Jim Jackson Rediscovered 'Love for the Game’ with Kings
Sacramento was the ninth of his record-tying 12 NBA stops, but for Jim Jackson, that lone season in purple-and-black threads, with a group of egoless stars epitomizing teamwork, was the most significant.
In six months, he made friendships that have long outlasted his playing days, and still remembers the ear-piercing cowbells clanging in the stands and unrivaled, electric atmosphere at every home game. But above all, it was the place where he reignited his stalling career and rediscovered his slowly draining passion for the game.
“It was rejuvenation for me, in regard to just loving to play basketball again,” Jackson said. “Even though it was less than a year, I still look back at that moment, at that time and at that team, and say, ‘That’s what NBA basketball is all about.’”
Shortly after Thanksgiving in 2002, the well-traveled journeyman was in “the right spot at the right time,” he recalls, after declining several training-camp invites in anticipation of an offer from a championship contender. When the injury-depleted Kings, already without Mike Bibby (foot surgery), were down to the League-minimum eight active players after losing forwards Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu to nagging ailments, Jackson jumped at precisely the kind of opportunity he coveted.
The 6-foot-6 swingman, 32 at the time, joined an ever-shifting Sacramento rotation marred by near-daily player absences, and instantly proved to be a worthwhile contributor for the Pacific Division leaders. A nightly 25-point scorer earlier in his career, he transitioned into a vital bench cog, splitting time between guard and forward while averaging 7.7 points on 45.1 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Although he could still pack an offensive punch when needed, netting over 20 points in blowout wins over the Spurs and Sonics, his defensive excellence – most notably, helping limit Kobe Bryant to 7-of-24 shooting in Sacramento’s Christmas Day triumph in L.A. – was the main reason why he logged over 20 minutes per night, even once Turkoglu returned.
Jackson, who’d reached the Playoffs only once in his first 10 seasons, while frustratingly shuffling from one locker room and divergent playing style to the next, recognized how the cohesive organization, from top to bottom, created a winning environment.
"The coaching staff – Coach (Rick) Adelman, Coach (Pete) Carril – everyone was great,” he said. “But the players – from Vlade (Divac) to Peja (Stojakovic), C-Webb (Chris Webber), Dougie (Christie), Mike Bibby, Bobby Jackson, Mateen (Cleaves), Damon Jones – the crew we had really got along and played well together. They accepted me when I came in, and it just brought back the love for the game.
“We were very similar to the way Golden State plays now. Maybe we didn’t shoot as many threes, but we had excellent perimeter shooting and bigs who could pass the ball, so it made playing the game a lot of fun.”
After dispatching the Jazz in five games to open the Playoffs, the Kings faced the Mavericks in the semifinals, in a wildly-entertaining but ultimately heartbreaking series. In Game 2, Webber crumpled to the floor with what proved to be a debilitating knee injury, and while Sacramento rallied to push the matchup to a winner-take-all seventh contest, No. 4’s early exit was too much to overcome.
Had Webber stayed healthy, Jackson believes the Kings would’ve not only prevailed against Dallas, but potentially raised a championship banner in The River City.
“Selfishly, I’m going to say yes, we would’ve (won the title),” he said. “Nick Van Exel and Dirk (Nowitzki) played well for the Mavericks that year, but not having Chris, that really hurt us. He was such an integral part of what we did; not just scoring the basketball and passing, but his presence on the court attracted so much attention. Once you lose that, you can’t get that back … I think we could’ve really gotten to the Western Conference Finals and battled against a tough San Antonio team.”
Jackson expected to continue his Kings stint beyond 75 appearances and build on his fruitful campaign, but says he wasn’t offered a second contract after the season. Despite his unceremonious departure, he harbors no ill-will toward the team and city that embraced him from the moment he arrived.
“Unfortunately, I thought I was going to stay a lot longer,” he said. “I thought that would be my landing. I thought I carved out a good niche, but management chose to go somewhere else and (traded for) Brad Miller. But that doesn’t sour my appreciation for the time that I was there.”
Not long after he officially retired in 2007, following 14 years in the NBA, a broadcasting agent, who’d been impressed with Jackson’s eloquence in interviews throughout his career, approached him about a career in sports media.
The Ohio State alum began as a college hoops analyst for the newly-launched Big Ten Network, and since then, has called games on FOX Sports and a FS1 telecasts, as well as served as the lead play-by-play announcer on Westwood One radio broadcasts. Last season, he made his on-air debut as part of CBS and Turner Sports’ coverage of the NCAA Tournament, and joined TNT and NBA TV’s Players Only booth.
Thanks to his numerous basketball gigs, he’s had a courtside seat to games featuring a number of current Kings players, and gives high marks for the front-office decision-making of a certain Sacramento 7-footer with whom he once shared a locker room.
“Of course, I’m a big fan of Vlade,” Jackson said. “I think they’ve done a good job drafting. De’Aaron Fox, I think, is going to be phenomenal as he continues to grow and understand that point guard position. Like a lot of teams in the West, they continue to get better.
“I’m also happy for Buddy Hield because he went through a lot, trying to figure out how his game would fit in the League. Coming out highly touted as a shooter, he struggled a little bit his first year, but I think he figured it out. I think the changes in the organization allowed him to settle in, and now you have more stability.”
For the last three summers, Jackson has worked as the color commentator for the BIG3, a three-on-three league headlined by dozens of former NBA stars – many of whom he once called teammates, including Bibby and Bonzi Wells.
But although Jackson, a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, enjoys basketball as much as ever, he’s given no thought to lacing up his sneakers and rekindling rivalries from his heyday. The 48-year-old, now accustomed to sitting at press row along the scorer’s table, laughs when told he still looks like he’s in playing shape and could sub into a game.
“No, no, no – ‘look like’ and ‘feel like’ are different things,” he said. “I want to stay healthy; that’s why I’m just over here on the sidelines. I haven’t played in 13 years. I’d rather go play golf … My regular routine (involves) a lot of cardio, a lot of stretching, a lot of free weights. But as far as playing? I’m not doing that!”