"Backcourt handoff
Newcomer Jackson relishes chance to learn from veteran

Reggie Miller (pictured) hinted before training camp that his 18th NBA season would be his last. Stephen Jackson will serve as Miller's backup this season. -- Matt Detrich / The Star

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Pacers season preview

By Sekou Smith
October 31, 2004

Sometimes all it takes are a few simple words to defuse the drama before it begins.

The Indiana Pacers signing an emerging star who plays the same position as the franchise's greatest player had the makings of an unhappy ending.

Stephen Jackson, however, would have none of it.

"Reggie (Miller) knows that I respect him to the utmost," said Jackson, who was acquired in a July trade that sent Al Harrington to Atlanta. "I said it many times and I'll say it again, my main role is to come here and learn from him. There are a lot of aspects of the game that he's learned over his nearly 20 years in the game that I just haven't learned yet.

"I want to be one of the best (shooting) guards to play the game, just like he is. I want Reggie to go out the right way, the way he would love to. Why? Because he deserves it. And hopefully, I can help make it happen."

The Pacers will remain a frontcourt-dominant team, but their title hopes might hinge on that harmonious coexistence of their favorite and future stars.

The defending Central Division champions also are counting on their veteran leader and their most significant addition to navigate the delicate process of mentor and pupil with a certain amount of style and grace.

In an environment where egos have been known to run amok, that's easier said than done.

But Miller's and Jackson's staunch "team first" attitude has overshadowed everything else, such as who starts, who finishes and who takes the final shot.

"I don't know why there would be any weirdness. We're here to win ballgames," Miller said when asked if the notion of grooming the man who will replace him seemed awkward. "You put the weirdness aside and understand that he's a great addition to our ballclub and make sure we win ballgames. It's always been that way here."

Miller, who hinted before training camp that his 18th NBA season would be his last, is coming off his worst scoring season since his rookie year. The leading scorer in franchise history -- 24,305 points and counting -- is determined to prove last season's 10.0 scoring average was an aberration.

Jackson, who has scored 21,185 fewer points than Miller in his career, averaged a career-best 18.1 points per game last season.

He will use his 6-8, 218-pound frame to bring a new dimension to the Pacers' offense.

Together they will make opponents rethink the prospect of double-teaming All-Stars Jermaine O'Neal or Ron Artest.

"Any team that can defend all our weapons when we're hitting on all cylinders will have to be really good," Artest said.

"They'll have to be better than good."

One goal: win

Jackson's play has been better than good, his clutch shooting and vocal leadership on full display throughout the preseason.

Jackson brings perimeter shooting, inside-out scoring and the swagger of a man who already has reached the NBA mountaintop.

Still, Jackson, who signed a six-year, $38 million contract with the Hawks before the sign-and-trade deal was finalized, arrived with a warning. Caution: explosives inside.

Jackson confirmed his penchant for letting his emotions go his first day here by saying if the Pacers lose, he's going to be the biggest jerk in the locker room.

Naturally there were questions as to how he might fit in with a Pacers crew that has never been known for internal strife, save the occasional Artest dust-up.

"I was never worried about Jack fitting in here because winning is the thing that's most important to him," Pacers associate coach Mike Brown said. "When that's the case, everything else can be worked out."

O'Neal, who has known Jackson for years, was confident the culture within the Pacers' locker room would promote a seamless transition.

"The collective relationship of this team is tight," O'Neal said. "We're never in individual groups or broken down into pairs. We do things in big groups and that's a key for any team trying to win a championship, and Jack knows that from experience.

"The fact is Reggie is one of the ultimate leaders to ever play the game. And I think the mixture of both of their personalities and the way they've responded to each other is really rare in professional sports. Just like it's very rare to find a team where everybody basically likes each other; sometimes a guy doesn't want someone who plays his position to come in and steal some of his shine or scoring or whatever.

"But like the signs say, it's all about one goal for us. That's for real."

The secret weapon

So too was Brown's resolve to make sure Jackson joined the Pacers. Brown was on the staff in San Antonio and has mentored Jackson during his rise from second-round draft pick castoff to NBA champion.

It was Brown who served as the chief facilitator in Jackson's move here, with that nasty 28-win sentence/season in Atlanta last year interrupting their happy reunion.

It was Brown who assured the Pacers' brass that Jackson would accept whatever situation he was presented with, provided he was a part of a winner again.

"I think he cemented this entire thing before he even talked to Reggie," Brown said. "Just the way he said he was willing to come in and play his role, that defused everything. But those are two class guys also, and I think Jack knows his role is just as important as anybody else's role to helping us win a championship.

"He's the one player I've always felt that was out there -- and I don't care what contending team it was -- that if you got him it would be a steal. He's going to instantly jell with a team and he can play at both ends of the floor. And with his age and contract situation, I knew he was a player that could be a part of a team's foundation."

Jackson is like most anyone else. He needed reassurance that he was needed as well as welcome.

So when Miller didn't flinch at Jackson's constant shadowing in the locker room early in training camp, Jackson's already robust comfort level exploded.

"Me and Reggie never had some formal discussion or anything," Jackson said. "But we had a real good time a few weeks back when he invited me over to his house for the (Felix) Trinidad-(Ricardo) Mayorga fight. We got a chance to sit back and just talk a little bit and he called me the secret weapon. For him to call me that . . . I can't lie, that really did make me feel good to hear that from Reggie Miller.

"That let me know that he knows I'm coming in here to play my role and to play my role well. I'm here to help him go out like David Robinson did and that's with a championship. That's why I'm here.""