Mark Jackson slides a jazz tape into his car stereo and accelerates to the pace of his fellow New Yorkers on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Though the rainy winter morning is more dreary than dreamy, Jackson reflects on what he has just left behind: his family's two-story brick house in Queens, where he has lived since he was seven and where he still shares a room with his kid brother. Then he muses over what lies ahead: Madison Square Garden, where, as a 22-year-old rookie point guard, he will lead the New York Knicks onto the floor that afternoon against the Atlanta Hawks. Life is happily warped like that for Jackson these days: Roll out of your boyhood bed, hop into your black BMW 735i and head into your lifelong fantasy.
In a blink, it seems, Jackson's Catholic Youth Organization wish has become NBA reality. The hometown Knicks gambled on him, calling his name in the first round of the draft, right there in front of his friends and family, and then early in the season peddled one veteran playmaker and waived another so he could run the team. Now his shrewd play and spectacular passing have put him at the top of this season's rookie crop. Through last week, Jackson was averaging 12 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.54 steals and, most notably, 10 assists a game. His feeding frenzy is threatening the rookie mark for assists (690) that was established 27 years ago by Oscar Robertson.
When Jackson reaches the Garden, it's as if he has left his living room and dribbled over to the park around the corner. As the Martin Luther King Day crowd files in, teachers from P.S. 136, the elementary school Jackson attended, and friends from his junior high. I.S. 74, approach him easily and offer encouragement. An usher he has known since his days at St. John's corners him and rambles on about a current Redman's predilection for gold neck chains. While Jackson's parents, Harry and Marie, settle in near courtside, Mark's 15-year-old brother and roommate, Troy, performs one of his jobs as a Knicks ball boy: pushing a mop under one of the baskets.
Jackson knows that most rookies would get tied up in knots operating in front of so many familiar faces. "People said there would be a lot of pressure on me, a kid from New York City," he says. "But I said, This is going to be a lot of fun. I'm going to come here ready every day to play, because I have a reason. There are 20,000 people expecting me to do the job, and that's what I want."
By this midseason game against Atlanta, the Garden fans, even those who don't know him personally, have come to expect that Jackson will, at the very least, keep the Knicks in the game—and perhaps even get them a victory. Jackson is the first Knick introduced, which is coach Rick Pitino's way of assuring that the first cheer from the crowd won't be of the Bronx variety. Jackson draws an even more enthusiastic response from the Garden's denizens when, eight minutes into a nip-and-tuck first period, he patiently spearheads a three-on-two break, deftly drawing the defense toward him before peeling a pass off his right hip to Patrick Ewing for a thunder dunk. A moment later Jackson drills a three-point jumper to put the Knicks ahead.
Calmly taking on heavy responsibilities in front of the homefolks is old stuff for Jackson. During his four years at St. John's, the Redmen won 101 games and went 23-9 at the Garden. As a junior, Jackson set an NCAA season assist record of 328; as a senior he was the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and led the conference in three-point shooting accuracy (49.4%). Pitino, who coached Providence last season, beat St. John's three times in 1986-87 by gearing his game plan toward stopping Jackson. Still, the pro scouts weren't sold on Jackson; he's only 6'3", and there were doubts about his speed afoot. Even Dick McGuire, New York's director of scouting services and a former St. John's playmaker, was among the skeptics. "Back then the quickness was a question, now it's not," says McGuire, who has already seen his own 38-year-old record for assists by a Knicks rookie (386) toppled by Jackson.
"In basketball, speed isn't important at all," Jackson says. "A great player like Larry Bird has basically no speed at all. The bottom line is getting your opponent at a disadvantage. I thought the scouts and the critics rated basketball players like they rated ice skaters—the pretty ones got the 10s. They weren't looking at the job I was doing and how I was doing it. I wasn't flashy, I was just getting it done. I can say this now because there's nothing they can do, but only one or two of the scouts actually know what they're talking about."
To those who know what they're talking about, add some 4,000 Knicks fans who, at the NBA draft in New York last June, chanted for their team to pick Jackson. When the Knicks' first choice, No. 18 overall, came up, three quicker point guards had already been plucked: North Carolina's Kenny Smith by Sacramento (No. 6), California's Kevin Johnson by Cleveland (No. 7) and Wake Forest's Tyrone (Muggsy) Bogues by Washington (No. 12). The gallery made it deafeningly, almost threateningly, clear whom the Knicks should take. "We want Mark!" the fans screamed for several minutes.
Says Jackson, "Next to graduating from St. John's [with a degree in communications], those five minutes from when the Portland Trail Blazers picked 17th [guard Ronnie Murphy from Jacksonville] until the New York Knicks chose me were the greatest five minutes of my life. I'm sitting there, the fans are screaming and chanting, and I'm ready to break down. I'm getting ready to cry, and all of a sudden Kenny Smith walks up and sits next to me. That's the only thing that saved me. He gave me a tremendous amount of support."
Smith, who's also from Queens, has emerged as Jackson's main rival for NBA Rookie of the Year. The two played point and counterpoint during their high school careers. Smith got the publicity at Archbishop Molloy, Jackson got the state title at Bishop Loughlin, but through it all they remained close friends.
While some rookies are doing well playing limited roles this season—Indiana's Reggie Miller (11.0 points per game), Seattle wingman Derrick McKey (8.3 points), San Antonio's power post man Greg Anderson (4.8 rebounds) and the 5'4" mighty mite, Bogues (6.2 assists)—only a handful have become effective starters. Phoenix forward Armon Gilliam is averaging 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds after missing 27 games at the beginning of the season with a broken toe, and Golden State guard Winston Garland (12.0 points, 5.5 assists) got his chance to start when Chris Mullin left the Warriors for alcohol rehab on Dec. 19. Still, with the 1987 draft's No. 1 pick, David Robinson, serving the first of his two required years in the Navy, the New Yorkers—Smith and Jackson—have clearly been the class of the freshman class.
Smith, who missed 11 games because of a broken finger, is outscoring (13.7 to 12.0) and outshooting (47.9% to 43.6%) Jackson but trails him in assists (10.0 to 6.7), steals (2.54 to 1.2) and exposure. Jackson has won two of the three Rookie of the Month plaques awarded this season.
Nobody predicted so much success so soon for Jackson, but he's now way ahead of some of the more celebrated first-round draftees. The Nets' Dennis Hopson (the No. 3 pick) and the Clippers' Reggie Williams (No. 4) started for their teams early in the season, but each of these swingmen has shot less than 40% (and Williams is now on the injured list). It hasn't helped that they're on lousy teams and that neither seems comfortable on the floor. But the strongest candidate for Disappointment of the Year honors is Murphy, who was chosen just ahead of Jackson. He showed up at Portland's training camp out of shape, has at times been 10 to 12 pounds overweight, missed the first five weeks of the season with a stress reaction in his right foot, and was suspended for three weeks for failing to comply with a diet and training program ordered by the team. Through last week he was averaging 3.6 points in 41 minutes in his seven games.
So much for the No. 17 pick. As for No. 18, every game promises more wondrous passing feats. Jackson's presence has made a better player of Ewing, who is receiving passes—though not always catching them—the likes of which he hadn't seen in his two previous seasons with the Knicks. "It was comfortable playing with Mark right off the bat," Ewing says. Indeed, it was Jackson's self-assuredness on the court that gave the Knicks' brass the confidence to unload veteran playmakers Rory Sparrow, who was traded to Chicago, and Gerald Henderson, who was waived and then signed by Philadelphia. "It was evident, from day one, that when Mark stepped on the floor, we were a better team," Pitino says. "He made everyone else better, and that's rare for a rookie." Says Jackson's backcourt partner, Gerald Wilkins, "Mark came in and took over like he knew where to go, where to be, how to do it and when to do it."
Against the Hawks, the Central Division's first-place team, Jackson is matched against All-Star Glenn (Doc) Rivers, the kind of guard Jackson admires—unselfish, steady, a pro's pro, much like Jackson's boyhood idol, Walt Frazier. "He wasn't as flashy as Earl Monroe, who'd come down spinning, taking fadeaway jump shots," says Jackson. "Frazier was doing the job. I could see that as a youngster."
While Jackson's game has some Clyde-like qualities—the quick hands, the upright alertness, the cool—his style is all his own. He's a talker, for one thing, always exhorting teammates. He's also unflappable. "He's the type who could go oh for 12 and then want to shoot the game-winner," says Jack McKinney, the former Laker and Pacer coach who scouts part-time for the Clippers. In the half-court game, Jackson mainly patrols the perimeter, from where he can hit the jumper, whip an inside pass or burst toward the basket. "There's a difference between passing and delivering," McKinney says. "He delivers." When Jackson opts to penetrate, he holds on until the last, most perilous instant, taking the extra dribble to draw the defense to him, then resumes his drive or dishes to a cutter. "Great instincts," McKinney says. And when he has the ball in the open court, anticipation builds in the Garden. He'll pass blind, behind his back or backward, to the wing or toward the basket, or he'll fake any one of those and do another—or come up with something completely new. "He's absolutely fabulous on the break," says McKinney.
In the third period against Atlanta, as Jackson begins a rush upcourt with Knicks on both his flanks, he has already imagined how the play would develop. "As soon as I get the ball, it's sort of like I take a picture of where everybody is, who looks like they're busting out of the lane, and I just have a sense of where they'll be," he says. It's easy to imagine the wheels turning inside his closely cropped noggin (the source of his nickname, Chuckie, for Charlie Brown) as he arrives at the top of the key. As the two Hawks defenders retreat to protect the hoop, Jackson pauses and rocks back slightly, drawing them outward a step or two and giving his wingmen a little more time and space to dart toward the basket. With an alarming suddenness, Jackson throws a righthanded bounce pass through the defense to Wilkins, who gathers it in for a dunk, gets fouled and makes a three-point play. Jackson's bit of divine invention gives New York an 82-75 lead.
On defense the frisky Knicks trap and scrap; when they have the ball, under Jackson's guidance, they play with poise. With New York ahead 105-99 and 1:06 to play, he's fouled. At the line, he goes into the odd preshot ritual he has performed since he was a teenager. He extends his right arm toward the basket and sights the hoop between his thumb and forefinger, which are held about half an inch apart. "Someone told me just to visualize the rim and the ball going in," Jackson says. He misses both shots, which is unusual for him; he's a 70.3% shooter from the line.
The Knicks hold on to win 110-102, for one of the 15 victories they've had in 23 Garden games so far this season. (They were a wretched 1-20 on the road at the All-Star break and stood fourth in the Atlantic Division.) While Rivers finishes with 13 points and 10 assists in 31 minutes, Jackson plays 43 minutes and gets the first triple-double of his career—11 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds—and the first by a Knick in three seasons. The New York press corps descends on Jackson afterward. There are questions about why he's so much more productive at home, an allusion to a recent suggestion by a writer that Jackson's assist totals were being padded at the Garden, a charge that Bootsy Dunn, a Knicks' stat man for 20 years, hotly denies. (The controversy fizzled on a subsequent road swing, when Jackson outdished Magic Johnson 16-8 and the Kings' Smith 12-5.) The hint of homerism is bugging Jackson, but he tells the assemblage with a smile, "Now you'll start questioning my rebounds."
This guy's a natural. It's as if Jackson were the Big Apple's gift to itself. He makes his fellow New Yorkers happy, his Knicks teammates happy, even the press happy. Now all he has to do is hope that the Knicks can land a few more players as talented, comfortable and forward-looking as he is. "If we played every game at home," Jackson tells the press, "we might be the champions." You've got to hand it to him. He's still dreaming.