Eight times since graduating from Georgetown, Jaren Jackson has unpacked his bags hoping to find an NBA home. Seven times he packed up and left at the end of that season. New Jersey to Golden State for five games, to the Los Angeles Clippers for 34, to Portland, across the country to Philadelphia, down to Houston for four games, to Washington and finally to San Antonio when the Bullets couldn't quite find a place for him. That does not count a stint in the CBA and another in the WBL, with an outfit called the Dayton Wings.
"Eight times is a charm," Jackson said Sunday, beaming at the thought that his odyssey has come to this: playing a significant role on a dream of a team that has reached the NBA Finals.
"It's the nature of the business when you're a role player like I am," he said. "I never got bitter. Never. I thought plenty of decisions made about me were unfair, but I didn't dwell on it. You know what a role player's job is? To make the marquee players shine. I'm never going to be a marquee player. I know that. I've known it for a long, long time. Nobody's ever going to bring me in to take over games. But that's not what the guys are about here anyway.
"Man, I just feel really good right now. It's a long, long road to this. And now to be here, playing with a bunch of guys who play together, who are unselfish, great guys, great teammates, people with character . . . it's incredible. It's a joy to play with guys like these. Everybody's content, we let Avery Johnson run the team, and Tim and David do their thing. We've got lots of guys who've learned to be followers."
Jackson has been places where people haven't quite grasped the concepts of sharing and following. Places like Washington. But this is hardly the time for him to name names or gloat. "I've played with some guys with real talent," he said, "but you don't want to play with them because they're not team players."
The conversation quickly turned to Washington, to the 1996-97 Bullets who made the playoffs. Jackson played 75 games that season, but he did not take a single shot in 11 total minutes in three playoff games. Imagine that, a guy doesn't figure in the plans of an outfit like the Bullets, but he is critical to the success of a team going to the NBA Finals.
"We weren't as united there as we should have been," he said of his season in Washington. "There were moments when we played well, but . . . I loved it there. My wife went to Georgetown. We spent lots of years in D.C. It's my second home, my stomping ground. I wanted to spend the rest of my time [in basketball] there."
He's not bitter, but he sees the irony, laughs at it just a little bit. You know what Jaren Jackson did in two games against Portland in the Western Conference finals? He hit 6 of 11 three-pointers and led the Spurs with 19 points in a 22-point rout in Game 3. In 23 minutes off the bench in Sunday's Game 4 he hit three more three-pointers, scored 11 points, had four assists without committing a turnover and grabbed six rebounds. He played more minutes in the past two games than he did for the Warriors (54) in the 1991-92 season.
But he found a home with the Spurs. "You know -- different coach, different system, different guys," he said.
Every team has its Jaren Jacksons. The Chicago Bulls had three or four every season, guys who bounced around and got lucky that something just clicked with Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen or Phil Jackson. The Spurs have that in common with the Bulls, in fact. Chicago had two marquee players and a bunch of Jaren Jacksons. The Spurs have David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Sean Elliott and a bunch of Jaren Jacksons. Avery Johnson, the starting point guard, is a Jaren Jackson. They both grew up in Louisiana, playing against each other on the playgrounds of New Orleans and in AAU competition.
He and Johnson, who has been with five teams (and the Spurs three times), try to outdo each other with stories of who has been cut the most, who has been cut in the tackiest ways.
"I think they all start with, `Jaren, it's a numbers game,' " he said. "Or, `We're moving in a different direction.' I've had guys tell me, `I don't understand why you're not a bigger part of the team,' even though he's about to cut me. Interesting, huh?"
Johnson pipes up, "Hey, Jaren can't match my stories. I got cut by Denver in the airport on Christmas Eve by [Paul] Westhead. Flew home all the way to New Orleans hurt. Another time, I got cut on David Robinson's wedding day. I was in the wedding, too. Larry Brown wouldn't tell me, so he sent Pop to tell me." That's Pop as in Gregg Popovich, the current coach and GM of the Spurs.
"I'm thankful to be going where we're going," Johnson said. "I know Jaren feels the same way."
No doubt. Jackson played all 82 games for San Antonio last season, and 47 of the 50 in this lockout-shortened season. That's heady stuff for a guy who eight years ago was in the CBA. And it's not like he comes in to just set screens or guard the other team's star. Jackson's job is to come in and light it up, to make folks pay for double-teaming Robinson and Duncan.
"If he doesn't take the shots, we'll bench him," Popovich said before practice Saturday. "I know he's been on about 19 teams, but he's found a home here. There are a number of guys who on paper don't look like the super talented guy, but are willing to accept a role and be unselfish. That's what Jaren is."
That's what Steve Kerr is, too, even if he wears championship rings and only two years ago took a pass from Jordan and won the title in Game 6 by hitting a jumper at the end of the game. "There are a lot of us in this league," Kerr said, "who need to find our niche. There are so many talented players in the NBA, it's very difficult to break into a lineup. but it's a testament to Jaren that he stuck with it long enough and worked hard enough to do that."