In the quiet moments before road games, the Bobcats heard the gossip. At home, they read the Internet reports. They knew that some 3,000 miles away, Jackson had waged an all-out war with Warriors head coach Don Nelson -- and war that cost Jackson, among other things, $139,000 in salary and his captaincy. Yet, in the days following his arrival in Charlotte last month, not one player in the Bobcats' locker room asked for an explanation.
"Nobody asked me anything," Jackson said. "I think they wanted me as badly as I wanted to get out of Golden State."
"I think we all understood," said Tyson Chandler. "Some of us have been in situations where we had disagreements with a coach or it just wasn't a good fit. I don't think we really needed to know."
Charlotte wasn't Jackson's first choice. It wasn't his second or third, either. Jackson wanted to play for a winner. Two years ago, he was on the floor, lips quivering and tears welling up in his eyes when the eighth-seeded Warriors stunned top-seeded Dallas in one of the greatest upsets in playoff history. Golden State missed the playoffs last season, but only because a loaded Western Conference didn't have room for a team with 48 wins. This team, Jackson thought back then, was going places.
That feeling seemed to vanish as quickly as it came. Jason Richardson was the first to go, traded in the summer of 2007. Then Baron Davis left as a free agent. Al Harrington and Matt Barnes followed, and pretty soon, most the pieces of that promising team had been systematically stripped away.
"You could see the direction they were going," said Jackson. "And I didn't want any part of that. I'm 31 years old. I want to take advantage of my last couple of years."
Cleveland would have been a good fit, Jackson thought. Boston, too. Jackson would have welcomed a trade back to San Antonio, where he could play for a team he won a championship with in 2003 and a coach (Gregg Popovich) whom he revered.
But none of those teams were ever really interested -- not because they didn't want Jackson, but because they didn't want the four years and $34.5 million in salary that came with him.
Charlotte did. Under Larry Brown, the Bobcats had become a stingy defensive unit that ranked among the top five in key defensive categories, like opponents points per game and field goal percentage. But as easy as it was for them to put up points, it was equally as difficult to score them. The Bobcats' 82.4 points per game made them the second-most anemic offense in the league.
Though initially cool on the idea of playing for a non-contender, Jackson quickly warmed to the idea of going to Charlotte. In part, Jackson said, because he wanted to be back in the south (he's from Port Arthur, Texas), and he saw the Bobcats offensive woes and believed he could bring something to the table. But it was also due to the fact that Jackson's relationship with Golden State had to end. The feud between him and Nelson reached an irreconcilable point when Nelson fined Jackson and suspended him for two games -- $139,000 in salary -- for a blow-up on the bench during the preseason.
"I respected [Nelson] and he did a lot for my career by letting me show what I could do out there on the court," said Jackson. "But the love was lost when he fined me in the preseason. A game that didn't even count, you know what I mean? That's when the respect was lost."
In Charlotte, a coach who knows a little something about adversarial relationships with players has welcomed Jackson. For six seasons, Larry Brown waged daily battles with Allen Iverson, a relationship that yielded five playoff appearances and one trip to the NBA Finals.
"No matter what Stephen might say to me when I take him out," said Brown, "I've heard it before."
Those conversations have been rare. In Jackson's first 11 games, Brown hasn't looked to pull Jackson very often. A starter from his first game, Jackson's impact on the Bobcats' offense has been palpable. He has scored in double figures in every game he has played in, averaging 18.1 during that stretch. Charlotte's scoring is up to 96.6 points per game with Jackson in the lineup, and its shooting percentage has risen more than seven points.
"He's exactly what we needed," said Chandler. "Defenses used to not respect us. Coach would tell us to cut and move, but teams weren't paying attention to us [on the perimeter] because they didn't think we could beat them."
Jackson's presence has relieved the burden on some of the Bobcats' primary offensive weapons. His playmaking skills (3.7 assists with Charlotte) have taken some of the pressure off of Raymond Felton and Jackson's ability to defend has benefitted Gerald Wallace, who now has someone to share the top defensive assignments with. In Jackson's second week with the team, Wallace was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
"These guys play hard," said Jackson. "They compete. They want to win. They have guys who respect the game. That's why I want to be here."
They have become winners, too. Charlotte has won six of their last eight games to move into seventh place in the east. On Tuesday, they picked up their biggest win of the season, a 107-95 win over Western Conference power Denver. In that game Jackson tied for the team lead in scoring (25) while leading the Bobcats in assists (6). As he walked off the court, his face was creased with an ear-to-ear smile.
"He fits," said Felton. "It's as simple as that."
• Talk about a rec-league nightmare. When Jason Williams retired from the NBA before last season, he stayed in shape by playing twice a week in a local Miami-Dade community league. His teammates? Tim and Penny Hardaway.
"We won the championship," said Williams.
Shocking. Back in the NBA with Orlando, Williams hasn't missed a beat. Filling in for the injured Jameer Nelson, Williams leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.15) and is averaging 10.5 points in 10 starts this season. In Tuesday's game against the Clippers, Williams outscored Clippers guard BaronDavis 11-4 in the first quarter to set the tone in the Magic's 97-86 win.
"Sometimes when you have a long career you like it and you appreciate it, but I think it goes to another level when you have a year off," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "He really wanted to come back. The thing we liked with him, which is a lot like what we liked with Rafer [Alston] last year, is that we had a pretty good confidence level that if needed, he could play big minutes. He just always had one of those motors that he could go a long time."
• As an undrafted free agent out of Marquette, Wesley Matthews found himself in a dogfight just to make the Jazz roster in October. Two months later, he's become a fixture in Utah's starting lineup. Matthews, the son of nine-year NBA veteran Wes Matthews, was a fill-in starter when Deron Williams was forced to miss two games for personal reasons last month and has stuck ever since. Utah is 9-4 with Matthews as a starter and Jazz coach Jerry Sloan likes Matthews' versatility and ability to defend several positions.
"[Being a starter] was definitely something I aspired to do," Matthews said. "I just didn't think it would happen this early. I'm a competitor though. I want that responsibility. Coach wants me to play defense. I'll take the shots when they are there, but I need to bring energy on the defensive end every night."
• In reporting a story on Houston's Chuck Hayes for this week's Sports Illustrated, I was reminded repeatedly of his competitiveness. Rockets strength coach David Macha told me how Hayes would come into the weight room after practices and ask how much Carl Landry or Luis Scola could lift. And then Hayes, whose favorite line is "I eat weights," proceeded to best the mark.
Shane Battier talked about the argument he and Hayes have been having since last year's playoffs about who should be credited for a game-changing play on Blazers guard Brandon Roy in Game 4 of their first-round series with Portland. With 10 seconds left in the game and Houston clinging to a two-point lead, Hayes stepped in front of a driving Roy and drew a charge. At the same time Roy elevated, Battier came over and swatted the shot away.
"We argue about that play to this day," said Battier. "He thinks he deserves the credit but I say even if he wasn't there I would have blocked the shot."
Good natured arguments aside, Battier knows that the Rockets would be nowhere without Hayes, who despite giving up at least five inches a night has done a superb job keeping opposing big men in check all season.
Said Battier, "There's not a center in this league that Chuck can't match up with."