After a longer wait than he would have liked, Mark “Action” Jackson was finally given a head coaching job in the NBA, courtesy of the Golden State Warriors. Being overlooked for a little while was nothing new to Mark, though, and at least he had a great announcing gig to keep him busy. From high school, to college, to the NBA, people were always harping on what Mark’s physical limitations prevented him from doing. Well, enlightened fans (um, such as yours truly) liked to focus on what Mark could do: pass the ball like a savant, and with flavor to boot. Just check the stats (and the sponsor of that page)! The article below, from SLAM 25, was both my first SLAM feature and the first (and only) SLAM feature Mark’s gotten. Yes, I’ll holler at him for an Old-School joint soon.—Ben Osborne / @bosborne17
As soon as he catches the in-bounds pass, the slow and steady attack begins. He pounds the ball in an unsightly high dribble as he approaches mid-court. When a defender approaches, the high dribble gets nastier, because now his back is to the basket. There’s not much quickness and even less true speed. He stands a real-world 6-3, his 32-year-old body no harder than your average high-school baller’s. At the local playground you probably wouldn’t look twice at this guy. And on an NBA court? Hell, you wouldn’t even look once. But then…
Somehow, while facing the wrong way, Indiana Pacers’ point guard Mark Jackson sees Reggie Miller cutting along the baseline and hits him with a perfectly-placed pass. “Wow,” the non-believing fans says, “How’d he do that?”
It will continue throughout the game. There will be more blind passes. There will be perfectly-timed lobs that lead gangly center Rik Smits to the hoop, and crisp bounce passes that get Chris Mullin wide open looks. Turnovers are a fantasy of the opposing coach, because Mark doesn’t provide them. His teammates stay in the game, because they know they’ll get the ball.
“Everyone wants to play with Mark Jackson,” Mullin says in his vintage Brooklynese. “You go around the league, and people are like, ‘Man, I wanna’ play with Mark. Lemme get with Mark. I like that guy.’”
Besides flawless leadership and the usual 10 assists, by the end of the game Action Jackson will have dropped in a few eye-opening baskets and done a crowd-pleasing dance or two. And maybe he’ll have recruited a new set of believers.
Jackson is a throwback’s throwback. In an era of versatile, “do-everything” players who dabble in all facets of the game, Mark is a specialist. He’s a passer, and he does it as well as anyone ever. Don’t believe it? Before this season ends, the all-time assist leader board will read: John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Mark Jackson. That’s right, fifth in NBA history, ahead of such acknowledged stars as Mo Cheeks, Bob Cousy and Nate Archibald. And Pistol Pete. And Jerry West. And Clyde Frazier. And Yinka Dare. The other-other MJ has finished in the top 10 in assists seven times, and last season—his 10th in the league—Jackson became the first person not named Stockton to lead the league in assists since Magic in ’86-87. With Mark, greatness is visible on court and in the record book, but his physical attributes (or lack thereof) have always caused people to pre-judge him.
Think about it like this: Mark Jackson, assist man for the ages, who showed his game is still extra-nice when he outplayed Iverson and Steph in back-to-back mid-season wins over the Sixers and the Timberwolves, was only the fourth-rated point guard in New York City as a senior in high school.
“I am the classic case of the turtle,” Jackson says, “the turtle that beat the hare.” Um, that would be the tortoise, Mark, but never mind. After a recent Pacers’ practice, the even-mannered Jackson uses this ancient fable to define his career. It’s an apt description.
The Bishop Loughlin HS (Queens) product was considered the consolation prize in a group of young point men that included future NBAers in Dwayne “Pearl” Washington and Kenny Smith, as well as Kenny Hutchinson, who went on to the University of Arkansas. “Here were four of the best senior guards in the country, and we battled year round,” Jackson says. “It was a great time, but what I can remember is being the guy that, pretty much, people didn’t give credit to.”
He was the epitome of the cerebral, passing point guard, and—even in the ’80s—that didn’t sell newspapers or get recruiters’ attention. “I wasn’t as athletically gifted or as spectacular as those guys, so I just took pride in being solid and being a quarterback,” Jackson says. “I think that at that time, no question, and throughout my career, that hasn’t been appreciated as much.”
Setting the precedent for what has been a career filled with clutch play in big games, Jackson led his undersized Loughlin squad (Mark, the point guard, was the team’s tallest player) all the way to a state title. Jackson’s high school coach, Pat Quigley, still has good things to say about Queens’ finest. “[Mark] was so easy to coach,” Quigley remembers. “He worked the hardest and stayed the longest, so he made it easy to coach everybody else, too.”
But even Quigley doubted Mark’s on-court prospects at first. “I didn’t think he was a sure shot for the NBA. But I do remember, when he was a senior, realizing he could be a pro, mostly because of his leadership and his intelligence—he was the smartest player I’d ever seen,” he says. “I did notice his lack of quickness, but I think that’s overrated.”
It was in high school that Jackson developed the parts of his game that even casual fans recognize. First, the “teardrop”. Not quite as visually pleasing as a Michael Jordan reverse lay-up, these are the shots that Mark gets off over Mike. He methodically gets into the paint, puts his left shoulder down like a running back, gets some minor air and uses his right hand to throw the ball up, over the defender and at the basket, often going glass. More often than not, the teardrop goes in. “I picked that up from day one,” Jackson says. “It’s out of necessity to get my shot off.”
Another part of Mark’s game that goes back to Loughlin is his radical approach at the free throw line. Quigley told him to “envision the ball going through the hoop on free throws,” and Jax took the idea one step further. He started lining up his free throws by sighting over his fingers, a move that has been imitated on playgrounds from NYC to Ames, IA, ever since. The Ames fact comes courtesy of Pacers’ sharpshooter Fred “the Mayor” Hoiberg, who interrupted Jackson to point out that, in deference, he lined up his free throws in the eighth grade. “No wonder you’re such a good shooter,” Jackson replied facetiously.
High school was also when people first saw Jackson’s ingenious passing, made possible by radar-like court vision that serves him as well against the Lakers and Bulls as it did against Archbishop Molloy High.
“It’s a gift,” Jackson says. “As soon as I get the ball I take a picture of where the guys are on the floor, and I pretty much play it in slow motion as I come up the floor, and expect them to be in a certain position when the frame ends. If they’re not there, it’s their fault.” He laughs. “But that was just a gift that was given me—seeing, distributing, making plays. I can’t take any credit for it, besides putting the time in and sharpening the gift.”
With most of the nation’s bigger schools treating Jackson’s “gift” like a polyester sweater at Christmas-time, Jackson stayed local after high school, taking his street-wise game just 10 minutes down the street, to St. John’s University. Jax had a remarkable four years in Jamaica, Queens, including a sophomore year trip to the Final Four when Mullin was the star.
Jackson set an NCAA record for assists in a single season (since broken) when he had 328 as a junior, and then earned second-team All-American honors after a senior year which included per game averages of 19 points, six assists and six rebounds, plus the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award. Not surprisingly, he left St. John’s as one of legendary coach Lou Carnesecca’s favorite pupils.
“People said, ‘He can’t do this and he can’t do that,’ but he kept doing it. It’s nice to see,” Carnesecca says. “He just has this mind for the game, and he’s got eyes all over his head. You can’t coach that.”
It was under Carnesecca, a liberal and trusting coach whom Jackson loves to this day, that overt flair became part of Mark’s game. A typical St. John’s possession would include Mark dribbling the ball through his legs endlessly before taking it to the rack and leaving an over-the-shoulder pass for Willie Glass. Then he’d celebrate, wagging his finger aggressively. The post-play partying has evolved in the pros, from the finger wag to the “airplane”, when he’d run down court after a nice play with his arms spread wide, to the “shimmy”, a hip-shaking dance step that follows up a nice play these days. Poor sportsmanship?
Puhleeze, says Mark. “What I try to do is show the passion and the love that I have for the game,” Jackson says. “It’s never taunting or disrespectful, it’s just out of excitement for me and my teammates.”
Jackson graduated from St.John’s in ’87. “By graduating on time, I showed my parents I was more than just an All-American point guard—that I got the job done in the classroom too.”