After a disappointing 1989-90 season in which an out-of-shape Mark Jackson went from All-Star to All-Bench, Jackson went to Las Vegas, Nev., to see Mike Tyson fight. So did Pat Riley, who recently had resigned as the Los Angeles Lakers' head coach.
He told Jackson he liked his game. Riley said he wasn't sure why Jackson had fallen from favor, but told him to keep working hard because he was a good player and talent eventually triumphs.
"He helped me through that time," Jackson said. "For somebody of his stature to come over and tell me to keep my head up and everything would be all right because I'm a quality player -- that meant a lot to me. It kept my confidence up, and I'll always remember that -- not because he is the coach of the Knicks now, but because he was somebody. For him to take his time out and give me encouragement -- that meant a lot."
Jackson's trials weren't over after the Riley pep talk. He earned the starting job at the beginning of last season, but when Stu Jackson was fired and John MacLeod hired, Jackson was demoted to backup point guard even before MacLeod had conducted his first practice.
That devastated Jackson, who had worked so hard during the previous offseason. Frustrated and confused, he lashed out at MacLeod, saying MacLeod must have a personal vendetta against him because of the arbitrary demotion.
That began one of the ugliest episodes of the New York Knicks' dismal 39-43 season. It peaked Feb. 22 when MacLeod and former General Manager Al Bianchi acted like a couple of thugs in berating Jackson in front of the team at a practice. Jackson defended himself, and the result was a four-day suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
But as often happens in New York, that incident worked out the opposite of what MacLeod and Bianchi had in mind. Knicks fans, who had so viciously booed Jackson the previous season, sensed he had been wronged. While he languished on the bench as the third point guard, the fans chanted for MacLeod to play him. Jackson, by being a victim, won the fans back for something that had nothing to do with playing basketball.
"I think they saw what was happening," Jackson said, "and they realized that it was wrong."
Now Jackson wants to complete a circle. He has gone from rookie of the year, to All-Star, to fat and sassy, to confused and inept. With Maurice Cheeks dispatched to Atlanta, Jackson again is the Knicks' starter. He has worked hard since August, and is in the best shape of his career. He is playing for a coach who likes an up-tempo game. He will direct an offense that features two outstanding frontline scorers in Patrick Ewing and Xavier McDaniel, and a fast-breaking style certainly will enhance Gerald Wilkins' game.
"Running, pressure, offensively fast-breaking," Jackson said, reciting Riley's philosophy. "That's up my alley and I look forward to it."
(Optional add end)
Jackson even reported to training camp with a look that Riley should recognize. When running the Showtime attack in his pre-commericial days, Magic Johnson sported a mustache and goatee. Jackson will direct Showtime East with the same look.
"It worked great for him," Jackson said, laughing, "so I thought I would give it a try."
Although Cheeks has gone, Riley has not ruled out the possibility of a point-guard controversy, although he prefers not to call it that. Riley said during the summer that Greg Anthony already was the best defensive player of his size in the NBA. Anthony signed a contract yesterday, and Riley is looking forward to the Jackson-Anthony training-camp matchup.
"The controversy will be born out of the stories that are written and sort of fan and fuel the emotions of the fans," Riley said. "It's my intention that both Mark and Greg become the very best and most productive pair in the league. It's good, healthy competition."
Jackson knows, however, that Riley is in his corner; he knew that long before Riley became the head coach. Jackson also should have learned from his first four years as a Knick. He has been brilliant, confident, arrogant, humiliated, confused and awful. He was treated poorly last season, but he also has caused many of his own problems.
"I'm a man and I've made mistakes," Jackson said. "In the last couple of years, I've matured not only as a basketball player, but as a person. I've been through an awful lot, and I've learned. I've watched and learned. I've made mistakes and I've learned. And I look forward to a brighter season with the experience that I have behind me."