Stephen Jackson: Inspired By Tragedy
Time has dulled the pain but not the final image of his brother, his best friend and hero, lying motionless in a Port Arthur intensive care unit, massive head wounds closed with 17 staples.
Donald Buckner Jr. did not ask for trouble. He only went to visit his girlfriend. But when her ex-boyfriend showed up, jealousy begat rage. The fight that followed did not end quickly or fairly, and for that, Stephen Jackson carries lasting remorse. "I still think about it to this day," he says, seated on the gym floor at the Spurs practice facility, leaning against a wall. "I wish I could have been there for him."
Buckner, just 25, did not need help defending himself against the ex-boyfriend. But when two men jumped him from behind, and beat him over the head with bottles and a lead pipe, it was three against one.
In the ICU, machines hummed and voices whispered. Jackson, then 16, beheld the dying face of a young man, a half-brother who taught him how to dress, how to talk to girls, how to grow up. He clasped a near lifeless hand. "It's all right," Jackson said. "We're going to take care of you."
A single tear slid down Buckner's cheek. The next day, he was gone. Death changed Stephen in ways his mother never imagined. The tragedy, Judy Jackson says, became a trigger for charity.
"From that point on, he has been a giving person," Judy says. "He would give you the clothes off his back. I've watched him on numerous occasions give to people. There was a homeless man, standing on the side of a street in Atlanta. Stephen stopped and gave the man money. A lot of things he does you don't even know about. His kindness and generosity are something else. He's more generous than I am. He loves to give and he doesn't even think about it."
Since joining the league in 2000, Stephen, a 6-8 swingman, has launched his own foundation, built an academy for children in Port Arthur, hosted basketball camps, fed the homeless and raised money for non-profits. In March 2008, he received the NBA's Community Assist Award.
"You can't tell me seeing his brother die that way hasn't had an effect," former Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh once told ESPN The Magazine. "To me, it's why he is always coming to the help of his teammates."
Jack, as he is known today, says he learned loyalty from his brother and late grandfather. How well did Jack learn? Tim Duncan once called him, "the ultimate teammate." …
It feels great to be back in San Antonio, Jack says. The deja vu vibe is strong. The organization ranks among the best in pro sports, the Spurs notched another 50-win regular season, the postseason gleams with promise, familiar faces keep showing up to practice.
In his last playoff game with the Spurs -- Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals -- Jackson scored 17 points. In his first postseason game back, he came off the bench and dropped 14 on Utah. In '03, Gregg Popovich earned NBA Coach of the Year honors. After Tuesday's practice, the league announced Pop had won the award again. "It's kind of like I never left," Jack says.
"The best memories of my career are here."
Jack remembers the elation of winning a championship. He remembers champagne in the locker room, the parade on the river. He also remembers a void. His brother was not there to share in his celebration. "
The siblings grew up in a Port Arthur -- same father, different mother -- and enjoyed a strong bond. Jackson viewed his big brother like a boy views an athletic hero. Bigger than life. Stevie, as he was known then, took his social cues from Buckner. Little Stevie even had his first drink with him. "We were inseparable," Jack says.
The fight broke out in a housing project. Buckner was visiting his girlfriend when someone knocked on the door. It was the ex. "She wouldn't let him in," Jackson says. "She was telling him to leave, that they weren't together anymore. They pretended to leave and sat outside and made a call to his cousin. As my brother was leaving, they approached him. He wasn't the type to run from anything. He was a real tough guy. He had a lot of run-ins with the law."
Buckner was winning the fight until two cousins came to the aid of the ex-boyfriend, swinging bottles and a pipe.
"I know God works in mysterious ways and everything happens for a reason," Jack says. "So maybe it wasn't meant for me to be there because I could have ended up in the hospital. I never question God. But every day I wish I could have been there to change the outcome."
Port Arthur is a better place today because of Stephen Jackson. In 2006, he built an academy for children, kindergarten through sixth grade, with his own money. When not enough kids enrolled, Jack turned the place into an after school program, complete with computers, tutors and a gymnasium, and hired his mother to manage it.
In 2009, Jack brought Shaquille O'Neal to Port Arthur for a special project. They distributed boxed lunches, personal care items and cosmetic products to 800 families. They posed for pictures, signed autographs and gave speeches. "People are still talking about it," Judy says.
She marvels not that her son became an NBA player. She marvels at the goodness tragedy unleashed in her son.