackson said. "They don't make the money we make. Sometimes I give them my licensing check from the league, or I'll give them $1,000, just to show people I appreciate them, because I know what it's like to work hard and not get appreciated.

"Being called the leader of an NBA team, the highest professional league of basketball in the world, it's a blessing. I definitely couldn't predict this.''

Another player benefiting from a second chance is Magic guard J.J. Redick, though he has faced different circumstances than Jackson. When he wasn't injured during his first two seasons, Redick was unable to earn time in the rotation.

"I'm a different person now than I was two years ago,'' Redick said. "I believe it's all part of God's plan, growing me into the man He wants me to become. Basketball is just one part of that.

"The way you carry yourself, everything -- I look back on some of the things I did, some of the ways I thought, and this experience has humbled me. I'm glad it happened."

Redick was the consensus college player of the year before Orlando drafted him with the No. 11 pick in 2006.

"I was thinking about it the other day. I've played a little over 82 games now,'' said Redick, who recently played the 90th game of his three-year career. "So I'm into my second season, game-wise.

"Things always came kind of easy to me. I didn't have a lot of patience. I've learned a lot, and in all honesty I think I've become a better basketball player because I've had to do extra stuff. I've had to put myself in great shape, I've had to work on my defense. In the long run, it helps me.''

Said Magic general manager Otis Smith: "He's better in areas [of the game] than he anticipated and we anticipated. He's a better defender than most people think, so he's doing a good job.''

The opportunity to play has come at the expense of thumb injuries to guards Mickael Pietrus and Keith Bogans, who both could be out until early January. The pressure is on Redick to exploit his minutes, but he is shooting only 31.0 percent overall and 29.4 percent from the three-point line while averaging 4.4 points in 18.1 minutes.

"I'm getting a chance now, I've just got to knock some shots down,'' he said. "I'm shooting the ball horribly.

"The reason I was drafted -- the reason I'm in the NBA really -- is because of my shooting. So I've got to start knocking down shots. I've had about 10 or 12 balls rim out that felt good. I think the rhythm is right there and it's going to turn eventually.''

The nation of Duke haters will be surprised to hear that Redick has been haunted by his struggles to make simple jump shots. And yet, they shouldn't be surprised when he starts sinking them again.

"I'm not going to say my spirits weren't down, because they were,'' he said of his opening years in the NBA. "I still believe I can play in this league. I never doubted that for a second. But it certainly wears on you a little bit because you do want to help the team win. You do want to contribute.

"But having gone through this, it helps me mentally not just as a basketball player but as a person. My swag was so crazy when I came out of college, my cockiness. This experience has been good for me.''

Nelson keeps hearing innuendo that he is meddling to undermine his friend Chris Mullin, who may not return to the Warriors as personnel boss next season. Nelson maintains he has nothing to do with the issues between Mullin and team president Robert Rowell, who is known to want Mullin to focus more on administrative details and to take a harder line in disciplining players.

If he were to backstab the vice president who hired him as Warriors coach in 2006, "it would be the worst thing in the world,'' Nelson acknowledged. "I hate for that kind of talk to even come out. I wish nothing but the best. He's like my son to me. I would never do anything negative.

"It's really not my fight. I have to be there, so I guess I get blamed. But I don't want his job. I wouldn't take his job if they gave it to me. I've got my hands full coaching. I don't want to be a general manager anymore. I've done that, been there, don't like it. All I want to do is coach the team. So no matter what happens there, you won't see me ever stepping up and taking that job. Ever.''

The rumors were further inflamed when Nelson's assistant coach Larry Riley was elevated to assistant GM. This was viewed by some as a power move foisted by Nelson. The coach calls that preposterous.

"He was taken from me,'' Nelson said of Riley. "I miss him. I've got nobody to hang with now. I'm all alone on the road. It's been a nightmare for me. No, I had nothing to do with that. ''

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