No pay, no foul
Marty Burns, SI.com
In the spring of '99, I went to Portland to write a piece for Sports Illustrated about then-Blazers swingman Jim Jackson, who was getting set to make his first career playoff appearance after 446 games spanning seven NBA seasons. At the time it was the ninth-longest such drought in league history, and Jackson (who had spurned a bigger offer from the Clippers to sign a three-year $5.8 million deal with the Blazers) was clearly looking forward to his first dip in postseason waters.
"This is the reason I came here," he said. "I wanted to be in a winning situation."
Jackson wound up having a solid playoff run. Once a big-time scorer with the Mavs (he averaged 25.7 points per game in '94-95), he had willingly accepted a role off Portland's bench as Isaiah Rider's backup. Thanks in part to his defense and shot-making, the Blazers made it all the way to the Western Conference finals before blowing a huge fourth-quarter Game 7 lead against the Lakers. Unfortunately for Jackson, he was traded along with Rider that summer to the Hawks in a deal for Steve Smith. It was a tough break for the former Ohio State standout.
But Jackson bit his lip and kept his grumbling to a minimum during the subsequent season-and-a-half in the Atlanta wasteland.
I thought of this last week after hearing the news that Jackson had been suspended indefinitely by the Hornets. Unhappy about the Dec. 27 trade that sent him from Houston to New Orleans, he simply refused to report to New Orleans.
At 34, Jackson apparently has decided that he doesn't want to waste his time on a 4-29 Hornets team. Every game he misses, he loses 1/90th of his $2.4 million annual salary. The meter is now at $161,333 and running. Jackson, naturally, is taking a PR beating. Hornets fans are calling him selfish and spoiled. Even some of his fellow NBA players think he's wrong.
"If you get traded, you still gotta play," Warriors forward Cliff Robinson says. "That's the nature of the business."
But if Jackson is willing to give up the cash, why should anybody be upset? After all, don't we criticize players for collecting paychecks when their hearts aren't in it? Isn't this better than showing up and pulling a Vince Carter? Jackson has already been through a hellish rebuilding situation in his career. His '92-93 Mavs team finished 11-71, second-worst of all time. The following year his Mavs were 13-69. Even if Jackson deserves some of the blame for those terrible records, isn't it understandable that he wouldn't want to relive that nightmare?
Moreover, one could argue Jackson already more than repented to the basketball gods for his old Dallas sins. New Orleans would mark his 11th team in 13 NBA seasons. While that's often a sign of a malcontent, Jackson was an innocent victim in most of these cases.
Portland just wanted to get rid of Rider. Atlanta dealt him to Cleveland to get a badly-needed point guard in Brevin Knight. Sacramento let him go for financial reasons. Jackson thought he had finally found a home in Houston, where he was a favorite of coach Jeff Van Gundy, but he fell victim to the Rockets' sudden need for an additional ball-handler (David Wesley).
Now Jackson finds himself in the basketball backwaters of New Orleans with no clue as to why he's there. The Hornets made the trade to get rid of Wesley and acquire a decent young prospect in Bostjan Nachbar. Jackson was a throw-in to make the salaries match up. That's why Jackson is being so stubborn and holding out for a trade.
He and GM Allan Bristow have spoken once, during a conference call shortly after the trade, but that has been the extent of the conversation. Mark Termini, Jackson's agent, declined comment Friday except to say that his client had nothing against New Orleans and was hopeful something could be worked out to the advantage of both parties.
Clearly, the Hornets could get something for Jackson if they try hard enough. The Nuggets need a shooting guard and might be willing to part with Rodney White. The Heat have extra pieces in Wes Person and Rasual Butler, and Jackson was spotted recently at a game in Miami.
But there is no guarantee the Hornets will do anything. Publicly, Bristow says he still hopes Jackson changes his mind and agrees to suit up. The Hornets even have a locker stall ready at New Orleans Arena, complete with a No. 22 Jackson jersey and an unopened box of Air Max Nikes, size 15. Or the notoriously tight-fisted Hornets might decide to keep Jackson on the suspended list so they don't have to pay his salary.
Whatever the case, we're not saying anybody should feel sorry for Jackson. The NBA is a business. Players use their leverage all the time to maximize their gain. The Rockets had every right to trade Jackson, and the Hornets have every right to expect him to suit up. But don't put Jackson alongside Carter, Alonzo Mourning and Tracy McGrady in the NBA's Mt. Rushmore of Malingerers either.
Unlike Zo, Jackson's not collecting on a fat paycheck to do nothing. Unlike Carter and T-Mac last season, he's not going out on the floor and playing at half-throttle. All Jackson wants is a chance to play for a contending team before it's too late. The Hornets need guys who truly want to be there. It seems something could be done to satisfy those goals and make this a win-win situation for both parties.
Is Jackson doing the right thing or making a big mistake?