Clippers’ Stephen Jackson among players who redeemed early missteps
The NBA’s most notorious villains have largely gone on to disappoint true crime fans.
Stephen Jackson gave up his guns and earned the trust of a coach who made him a team captain.
Zach Randolph became a brute force against poverty, repeatedly winning the league’s Kia Community Assist Award for his work helping underprivileged families.
Metta World Peace mingled calmly among the masses, raising money and awareness for mental health organizations.
Second, third and fourth chances have mostly worked out for players once perceived as thugs, a few minor slip-ups and James Harden’s head notwithstanding.
Cynics might say teams are willing to shrug off the guns, punches and forays into the stands so long as the perpetrators keep supplying the points, rebounds and assists, but those who have led the salvation army see a more organic root of redemption.
“As they take their journeys with their NBA life and their regular life, the maturation process is slower for some than others, and sometimes they don’t get it until later,” former Golden State Coach Don Nelson said by phone this week from his home in Maui, Hawaii. “I’ve had a few players like that, but the fact that they have such great skill and ability, if you can ever get a guy to understand the rest of it, you really have a gem.”
Jackson, who signed a veteran’s minimum contract with the Clippers on Tuesday, had been blotter fodder a couple of times before Nelson and the Warriors acquired him in a trade with the Indiana Pacers in January 2007.
The NBA suspended Jackson 30 games early in the 2004-05 season for venturing into the stands and fighting with Detroit Pistons fans during the same Malice at the Palace incident that led to World Peace — then Ron Artest — being suspended for the rest of the season.
Jackson later pleaded guilty to firing shots in the air outside an Indianapolis nightclub to break up a fight in October 2006.
But Jackson retained an unassailable character witness in San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who had coached the swingman for two seasons and one championship earlier in his career. Popovich vouched for Jackson when Nelson called to inquire about him before the trade to the Warriors.
“He had a good understanding of who he was and the situation that he was in and how competitive he was and the competitive issues he has on and off the floor,” Nelson said of Popovich. “I had a good understanding of those and I just thought that was something I could handle.”
Jackson helped Golden State upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs in 2007, prompting Nelson to name him a captain before the next season. The 2007-08 Warriors won 48 games, putting together the team’s best season in 14 years.
Jackson wasn’t perfect. He groused about the Warriors’ eventual decline, demanded a trade and was suspended two games after arguing with Nelson during an exhibition in October 2009. Golden State traded him to Charlotte a month later.
“It got away from us a little bit at the end when Baron [Davis] left and our team wasn’t very good, and he had some issues then,” Nelson said. “But I was always in his corner and he knew that.”
Latrell Sprewell found a needed benefactor in Coach Jeff Van Gundy upon his arrival in New York in January 1999. Sprewell was coming off a yearlong suspension for choking Golden State Coach P.J. Carlesimo but became a model citizen with the Knicks, helping them reach the Finals in his first season.
Of course, the resurrection of Sprewell’s game wasn’t as inspiring as the resuscitation of his character.
“Latrell was very honest,” Van Gundy said. “He was true to himself, and that meant not really looking back, not really focusing in on what had happened or apologizing profusely for what had happened. He was more just straightforward, [concerned about] what’s next. He did a good job. He played hard, he showed up on time. He had an occasional misstep every once in a while, but who doesn’t?”
Van Gundy said that among the factors teams must weigh when considering taking on troublemakers is whether they feel the mistakes were aberrational or indicative of a character flaw that will continue to plague them.
A change of address has helped several scoundrels leave their baggage behind. Randolph, who once punched a teammate and was arrested for driving under the influence as a member of the infamous “Jail Blazers” in Portland, has become a two-time All-Star and a community leader in Memphis. Gilbert Arenas never amounted to much with Orlando or Memphis after bringing guns into the locker room in Washington, but that was the result of faulty knees, not a deficiency in his moral fiber.
“It may be that people embraced the moment as a teaching moment, as a life-changing moment, as a way to sort of step outside themselves and be more self-aware about their actions and move from that point on to be better,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “I think that we’re better when we allow for that in every aspect of our social fabric of our country, and I don’t think sports is any different.”
Jackson has remained on the move since the Warriors traded him, with the Clippers being his fourth team in four seasons. The Spurs released him shortly before the playoffs last season, severing ties to a player disgruntled about a diminished role.
Now Jackson may be sensing that his attitude is his most important attribute.
“It has to be a positive help,” Jackson said of his role. “It has to be me leading by example. It has to be me being a vocal guy in a positive way. It has to be me keeping my techs down. It has to be me being a smarter player myself. So it’s going to take a lot, but it’s going to take more than just talking. It has to be shown out there on the court.”
For Jackson and the other onetime agitators, that certainly beats showing it in court.
Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
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