A few years ago, Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson was interested to learn that a favorite childhood movie had been rebooted into a television show.
When Jackson watched “The Karate Kid” growing up, he’d rooted for the hero and against the heel. But his perception of the characters shifted with each episode of “Cobra Kai,” which picked up the plot decades later. Johnny Lawrence, the now-middle-aged villain, seemed to be more misunderstood than malicious.
Jackson could relate to the feeling of being miscast.
The 6-foot-3 guard, now in his ninth NBA season, is a candid talker and free thinker, ready to engage in conversations covering everything from his role to whether he feels pressure on the court (he doesn’t believe in the concept). In a league of players building their brand, Jackson says his is staying true to himself.
But that combination has not always led him to click within locker rooms, most notably in Oklahoma City. Five years after he was derided by former teammates for the way they felt he handled his final season with the Thunder, Jackson still feels the effect on his reputation.
“I think there’s a misconception about who I am and that’s always followed me,” he said. “I really don’t care. A lot of people think I’m probably egotistical and an … . I’m just quiet and I come in and do what I do.”
Point guards, he believes, should he measured by only two things: wins and losses. Two weeks after joining the Clippers as a free agent after the final year of his contract was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, he says he is only looking for victories, not the validation of anyone outside the Clippers’ locker room.
“It’s media and it’s everybody else and it’s fans who paint the picture of you,” he said. “I laugh. It’s very similar to when I was watching wrestling growing up. Some guys, you’re a fan favorite; some guys are the villain. You grow a little older you might actually become liking the villain and might hate the good guy. So it’s all perception.
“Other than that, as long as the other 14 guys in the locker room know what I’m about and this organization knows what I’m about that’s all that I really care about. I can’t please you.”
When Jackson made clear in 2014 that he perceived himself as a starting point guard in Oklahoma City, the comment was not received well in a city where Russell Westbrook, the entrenched starter, was beloved. Weeks later, after Jackson turned down a four-year contract extension offer from Oklahoma City worth close to $48 million, he missed a game despite being healthy out of disappointment he wasn’t traded, according to an ESPN report at the time.
By the season’s halfway point, his agent requested a trade, and Jackson was dealt to Detroit in February 2015.
Upon learning he was a Piston, where a starting role awaited, Jackson tweeted that he was “crying tears of joy” — and his teammates made clear they were glad to see him go.
“He got what he wanted,” Kevin Durant said after the trade. He later added that “we felt like everybody wanted to be here except for one guy.”
Westbrook said the move hadn’t changed the Thunder’s title hopes.
“We have a chance of winning a championship,” he said. “And if Reggie is not here we still have a chance of winning a championship.”
Jackson’s belief in his value held true. The following offseason, he re-signed with Detroit for $80 million over five years. But in 2016 he and his old mates clashed again when Durant called Jackson’s celebration at the end of a Pistons victory over Oklahoma City “bush league.” Jackson is still booed in the city where he began his career.
“I can understand why people are mad,” Jackson said, “but ... I’m not living life for them and it’s not their life to live, so I have to do what’s best for myself.”
Jackson’s career with Detroit began with promise. Months after Jackson arrived playing some of the best basketball of his career, the Pistons made the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
When Jackson was bought out last month, as the team sought to rebuild around a younger roster, the Detroit Free Press wrote that “injury and, to a lesser degree, personality kept Jackson from connecting with the fan base. He is prone to looking inward, a fine quality for a writer, but not so much for a point guard.”
Clippers forward Marcus Morris overlapped with Jackson during two seasons in Detroit and grinned as he recounted Jackson doing “random” things. Most players listen to music or watch film at their lockers before tipoff. Jackson spent time before a recent Clippers game reading a Carl Hiaasen novel.
But, Morris added, Jackson “is always one of those guys that actually care about what guys are thinking and asking questions and asking how guys are. I think he shakes my hand too many times, but other than that, from what I’ve been around for two years, he’s been a good teammate.”
Said Jackson: “I think once you get around me you know what I’m about.”
The Clippers needed a true point guard to alleviate the second unit’s ballhandling responsibility shouldered by Lou Williams, and Jackson has done the job. He’s played most alongside Williams, Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell and JaMychal Green, and they’ve outscored opponents by 48 points in 56 minutes. He has made 40% of his three-pointers in seven games with the Clippers and could be the rare buyout player who becomes a postseason factor.
In their calculus of signing Jackson, the Clippers believed that motivation would not be a question — as a free agent this summer, Jackson is playing for a new contract — and that forward Paul George, Jackson’s best friend in the league, would ease the adjustment within the locker room.
George’s presence isn’t the only reason Jackson has called the Clippers “the right situation.” He sensed the roster was close on the first day his number was included in the players’ group chat, when he saw teammates lobbing trash talk at one another — about practice.
“With this group, once the game is over we go out to eat with our families and then we get back together,” said Williams, who went bowling with teammates following Sunday’s victory against Philadelphia and called Jackson “a cool dude.” “We’re a tight group and actual friends. That’s different than a lot of teams I’ve played for, so I think Reggie sees that and he understands that.”
Jackson understands the way his exit from Oklahoma City is remembered, but he says his perception on the experience has changed. It was during that time that he learned a lesson he considers invaluable.
“I just control what I can control,” he said. “Once I learned that I was like, I’m very solid in who I am. I think my foundation is good.”