Closer Look: Bobby Jackson
Note: this article was originally written and published in February 2013.
Nearly four years have passed since Kings Assistant Coach Bobby Jackson played his last NBA game, but three hours before tip-off at Sleep Train Arena, the soon-to-be-40-year-old is giving sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas all he can handle in a spirited one-on-one battle.
Jackson, his gray shooting shirt drenched in sweat, pulls up for a contested fadeaway jumper which finds the bottom of the net, leaving No. 22 shaking his heads in disbelief.
“We play three spots on the floor – the wing, the top of the key and the other wing. We go to five and you get three dribbles,” explains Thomas. “He has his days when he plays really well and he hits some tough shots, but you can even ask him – he can’t guard me.
“When he wins, those are probably the best games I have when we play later that night because I’m so upset he beat me.”
Following an exceptional playing career in which he won the 2002-03 Sixth Man of the Year Award and helped guide his teams to the Playoffs in eight of 12 seasons, Jackson commands the undivided respect of the locker room.
“When we play, it’s just a young guy trying to work on his moves against a Hall of Famer – a guy we all looked up to, somebody we all watched play and shut a lot of people down,” says James Johnson.
“He’s incredible. He gets your confidence going (because) he hates to lose. If he really wants to, he can get back in shape and sign a 10-day (contract).”
While Jackson isn’t currently planning on making an NBA comeback, the University of Minnesota product says the nightly workouts help keep him young at heart while simultaneously proving the credibility of his words to players nearly half his age.
“They get the best of me (in one-on-one games),” he says with a chuckle. “But I think at the end of the day, it’s just getting them prepared to play, getting them in the mindset of being aggressive and making something happen when they get the ball.”
The player-turned-coach has no regrets about walking away from the game despite knowing he could still contribute at a high level, relishing the opportunity to break down film and impart wisdom on impressionable up-and-comers.
“I think sometimes you have to be honest with yourself as a professional athlete,” he says. “I still could’ve played (longer), but I was looking for the next chapter in my life. I knew I couldn’t play basketball for 12 to 15 more years, so I looked at getting into the coaching aspect or the front office aspect and going from there to try to (add to) my legacy.”
After serving as the team’s first-ever Ambassador in 2009-10 and later working as the regional scout/player development, the former guard says the transition to coaching has been a seamless process. The position, however, requires countless hours to craft offensive and defensive schemes and conjure up plays, in addition to conducting extensive workouts.
“As a player, all you have to do is just focus on the game after you come in, listen to the coaches and try to create and win the game from there,” he says. “But a lot of people don’t know that the assistant coaches do a lot of the work – we watch the film, we give them all the tendencies of what that team likes to do and what (the opponents) like to do.”
Kings players have taken notice of Jackson’s tireless and highly effective approach.
“He’s been around the League for a long time, so any chance you get to work with someone like that, it’s always a pleasure,” says Tyreke Evans. “He always talks to me about the game – (what’s) going to be there on teams we play and what I need to do. It’s always good to hear advice from him.”
During the 2012 NBA Summer League, Jackson received his first head coaching opportunity and gained valuable insight from the experience.
“It was a great eye-opener for me, but it was challenging because it was my first time doing it,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect, so hopefully this summer I get to do it again. You can always grow and learn from those situations.”
30 years prior, Jackson – whose road to stardom and subsequent rise in basketball operations has come with its share of life lessons and difficult decisions – never imagined he’d spend over a decade and a half in the professional ranks.
“I grew up in a small town – Salisbury, N.C. – without a father in my life,” he begins. “My mom worked two jobs just to take care of my twin sister and me. I grew up in the projects, so I didn’t have much and didn’t ask for much. My mom did her best to take care of us.
“I grew up just playing basketball in the streets and in the playgrounds. I think that’s how I came to love it, just (from) going to every playground and playing.”
Despite showcasing his extraordinary talent in neighboring parks, the future NBA standout – who idolized superstars Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson – didn’t start playing organized basketball until his sophomore year in high school.
“I always played (recreationally), but I never played for a school because I was just so focused on playing on the playgrounds and playing against older guys,” he says. “That’s something I was worried about more than playing in middle school or high school.”
Once he established himself as one of the top players in the state, however, Jackson faced a setback when his grades didn’t meet the NCAA’s academic requirements, forcing him to make a pivotal choice.
“When it was time to go to college, a lot of teams shied away from me because of my G.P.A. and my S.A.T. score,” he says. “I didn’t ask a lot of myself in high school – I didn’t do a lot. If I had to do it again, I probably would’ve dug down and did a lot more, but I didn’t. I was just worried more about basketball than anything, and it was big lesson for me. I had to go to junior college, which was Nebraska, and it made me study more, made me respect the game more and made me more humble.”
At Western Nebraska Community College, the point guard tore his ACL during the first week of practice and sat out his entire freshman season. Following months of vigorous rehab, Jackson averaged 11.5 points per game over the following two seasons, earning Second-Team Junior College All-American honors in 1994-95 after leading the school to a 36-4 record and a third-place finish in the NJCAA Tournament.
“He’s a fighter,” says Johnson. “He didn’t come just from D-I straight into the League – it was a journey for that man. His road was tougher than most of ours, yet he still found a way to make it, and not only make it, but to become one of the top players.”
Despite receiving interest from Wake Forest, where he would’ve had the chance to team up with future NBA MVP Tim Duncan, Jackson says he wisely chose to attend the University of Minnesota.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I knew they didn’t have a guy who was ‘the guy,’ and that was Tim Duncan,” he recalls, adding the duo would’ve likely led the team to a national championship.
“But (Wake Forest) was only 30 minutes from my hometown, too. That was also a deciding factor, because I didn’t want to go back home and get trapped in the things that made me get away from home. I’m glad I made the right choice in going to Minnesota, but it was a tough decision.”
In his second season with the Gophers, the consensus All-American Second Team selection averaged 15.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, pushing the underdog squad on an improbable run to the Final Four.
“That was probably one of the best feelings I ever had in my life as a basketball player – taking my team to the Final Four, being named Most Outstanding Player in the tournament and making the All-Tournament Team,” he says. “I think all those accomplishments are things you can always be happy with in your life.”
Shortly afterward, Jackson attended 1997 NBA Draft – held less than an hour away from his hometown in in Charlotte, N.C. – despite never receiving an invite from the League. More than 50 of his closest family members and friends exploded in applause when the guard walked across the stage after being selected 23rd overall.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Jackson of the stressful evening. “I didn’t know if I was even going to get drafted. I just knew I was going, regardless of whether they invited me or not. I made sure that if my name was going to get called, I was going to be there."
After averaging 7.9 points and 3.4 assists over his first three NBA seasons – one with the Nuggets and two with the Timberwolves – the electrifying 6-foot-1 guard signed with the Kings in August 2000, where he emerged into an instant fan favorite and integral member of five Playoff teams.
Starting 26 games in place of the injured Mike Bibby during the 2002-03 campaign, Jackson averaged 20.2 points on 50.3 percent shooting and 4.0 assists per contest en route to becoming the second point guard in League history to win Sixth Man of the Year honors.
"Action Jackson" racked up 10.6 points, 3.2 rebounds 2.2 assists per contest while coming off the bench in 319 of 365 regular season games as a King, utilizing his quickness to attack the basket and silky pull-up jumper to shoot over defenders.
“The years that we had – going to the Western Conference Finals, winning the Sixth Man Award and just numerous wins and numerous years of going to the Playoffs, I think there are a lot of things that I (am most proud of),” he says, pausing for a split second. “Getting nipped by the Lakers was a tough pill to swallow, though.”
One of the most beloved players in team history, No. 24 continuously gave everything he had on the court, even playing with a fractured cheek bone rather than opting for season-ending surgery in his final NBA season.
Reflecting on his spectacular career, Jackson is thankful for not only the opportunity to lace up his sneakers for a dozen years, but now trade them in for wingtips as a coach.
“I’m always gracious of being able to just play in the NBA – I think that’s the number one thing,” he says. “But I’m still not taking this job for granted and I’m still humbled to come in here, because I know a lot of people would love to still be able to do this.”
An hour-and-a-half before game time, Jackson is back inside the Kings locker room, furiously scribbling defensive assignments, key statistics and main plays on the team’s board, as Thomas glances over from his locker.
“Growing up, I knew who Bobby Jackson was – he was a spark off the bench, a guy who came in and could score the ball and had that heart,” says the Tacoma native. “He tells me I remind him of himself back in the day, just with the heart and the never-back-down mentality that I have.”
The next morning, the two are once again scrimmaging on the practice court, as Jackson hollers instructions to the young point guard while simultaneously working on shooting drills with Johnson and Travis Outlaw.
“I’ll keep doing this until I can’t walk,” says the second-year coach. “If I feel like I’m healthy enough to get out there and get these guys ready to play in the game or in practice, I think that’s what I’m here for.”