If ever an athlete has taken his surname literally, it's Jerry
Stackhouse. The Detroit Pistons' shooting guard resides in a
modern 11,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home in suburban Orchard
Lake that makes The Palace of Auburn Hills look like a bungalow.
The Stack House includes a three-story indoor palm tree, a hot
tub the size of a pool and a pool the size of a lake. The
basement doubles as a first-rate sports bar, replete with four
big-screen televisions, a nine-foot pool table, and Ms. Pac Man,
Galaga and Frogger consoles.
It's also in his basement that Stackhouse entertains guests with
a spectacle fit for The Discovery Channel. Once a week or so he
nourishes the six piranhas in his aquarium with a handful of live
fish. The guppies hit the surface and then, in the blink of an
eye, disappear in a cloud of blood, bones and gills. The piranhas
that employ the proper block-out technique get a well-balanced
meal. The ones slow to react go hungry. "If you miss your chance
the first time around," says Stackhouse with a wide, vaguely
sadistic grin, "it could be a while before you get a good meal
As Stackhouse well knows, similar rules apply in the Darwinian
fishbowl of the NBA. When Stackhouse entered the league in 1995
as the third pick in the draft, Fila rolled out his signature
line of sneaks and Sprite featured him in its ad campaign. A
high-flying, telegenic scorer from North Carolina, the 6'6"
Stackhouse appeared to be a prime candidate to fill the pending
Jordan vacuum. When he didn't, Madison Avenue redirected the
spotlight to players such as Vince Carter and Kobe Bryant.
Stackhouse all but fell out of sight. "It was sink-or-swim time,"
He swam, and now, at 26, he has established himself as one of the
game's elite players. After making his first All-Star appearance
last year, Stackhouse is playing the best ball of his life,
racking up points like a pinball wizard. At week's end he led the
league in scoring with 29.8 points per game, single-handedly
keeping his overachieving team in contention for the postseason.
With Grant Hill gone to the Orlando Magic, Stackhouse had led the
14-23 Pistons in scoring 33 times and was first in assists (4.7
per game) while often taking the toughest defensive assignments.
"I don't think there's another player who does more for his team
than Stack, and that includes Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury,"
says Detroit guard Dana Barros. "He's a one-man band."
A relentless attacker who ranks among the league's strongest
finishers, Stackhouse is best known for his midair frills, which
make him a highlight-show staple. But there is an unmistakable
Rust Belt grit to his game. He scores the bulk of his points on
mid-range jumpers and spends more time on the line than a
lovesick teenager. (Only Shaquille O'Neal had attempted more foul
shots than Stackhouse through Sunday's games; it should go
without saying that Stackhouse led the league in foul shots
made.) That Stackhouse is invariably double- and triple-teamed--in
what opposing defenses might call Jerrymandering--makes his
tumescent stats more impressive still. "Give him single coverage,
and he'll get 40 points every night," says Pistons forward Ben
Wallace. "What can you say? Stack is the Man."
The first time Stackhouse was thrust into a similar role, the
results were less than spectacular. As a 20-year-old rookie he
was hailed as the savior for the Philadelphia 76ers, who had won
24 games the previous season. Given carte blanche with the ball,
Stackhouse scored prodigiously. But he was surrounded by second-
and third-rate talent, and the team dropped to 18-64. The
following season the Sixers drafted Iverson, another
trigger-happy guard, and Stackhouse became a second option.
Stackhouse downplays any animosity between himself and
Iverson--and vigorously denies the widespread rumor that their
respective entourages had a battle royal--but the dissonance was
apparent on the court.
Stackhouse was elated to be traded with Eric Montross and a
second-round draft choice to Detroit in December 1997 for Theo
Ratliff, Aaron McKie and a first-round pick, but he was again
cast as a subordinate, this time to Hill. Agitated by his
diminished status, Stackhouse pressed and forced shots, which
only made him play worse. Rock bottom came during the
lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when he lost his starting spot
to Joe Dumars and Lindsey Hunter and averaged a career-low 14.5
points. Stackhouse says he had no problem backing up Dumars, who
played with tidal consistency and is now Stackhouse's boss as the
Pistons' president of basketball operations. "But Lindsey
Hunter?" says Stackhouse, still incredulous. "If my game isn't at
the point where it stands out over Lindsey Hunter's, something's
Compounding his frustration, players his age and younger--Bryant,
Carter, Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett--were flourishing.
"They were popping up, and I'm thinking, I know I'm just as good
as those guys," Stackhouse says. In the summer of '99 he returned
to Chapel Hill, worked out with a personal trainer, shot hundreds
of jumpers every day and, as he puts it, "rededicated" himself to
basketball: "I kept telling myself, The cream rises."
While Stackhouse has regained his toehold as a star, he's still
fighting a perception that he suffers from elephantiasis of the
ego, shoots too much and can't excel within the framework of a
team. "The word is that he doesn't play well with others," says
one Eastern Conference general manager. The Pistons say that the
rap is as misguided as an O'Neal free throw. "He's putting up 30
shots because we need him to," says Wallace. "He's a great
teammate and a great leader, not selfish at all." (That
Stackhouse ranked third in the league in assists among shooting
guards at week's end seems to bear this out.)
"I have a newfound respect for Stackhouse," says Magic general
manager John Gabriel. "He's done a better job than anyone thought
he would of galvanizing the Pistons. He plays hard, and as a
result, they play hard."
A disarmingly straight shooter, his 42.1% marksmanship this
season notwithstanding, Stackhouse admits that he relishes being
the Man. However, he raises a fair point when he wonders what's
wrong with that. "O.K., I didn't like being second fiddle," he
says. "But to me that means I'm a competitor and I have
confidence in my abilities. I can follow if I have to, but I'd
rather lead. With Grant the implication was that he was a better
player than I was. I didn't necessarily agree with that, so I
took it as a challenge, but it was nothing against him
Still, there is little love lost between the two. When Stackhouse
reflects on last season and characterizes Hill, a five-time
All-Star, as "one of our better players," it bespeaks a palpable
tension. When Detroit played at Orlando on Dec. 28, Stackhouse
and Hill, who was in street clothes after being sidelined for the
season with a broken left ankle, didn't even exchange hellos.
After Hill implied during the preseason that the Pistons lacked
professionalism, Stackhouse took umbrage. "He wants to pacify
whoever he's speaking with," said Stackhouse. "He's soft."
(Replies Hill, "If that's what he feels, more power to him.") As
Detroit coach George Irvine put it earlier this season, echoing
the sentiment of many in the organization, "Jerry Stackhouse is
more of a leader right now than Grant ever was. Jerry's sure a
lot more fiery and vocal."
Indeed, it doesn't take much for Stack to blow his. Teammates
still talk about the shiner he gave forward Christian Laettner
over a disputed card game during a team flight. Last season
Stackhouse and forward Jerome Williams nearly came to blows in
the locker room when Stackhouse resented Williams's publicly
questioning the team's heart. During a 108-106 loss to the Denver
Nuggets last month, Stackhouse yelled at his teammates during a
timeout: "When they triple-team me, they're saying four of you
can't beat two of them! That's an insult!" Says Williams, "Stack
can get crazy in the heat of the battle, but we're cool with it.
We know it comes from his will to win."
Stackhouse saves much of his intensity and venom for himself. As
the Pistons' co-captain (with Michael Curry) and go-to guy,
Stackhouse takes losses personally. During team flights or on
drives home after defeats, he is consumed with thoughts of missed
shots and squandered opportunities. Armed with the combination to
the lock at the team's practice facility, Stackhouse will
sometimes exorcise a bad game by working out alone or summoning
friends for some pickup at two in the morning. "I always thought
Stack would be a star in this league," says Nuggets assistant
coach John Lucas, who was the coach and G.M. of the 76ers when
Stackhouse was a rookie. "But I get worried sometimes because he
leaves himself no margin for error."
The youngest of 11 siblings, Stackhouse traces his ambition and
unflinching intensity to his upbringing. His father, George, 71,
never missed his 4 a.m. shift as a sanitation-truck driver in
Kinston, N.C. Even today, while he battles diabetes and has a
millionaire for a son, George can't bring himself to let anyone
else chop his firewood or mow his yard. Jerry's mom, Minnie, 72,
is a cancer survivor and a diabetic who only five years ago quit
her job as a short-order cook at the Surf & Turf restaurant in
Kinston. "Knowing they're watching me makes me want to play
hard," says Jerry, who also remains deeply affected by the death
of two of his sisters, Jean Dawson and Lois Meadows, from
diabetes, in the last six years. He recently taped a
public-service announcement on the disease and is a spokesman for
the National Diabetic Education Program. "I get tested all the
time, and so far it's been negative," he says. "But I'm not out
of the woods."
His vigor and passion are tempered, however, by his genial manner
away from basketball. At home his penetrating scowl is nowhere to
be found. A wild night chez Stackhouse means that Jerry is
cooking Caribbean-style fried fish for his friends or playing
with his kids, Jaye, 3, and Alexis, 1. He also has a standing
date to watch Jeopardy! with Alexis's mother, Ramirra, whom he
married on Christmas Eve before 60 friends and family members in
their living room. "There were some bumps on the road," he says,
"but things in my life are pretty near perfect now."
They'd be closer still if Detroit were winning more games.
Stackhouse is heartened by the team's desire and Bad Boys ethos,
but he's rational enough to know that the Pistons lack the turbo
power to play much past April. The silver lining is that with
Hill's departure, Detroit should have roughly $15 million in
salary-cap room to wield in the Chris Webber sweepstakes next
off-season. Even if it means relinquishing his status as the Man,
Stackhouse relishes the prospect of playing alongside Webber, a
Detroit native. "Think about it," muses Stackhouse, smiling as
visions of one-on-one coverage dance like sugarplum fairies in
his head. "We get him, and we'll be contenders just like that."
Then the reality of his team's prospects bites hard, like a
rapacious piranha. His smile vanishes, but a moment later it
reappears. Detroit's rehabilitated star remembers that he is
happy to be considered among the league's elite players. Until
help arrives, the one-man band will play on.
Hunter's," says Stackhouse, "something's wrong."