Point guard Mark Jackson's black Ford Expedition has sat,
abandoned, in the parking lot of Denver's McNichols Sports Arena
since Feb. 15. Covered in snow and stained by road salt, the
all-terrain vehicle serves as some wintry monument to how
quickly one's fate can change in the NBA. Jackson left his truck
at McNichols just before the Nuggets took off on a six-game road
trip that, for him, turned out to be permanent. On Feb. 20, the
league's trading deadline, Denver was three hours away from
tipping off against Indiana when Jackson got a call in his
Indianapolis hotel room: He had just been traded to the Pacers.
The 31-year-old Jackson responded by dropping to his knees and
whispering, "Thank God." His ego had been in dire need of a
boost. Despite leading the league in assists, he had been passed
over in January for the Western Conference All-Star squad,
marking the first time in 15 years the league's top setup man
had failed to receive an invitation to play in the game.
Jackson's heady, steady style had come to be viewed as so
anachronistic that he had been traded three times in the last
But now the Pacers, the very team that had peddled him to Denver
last June, had dealt swingmen Vincent Askew and Eddie Johnson
for center Lasalle Thompson and Jackson. Not only were they
reacquiring him for their playoff push, but they were also
committing to pay him through 1999-2000, when his three-year,
$10 million contract is up. In effect, Indiana coach Larry
Brown, who often knows more about what he doesn't like in a
point guard than what he does, was admitting he had made a
mistake in jettisoning Jackson. Says forward Antonio Davis, "All
I can think about is, Why did we get rid of him in the first
Before the deal the Pacers, who have reached the postseason for
seven straight years, were just 24-27, but Indiana won five of
its first seven games after Jackson replaced 24-year-old Travis
Best in the starting lineup and is within 3 1/2 games of the
Magic for the eighth and final Eastern Conference spot. "It's
like we were lending Mark to the Nuggets for a little while,"
says Pacers sharpshooter Reggie Miller, who phoned Jackson
several times a week during the first part of the season.
"Hopefully, Mark is going to take us to another level."
In Indiana's 104-85 win over Milwaukee on Feb. 28, Jackson
handed out 19 assists; two days later he had his third triple
double of the season (17 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds) to
spark a 101-85 victory over the Lakers. "I'm not a savior, I was
just a piece of the puzzle that was missing in Indiana," says
Jackson. "I bring to the table some things that were needed,
like leadership, unselfishness and professionalism. I've always
been more about substance than flash."
With an average of 12.0 assists, Jackson is 1.5 per game ahead
of Utah's John Stockton, the NBA leader in that category for the
last nine seasons. And yet the more the 6'3", 185-pound Jackson
has improved at the point, the less his skills have seemed to
matter in today's wham, bam, slam and jam NBA. There's no
question that he's a world-class plodder. His feet barely leave
the court when he runs, and the heavy wrist tape and the two
thick black ankle supports he wears--"My Forrest Gump braces,"
he calls them--don't exactly conjure up images of Carl Lewis.
Jackson puts his stamp on the game in a dozen subtle ways. His
is the no-look pass that finds the hot-handed teammate. He is
the one who chats up the ref after a bad call, barks at a loafer
on defense or offers a calming nod from the free throw line in
the final moments of a close game. Jackson may average a mere
10.4 points a game, but he has a hand in nearly every move his
team makes. It's a hand the Nuggets sorely miss already. "It's
hard catching the ball down at your ankles and making shots
now," says Denver swingman Dale Ellis.
"I'll give you one word to describe Mark Jackson: fabulous,"
says Nuggets forward LaPhonso Ellis, who pitched a fit when
Jackson was traded. "He's absolutely fabulous. And I don't care
what he looks like doing it, he always gets the job done."
Such testimony is sweet vindication for what Jackson believes is
the proper way to man the point. "I used to ooh and aah at dunks
when I was a little kid," he says. "But I would go crazy over
what created that dunk: the pass, the pick, the steal, the
little things that not many people see. The great ones can
completely control a game without scoring a point. And to a
basketball purist, that's like a singer hitting the perfect note
or a poet writing the perfect line or a dancer hitting the
perfect step. It's art."
A lost art, Jackson adds, citing his All-Star snub. "Forget
leadership, forget passing, forget playing smart or playing
hard," he says. "You watch what gets rewarded on the highest
level of this game and you start realizing you better grab the
ball and learn to be selfish."
That has never been Jackson's style. Taken by the Knicks out of
St. John's with the 18th pick in the 1987 draft, he won Rookie
of the Year honors and still holds the rookie record, with 868
assists. Home cooking helped that season: He lived in his
parents' two-story brick house in Queens, where he shared a room
with his little brother Troy, who was also a Knicks ball boy. He
played in New York for five seasons, under Rick Pitino and Pat
Riley, and led the Knicks to the playoffs each year. In 1988-89
he averaged a career-high 16.9 points and made his first--and
Injuries and excess weight took the action out of Jackson in
1991, and after a season with Riley he was shipped to the
Clippers for two years and then to the Pacers, whom he guided to
the 1994-95 Eastern Conference finals. Throughout his travels
Jackson has remained close to his family. He was instrumental in
helping Troy gain control over his weight, which at one point
exceeded 500 pounds. (Troy is now a 350-pound junior at
Louisville and has made seven appearances for the NCAA
tournament-bound Cardinals.) Mark still calls his parents, Harry
and Marie, after every game. When he plays, he wears his wedding
ring looped through his sneaker laces.
In the absence of overwhelming physical skills, Jackson relies
on his knowledge of the game. "Mark is one of the smartest
basketball players I've ever come into contact with," says
Pitino. "He's a fierce competitor and the best leader of a
basketball team that I have ever coached. There's no difference
between an assistant coach and Mark Jackson. He knows everything
a coach wants, and he's thinking it as the coach is thinking it.
That's how bright a basketball player he is."
Part of his mental preparation includes reviewing film from some
of the league's alltime greats. His on-court leadership and
repertoire of pretty passes is derived from studying Magic
Johnson, his competitive fire patterned after that of Isiah
Thomas. He also borrows from Stockton, Earl Monroe and the late
Pete Maravich. With 6,624 career assists (second to Stockton
among active players), Jackson is quietly etching out a spot
among his heroes in the record books. "Seeing my name next to
guys like Jerry West and Tiny Archibald on the assists list is
reward enough," says Jackson. "I've been through some tough
times, but I don't need anything else after that."
Other than a tow truck, perhaps.
FOR THE WEEK OF MARCH 3-9
Concerned about tendinitis in Toni Kukoc's right foot, the Bulls
placed their sixth man on injured reserve. Kukoc hurt the foot
in the playoffs last year, and because he continued to play
during the Olympics, it has never healed. To recover fully,
Kukoc needs to rest his foot for two months. If it doesn't
respond sooner, Chicago could lose him for the postseason.
With a 115-106 loss to Utah at home on Sunday, the Timberwolves
saw their record against winning teams fall to 6-22, including
0-13 on the road.
Can the 76ers avoid adding to their record of six straight
seasons with fewer wins than the year before? Since finishing
53-29 in 1989-90, Philly's annual victory total has been 44, 35,
26, 25, 24 and 18. After beating Washington 99-93 on Sunday, the
Sixers needed two wins in their remaining 21 games to equal
their '95-96 victory output.
"I always felt like one of the young guys. Now, I am one."
--Rockets 34-year-old guard Clyde Drexler, after Houston signed
forward Eddie Johnson, 37, on March 3, two days after the team
had acquired guard Sedale Threatt, 35.