Taking on the personality of the confident Stephen Jackson, Bobcats reaching new heights

By Mike Cranston, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Captain Jack guiding Bobcats to unforeseen heights

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stephen Jackson’s demand to be traded from Golden State came with a declaration that he wanted to play for a winner. So there was plenty of chuckling around the NBA when Jackson was finally dealt in November.

He was headed to the Charlotte Bobcats, a 6-year-old franchise that had never come close to reaching the playoffs.

Two months later, Jackson’s swagger has spread to his new teammates, and Charlotte is one of the league’s biggest surprises. With six straight wins and an NBA-best 9-1 mark since the new year, the Bobcats (21-19) have jumped to fifth place in the Eastern Conference and appear to be a legitimate playoff contender.

Along the way, the franchise has taken on the personality of the quirky, confident and talented Captain Jack.

“I knew this was a place where I could be myself,” Jackson said Thursday. “I’m with some guys who play hard and want to win, and that’s what I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t want to be a part of an organization that was going young and worried about being good in three years and not now.”

But the Bobcats? This is an expansion team that hadn’t won more than 35 games in any of its previous five seasons. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown brought instant credibility when he was hired before last season, but the Bobcats were still a long way from being in playoff discussions.

They started this season as the NBA’s lowest scoring team despite dynamic forward Gerald Wallace. Looking for another scorer, general manager Rod Higgins brought up Jackson’s name to Brown and managing partner Michael Jordan. Higgins knew the 31-year-old Jackson from his stint in the Warriors’ front office.

“Rod was so positive about his talent,” Brown said. “Even though people have this perception of him, Rod said he’s a great teammate and wants to win.”

Jackson carried baggage dating to his lengthy suspension for his role in the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004. There were other legal issues, too, then his feud with Warriors coach Don Nelson.

Jackson was upset with Golden State’s decline after reaching the second round of the 2007 playoffs. The NBA fined him $25,000 for publicly demanding a trade. He then got into a spat with Nelson during an exhibition game, leading to a two-game suspension and the loss of his captain title.

Before agreeing to a deal that sent Raja Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic to Golden State, Brown made calls to his friends. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich had nothing but praise for Jackson, who was on the Spurs’ 2003 championship team.

“All the guys I spoke to liked him and thought he was really talented in a lot of ways most people wouldn’t imagine,” Brown said. “The fact that he could pass and he could defend, he’s a really good rebounder.

“But to say I expected this, that would be stretching it.”

That would be Charlotte’s transformation with Jackson. After losing their first three games following his Nov. 16 acquisition to drop to 3-9, the Bobcats have gone 18-10. They’re averaging 97.7 points after managing only 82.4 without him, while maintaining their status as the league’s stingiest defensive team.

Jackson, averaging 20.9 points in Charlotte, is helping his teammates’ numbers, too. Wallace has gone from 13.7 points a game to 20 since Jackson opened up the offense.

“He’s very confident as he comes out on the court,” Wallace said of Jackson. “I think that rubs off on guys.”

Jackson and Wallace, two athletic wings, present opponents with a tough choice.

“Either you’re going to put your best defender on me, whether he’s big or small, and let Gerald have a good night,” Jackson said, “or just double (Wallace) and let us get open shots all night.”

Jackson scored a career- and franchise-best 43 points in a win over Houston last week, then surpassed 10,000 career points two games later against Phoenix on the way to being voted Eastern Conference player of the week. Wallace is a candidate for his first All-Star game.

The two are constantly needling each other and holding shooting competitions after practice. At the end of Thursday’s workout, Jackson jokingly said he would only do an interview if Wallace was with him.

So it took a little begging for Jackson to answer a serious question. Did he really expect to be a part of possible playoff team in Charlotte?

“I knew the first game,” Jackson insisted. “We played Orlando and I didn’t know any plays, first time playing with any of these guys and we had a chance to win against one of the best teams in the East. That day, alone, let me know that we could be a good team.

“I was just worried about how long it was going to take for us to click and gel. And it didn’t take that long.”

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