Mark Jackson has repeatedly proved that slow and steady wins the race.
He’d also earned enough respect to be considered a probable first round pick in the ’87 draft. But once again his former New York rivals were more wanted. Pearl Washington, who had turned pro after his junior year, was the 13th pick in ’86, and Kenny Smith went sixth in ’87. Jackson—the turtle—went 18th. Tempering any sadness over going so low was the fact that Jackson was picked by his hometown team.
“I dreamt one day to play for the New York Knicks,” he says. “To be out on the Madison Square Garden floor, running the point guard spot, and it happened.”
Playing at a level that matched his excitement, Jackson burst on the NBA scene as a rookie, playing more minutes than anyone in the NBA besides Mike, and running Rick Pitino’s madcap offense to perfection. He broke Oscar Robertson’s 27-year-old rookie assist record by racing up 868, almost 200 more than the Big O. To top off his storybook season, Jackson was named Rookie of the Year, the second-lowest draft pick ever to win the award. He also found a huge fan in Pitino.
“I had no problem turning the ball over to Mark, since he was a true point guard from the moment he came to us,” Pitino says. “He had talent, but he was successful because he played with such a high level of intelligence.”
With Pitino on board, the Mark Jackson story was ready to develop into a full-length fantasy. “Local boy makes good in rookie year—eventually leads team to title.” But this was no fantasy. More powerful than Pitino in the Knicks organization was absurd general manager Al Bianchi, who drafted Rod Strickland in the first round following Jackson’s rookie year. Rod’s nice, no doubt, but could you imagine the Raptors drafting a point g the year after Damon Stoudamire won Rookie of the Year? Amazingly, Mark handled the slight well, and his second season turned out to be the best he’s ever had—17 points, nine assists and five rebounds per—and a trip to the All Star game. But people kept messing with him.
Disgusted with Bianchi for a number of reasons, Pitino left for Kentucky, and Stu Jackson took over. Stu lasted a year-plus before John MacLeod was brought in. Mark went from the most progressive-thinking coach ever to two by-the-bookers. And they barely played him. During Mark’s third and fourth seasons, right on the heels of an All-Star berth and at a time when he was only 25 years old, he began racking up DNP-CDs the way he racks up double-digit assist games these days. People who knew Mark’s game were incredulous, but he kept his head and even looks back with pride.
“To show people that I can smile and high-five when I was Rookie of the Year or an All-Star, and then to show ’em, when the trials and tribulations come, that I’m still smiling and clapping for my teammates when I’m not playing the minutes I’m supposed to play—I thank God for those times,” Jackson says.
After the John MacLeod disaster, which ended in the ’91 playoffs with Mark playing only 36 minutes and scoring a total of two points in an embarrassing three-game sweep by the Bulls, the Knicks brought in Pat Riley. Playing again for a coach who knew what he was doing, Jackson averaged 8.6 dimes per game and used his floor skills to help the Knicks gut their way to a seventh game against Chicago in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Sadly for Knick fans, Garden management had a masochistic fascination with Clipper forward Charles Smith, so Jackson was part of a package that got exiled to the NBA netherworld that is the L.A. Sports Arena. “It was tough,” Jackson says. “But I will always appreciate that Coach Riley was fair to me.”
Placed with another established coach in the Clippers’ Larry Brown, Jackson responded with a season most guards can only dream about. He played every game and dropped 14 points, nine assists, five rebounds and two steals a night. They were ill numbers, but it’s tough to get respect with the Clips. Brown left after that season, and L.A. brought in sidleine mannequin Bob Weiss.
After one season with Weiss, Jackson no longer fit in the Clippers’ plans (whatever those might have been), and he was passed on like a chain letter. He spent two full seasons with the Pacers, was shipped to the Nuggets before the start of last season, and was then returned to the Pacers in February.
“Getting moved around is part of the business,” Jackson says. “As for last year, well, that’s something I’ll think about years from now, telling my kids and grandkids how I beat out the great John Stockton to lead the league in assists.” A nice thought—the passer, passing on his story.
Despite the trades, Jackson stays with his family. “We have a permanent home in New Jersey, but I’m a family guy, and where I play is where my family is at that time,” he says, thrilled to discuss his wife Desiree, his six-year-old son Mark II and his three-year-old daughter Heavyn. “It’s important for me to come home and spend time with them…I’m not a guy that’s trying to run the streets and live a hidden life.” Jackson ties his wedding ring into his shoelaces during games to show how proud he is of his marriage.
Placing your family, God and your team before yourself doesn’t jibe all that well with the selfishness and coach-beating that currently reigns in the NBA, which makes Jackson a refreshing sight to others. “He’s a great guy with a great family,” Carnesecca says. “To this day, I just love to be in his presence.”
Other players also have lots of love. “I get a vibe off certain people, and Mark’s one of them,” says Trail Blazers’ point g and fellow Queens native Kenny Anderson. “I always looked up to him for how he handled the media and how he played.”
This season, Jackson’s up to his usual tricks. As of press time, he’s fourth in the league in assists and first in the league in assist to turnover ratio, and he’s convinced another coach that he’s got game. After a 2-5 start to the season that saw Jackson play about 18 minutes a night, Larry Bird started letting him play, and Indy’s playing the best ball it has all year. “We wouldn’t be where we are without him,” Larry Legend recently told the Indianapolis Star-News.
Jackson’s passing has carried off the court as well. Passing on knowledge, that is, to the Pacers young back-up point, Travis Best. At practice, Best has been all over Jackson, laughing, talking and listening.
“We compete every day in practice and try to make one another better,” Jackson says. “He wants to improve, and he’s been listening to what I have to offer him.”
Passing the ball, passing the knowledge, passing the praise—this is what he does. As Mark “Action” Jackson begins considering what he’ll do when his record-book altering career (remember, fifth all-time in assists) comes to a close, the choices are simple. “When it’s all over, I’m just gonna sit down and say, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ Whether it’s coaching, where I can use my knowledge of the game, or preaching the word of God, I’ll give it my all and try to have an impact on people’s lives.”
Funny. We thought that’s what he’s been doing all along.