Crazy like a fox
Marty Burns,

Stephen Jackson pauses when asked to name the craziest thing he's ever done. "That's a tough one. I've done a lot of crazy things," the Pacers swingman said with a chuckle Wednesday after practice. "Let's see ... Well, one time I put salt in my mom's soda."

Somehow we think Jackson might be holding back on us. But that's OK. We already know the craziest thing he's ever done. In the summer of 2003 Jackson turned down a three-year, $10 million contract offer from the Spurs -- with whom he had just won a title -- in hopes of getting a richer deal on the free-agent market. He struck out and wound up settling for a one-year deal worth $1.1 million with the lowly Hawks.

The seeming miscalculation instantly made Jackson the poster child for free-agent folly. He and his agent, Dan Fegan, were roundly second-guessed (including by yours, truly). After all, Jackson had been a basketball nomad over the previous six years, toiling in hoops backwaters like Venezuela and the CBA, and had even been waived by the Grizzlies before finding a home with the Spurs. By remaining in San Antonio he would have had $10 million in the bank, a chance to play for an NBA ring every year and all those wide open looks created by playing alongside Tim Duncan. In Atlanta, he had ... what, exactly? Free rein to hoist shots for a team going nowhere and a chance to make regular visits to Friedman's Shoes?

But Jackson, to his credit, played hard last year at both ends, averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game and turned the gamble into gold. In July he was signed to a six-year, $40 million deal as part of a sign-and-trade with the Pacers for Al Harrington. Now Jackson is the one laughing last, as he gets his money and a chance to play for a championship contender. "It's a blessing," he says. "To be here in Indiana, to have contract security for myself and my family, it all worked out perfect."

Jackson, who will back up Reggie Miller, admits there were plenty of times last season when he wished he had taken San Antonio's offer. He knows he could have blown out a knee in Atlanta. But he also says the urgency of the situation helped bring out the best in him. "I've been living on the edge all my life, from coming out of high school early, not having any test scores, not being able to go to college," Jackson says. "I'm definitely a risk-taker. Like I always say, when pressure comes I make love to it."

Hmmm. That's more information than we needed to know. But if Jackson can bring that same mentality to the Pacers, and drain some big 3-pointers along the way, it's not crazy to think he could soon have another NBA ring to go with all those millions.

Kobe out to silence the skeptics

Maybe it's just the euphoria over being handed the reins of the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant looks as if he's on a mission. First he organized informal team workouts and weight training sessions before training camp, even calling Lakers teammates personally. Then he played 41 minutes in the team's first exhibition game, scoring 35 points, in Tuesday's loss to the Sonics. "He was fantastic," Lakers coach Rudy Tomjanovich said, praising Bryant's leadership after the game. "He addressed the team and said, 'Some of you have your heads down, but we worked hard. No one should leave thinking we didn't give a lot of effort.'"

Bryant clearly wants to prove he doesn't need a certain 7-foot, 350-pound center around to make the Lakers winners. He knows he's going to have to carry a heavier load, which is one reason why he bulked up 10 pounds over the summer. He also knows he's going to need his teammates' respect, which helped prompt him to workout with them for the first time in years.

"Expectations for us this season aren't very high at all," Bryant said at the team's media day. "I relish that challenge and my teammates do, too." How much Bryant can do with this Lakers group, however, is very much in doubt. Vlade Divac (herniated disk) and Brian Grant (sore neck) already have missed practices, and Chucky Atkins is their only proven point guard. If Bryant isn't careful, he is liable to wear himself out if he continues to log heavy minutes in meaningless exhibitions. Some might suggest Rudy T. should say something to his star player, but ... oh wait, never mind.

Between a Zach and a hard place

An interesting situation is developing in Portland, where the Blazers are mulling whether to sign power forward Zach Randolph to a contract extension. Randolph is said to be seeking a maximum deal, worth around $90 million over six years. If Portland doesn't reach an agreement by Oct. 31, Randolph could become a restricted free agent after the season.

Randolph, a 6-9, 270-pound bull who averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds last year while winning Most Improved honors, is definitely a rising star. But at age 23 he still needs work on his defense and his ability to pass out of double teams, and there are nagging questions about his character. Last August he was involved in an incident in an Anderson, Ind., nightclub in which three men were shot. The men survived, but Randolph's brother, Roger, was charged with three counts of battery with a deadly weapon. (He has pleaded innocent). Prosecutors initially were going to charge Zach Randolph with misleading police during their investigation, but decided not to after he agreed to clarify his statements.

Though usually affable with the media and reportedly a hard worker in practice, Randolph has had several brushes with the law. Last season he was cited for driving under the influence of marijuana (He was not charged.) in Portland. Two years ago he got busted in his hometown of Marion, Ind., for underage drinking, and as a youngster he spent time in juvenile detention for shoplifting, battery and gun possession. He also was involved last year in a practice fight with teammate Ruben Patterson.

For Portland president Steve Patterson and GM John Nash, it's going to be a difficult call. They were given a mandate to clean up the team's Jail Blazers image, which they began to do last year by trading Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells. Now they've got to decide whether to invest long-term in yet another young player who might be a franchise cornerstone but who also can't seem to stay out of trouble.

Around the league

Randolph isn't the only prominent young talent who could join Tracy McGrady on next summer's free-agent market. Bucks guard Michael Redd is expected to exercise an opt-out clause in his contract and become an unrestricted free agent after the season. ... Tim Duncan is being listed at 6-11 this year by the Spurs, a change the two-time MVP requested. Spurs media relations director Tom James said the team rounded up Duncan's height to 7-0 when he came out of college, but Duncan and the team have since decided to be more technically accurate. ... Karl Malone's decision to wait on free agency means Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will almost certainly retain the NBA's scoring record at least through the '05-06 season. Malone currently is 1,459 points short of Abdul-Jabbar's all-time record. Even if the Mailman were to average 13.2 points per game (as he did last year with the Lakers), he would need to play 111 games. Even if he came back at this year's All-Star break, he'd still have a hard time catching Kareem before the end of next season.