Officially, Stephen Jackson is a Warrior. Realistically, he's a lame duck. He hopes to be a Cav, Mav, Knick, Spur, Rocket or owner of some other NBA identity soon. Very soon. Regardless, his identity crisis promises to bring high drama this season, even if nothing changes for him.
The mercurial, disarming, detestable, energizing, pouting, church-going, club-hopping, street-hardened, sensitive swingman who ignited Golden State's stunning late-season run and first-round upset of top-seeded Dallas in 2007 wants out. And when Stephen Jackson is unhappy, you'll surely know about it. No jittery kid in need of a bathroom could make his wishes known any more clearly.
Jackson unexpectedly debuted his desire to be traded at a public event in New York on Aug. 28. Since then he's been fined by the league, been stripped of his captaincy by the same coach, Don Nelson, who had nearly brought Jackson to tears by bestowing the honor on him a year ago, and been suspended by the Warriors' front office for lashing out at Nelson in a preseason game.
He reaffirmed his thirst for a transfer on Wednesday in Indianapolis, where the Warriors' group dysfunction was put on display in their 14-point loss to the Pacers.
"My attitude is still the same," he said. "I'm not going back on anything I said. I want to win. I'm 31 years old. I'm not getting any younger. I want to make the best of my last couple years. I want to be somewhere I can win a championship. I'm a missing piece to a lot of teams."
True enough. Cleveland, especially. Jackson would give the Cavs another legit scorer and, more important, another stout-hearted defender. He respects coach Mike Brown, who was an assistant during Jackson's first season with the Pacers, and would defer to LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal, just as he deferred to Reggie Miller in Indiana.
Jackson also lists Dallas as a desired destination, a curious choice given his frustration with Rick Carlisle's coaching style when he played for Carlisle in Indiana. He also gave approval to Houston, where he's building a home for his wife and six children, and San Antonio. But he also loves New York, which is no closer to a playoff berth than it is to bringing Walt Frazier out of retirement, and even said he wouldn't mind returning to Indiana, where he seems to be equally loved and loathed.
But what if he's traded to a losing team in an undesired location? He's confident general manager Larry Riley will take care of him, and would prefer staying in Golden State to that option -- a scenario that seems nearly impossible at the moment.
Wherever he goes, or stays, Jackson brings potential complications, not the least of which is his contract. The three-year, $28 million extension he signed in November 2008 doesn't kick in until next season, so a team that trades for him isn't taking a short-term risk for a title run this year, but rather making a long-term commitment fraught with both peril and possibility.
Jackson can help a team win a championship, as he did while starting for San Antonio in 2003. He can help rejuvenate a struggling team, as he did for the Warriors during their playoff run in 2007. He also can help implode a team if he becomes unhappy.
He proved that in Indiana, where the fan base turned against him after he was suspended 30 games for his role in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004 and then became involved in a strip-club incident at the start of training camp in 2006. And he's proving it again now with the Warriors, who were unable to maintain the momentum established after he arrived in an eight-player trade with the Pacers in January 2007.
"We did some great things but it seems ever since then the team has been breaking up and we've been going downhill," Jackson said. "I just want it to be the same team it was when I got there. I don't want it to get worse. We've gotten younger and our record has gotten worse every year."
The Warriors won 48 games following their 2007 playoff appearance, but failed to make the playoffs. They slipped to 29 wins last season, and were 2-5 heading into Friday's game in New York, with the only victories coming against Memphis and Minnesota. Only four players remain from the team that inspired all those "We Believe" signs in the 2007 playoffs, and Jackson wishes he weren't one of them.
His frustration boiled over last summer because, he says, management promised him a "big-name" player would be acquired to address the team's lack of front-line size. Someone along the lines of Amar'e Stoudemire, perhaps. When it became clear that such a move wasn't going to happen, Jackson began verbalizing his trade desires at the end of August, and hasn't let up.
And to think only nine months earlier Jackson had gleefully signed on to stay with the Warriors through the 2012-13 season. "I am really looking forward to the next several years, helping this young team win and providing my veteran leadership," he said at the time of the extension.
Now? He has a different point of view, as well as a sharp response for anyone who argues he should show more loyalty to the team that gave him such a generous contract.
"I earned my contract, so they didn't give me anything," he said.
That's Stephen Jackson, Captain Contradiction. He was labeled a thug in Indiana for his role in the brawl and outside the strip club. He's never hesitated to fight on behalf of a teammate, a credo he adopted on the streets of Port Arthur, Texas, where friends supported one another just to survive.
He's also a man of limitless energy for charity. He received the NBA's Community Assist Award in March 2008 for his work in the Oakland area, was honored with Stephen Jackson Day by the mayor of San Francisco the following month and received the Warriors' team award for community service as well. Back in Port Arthur, he has founded a school, the Stephen Jackson Academy of Art, Science and Technology, housed in a new building. He's also one of the NBA's most popular players with front-office employees and media members because of his gentle humor and willingness to open a vein and bleed his feelings. His compassion comes from his mother, Judyette, who raised him as a single parent by working two jobs. Rather than sit back and enjoy her son's wealth, she's now seriously considering a run for mayor of Port Arthur.
Jackson's split personality was in abundant evidence Wednesday in Indianapolis. He started the game, but was yanked by Nelson midway through the first quarter after hitting just one of his first five shots. He didn't attempt to hide his displeasure over being taken out, but came back in the third quarter to play all 12 minutes. He sat out the fourth period, however, watching dispassionately from the bench with his chin in his left palm while the Warriors trimmed their deficit from 17 points to eight. He smiled and waved at acquaintances in the front row opposite the team bench and in the end-zone seating to his left, as well as the fans behind the bench who were chanting his name.
During timeouts, he defied protocol by remaining on the bench while Nelson addressed the players who were in the game -- unlike the third period, when he was still in the game but stood on the outskirts of the huddle and barely paid attention to Nelson.
Afterward, Nelson, who seems resigned to riding out the storm with minimal anxiety until Jackson can be dealt, said he sat Jackson because of a sore back. "I didn't think he was moving very well," Nelson said. "I didn't think he moved very well in practice this morning. I didn't expect him to give me much. He gave me what he had."
Jackson quickly and cheerfully disputed that notion. "I've got a scratch, that's all," he said, pointing to a bandage on his lower back. "I'm fine.
"I know a lot of people expected me to blow up when he took me out of the game," he added. "For what? It is what it is."
Whatever that is. The only certainty is that the reeling Warriors are on hold at least until something happens with their deposed captain. Meanwhile, the toxicity appears to be spreading. Starting point guard Monta Ellis blew up at Nelson after the team's practice in New York on Thursday for no explained reason, and lottery-pick rookie Stephen Curry has openly expressed his discomfort with the atmosphere.
Wednesday's limited appearance aside, Jackson insists his desire to be traded hasn't affected his play. True, his stats are roughly in line with the past two seasons when his reduced playing time is factored, but clearly his passion is missing. He says he remains close to his teammates, hosting barbecues at his rented home in the Oakland area, but admits his personal drama has hampered their performance on the court. He blames the media for that.
"People blow up everything that I do," he said. "Whether it's one turnover or speaking my mind, they want to make me out to be the bad guy all the time. I never knew that speaking your mind makes you a bad person."
Bad person? Good person? Jackson will leave the analysis to others. He's just keeping his cell phone handy, hoping for a call that makes his wish come true.
"Hopefully it happens soon," he said. "They're not telling me much. Whatever happens, I'm ready for it."
Ready for a fresh start. And a new identity.