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Stephen Jackson is the NBA's epitome of the concept of gray area.
This man's career arc is nothing shy of awe-striking. It's stunning to think that less than four years ago, he struck me as quite possibly the league's most reprehensible player. That within the last two years, it seemed almost too easy to make the case for throwing him out of the league altogether.
The same player is now talking about a long-term contract extension with what has been one of the league's craziest teams over the past few years - and it doesn't sound wholly unreasonable.
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Long before November 19, 2004, Stephen Jackson already had a reputation as a hothead whose misconduct often outweighed his talent.
After that fateful night in Auburn Hills, the belief here was that Jax should have been the first one thrown out of the league after the Malice at the Palace. Ron Artest acted like a nitwit of the highest order, but at the very least, it was possible to (unsuccessfully) attempt to (poorly) explain his (awful) rationale behind sprinting into the stands in that the drink had been thrown at him. As for Jackson, he didn't seem to run into the crowd as a peace-maker that night. It certainly appeared as though he was a lot more concerned with figuring out 'who had next' and taking as many swings as he could in a good ol-fashioned rumble. He swung and swung away, seemingly taking very little notice of what was actually going on with the teammate he had theoretically gone into the stands to back up and ultimately extricate from the situation. He got hit with a major suspension, but that seemed to be far from enough.
Less than two years later, Jax was back in the news thanks to his involvement in a bit of a ruckus outside of a strip club in Indianapolis. The details were murky, but word was that Jax had been hit by a car and fired a gun after the onset of some sort of altercation. Bad boy buddy Artest had already been gone for half a season at that point after a trade to Sacramento, Jackson had continued to make a jerk of himself in the interim, and the strip club incident seemed like all the more reason to despise the guy.
When the inevitable finally occurred, and he was traded in January 2007, it seemed that the Pacers had won no matter what the rest of the deal entailed, simply because they had rid themselves of the man whose lone goal seemed to be working to establish himself as the league's premier cretin.
He has been in Oakland for a bit more than a year and a half now, and he has spent that time slowly but surely turning it around - with a few roadblocks along the way. In Golden State, he teamed up with Don Nelson and Baron Davis in early 2007 to lead the Warriors to a huge finish and a first-round upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks. He also made a complete jerk of himself in the process, getting hit with a couple of playoff ejections and a litany of technical fouls. At one point, it even appeared that Jackson mouthed some derivative of a death threat at a referee as he was being removed from the floor. Even at his on-court best, his awful conduct often overshadowed his nearly 20 points and 41 minutes logged per game during that crazily enjoyable postseason run for the Warriors.
Jax's legal troubles got him suspended for seven games to start the following season, and it seemed like another year of the same old story from a super-talented, super-dopey player.
To my pleasant and uttery disbelief, it was just the opposite. Weeks before the season started, the ever-brash Nellie made Jackson a captain. The team started 1-6 without him, and then he came back and turned in his finest prolonged performance yet. In addition to putting up career highs of 20.1 points and 4.1 assists to go with his 4.4 rebounds per game (though not all that efficient, his 53.6 percent true shooting in 2007-08 is also the second best mark of his career to date), Jackson became a leader for a young Golden State team. He finally cut down on the technical fouls enough to get out of double-digits, and for the first time since his rookie season in 2000-01, he didn't get ejected from a single game. Not earth-shattering achievements, of course, but steps in the right direction for someone with such a checkered past.
Jackson invigorated his team all season long with his high-energy play and ever-present hustle. Though he still turned the ball over a bit much and still couldn't dribble, the guy busted it seemingly every time out for the Warriors. Through the course of this past season and as solidifed by Baron Davis' departure this summer, Jackson has become the heart and soul of the Nellieball Warriors. He has become a better leader, a better basketball player and a major figure in giving back to the community, By all accounts, when he hasn't been in the midst of one of his renowned 'snapping' moments, Jax has long been an amicable enough guy to be around, dearly beloved by friends and teammates alike. Now, he is for better or worse becoming a cornerstone in Golden State.
Ultimately, I've long since lost track of what to think of this guy. All the good that has come in the last year and change can't erase Jax's past transgressions. Those misdeeds are part of his reality and who he is. But so is the Jax who has become a mentor for his younger teammates, who has given back to his community and who has become the face of a franchise, a face of whom his city and his employer seem largely proud today.
So maybe the bigger message lies therein: That these guys can't always (or often, really) be pinned down into descriptions through absolutes. Because like all of us, they are people, and as Adam Sandler says to Damon Wayans in "Bulletproof," most people live in the gray, not the black and white.
Sadly, it would be foolish and likely inaccurate to promise that this will be the last time I fall prey to the trap of the absolute, but every now and then, it helps to have a reminder to keep us all in line.
Stephen Jackson is just such a reminder. As his story continues, it's become surprisingly easier than usual not to rush to judgment anymore. I'm a lot happier to sit back with no bias for a change and simply watch it all unfold.
If only every story could strike us that same way.