The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stephen Jackson lost a friend. It’s why he’s now leading a movement.

At a news conference, former NBA player Stephen Jackson speaks about George Floyd's death. (Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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At the funeral, Thurman Bill Bartie could see anger in the boy, just barely old enough then to be called a teenager. Stephen Jackson was 14 and in the front row, all grief and rage. Donald Buckner Jr., the older half brother Jackson looked up to like a hero, had died. It was a precise kind of anger Bartie sensed in Jackson — not violent but purposeful and controlled, as if he wanted to change something he could not.

“That did do something to him,” said Bartie, who directed the funeral. “That made him realize how vulnerable you could be and how quickly life could be taken from you.”

The forces that shaped Jackson have been on display for the past month in a way he never envisioned, for a reason he never wanted. He has become a prominent, if unexpected, voice in the movement for police reform and racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in custody of Minneapolis police. As athletes have taken an active role in advocating for progress and justice, few have done so with more fervency and devotion than Jackson, who crafted a reputation as a brash figure and beloved teammate over a roller-coaster 14-season NBA career.

One afternoon in late May, as Jackson slept on his couch with his daughter, his girlfriend sent him a video. They frequently discuss police brutality, and Jackson did not pay close attention. “Another black man getting murdered by the police,” Jackson thought, he later recalled in an interview with “Today.” He clicked out of that video and saw about 50 messages on his phone. One of them read, “Did you see what they did to your twin in Minnesota?” Jackson jumped off the couch and started punching things.

Jackson, 42, was longtime friends with Floyd. They grew up 90 minutes apart, Jackson in the fading oil-refining town of Port Arthur, Tex., and Floyd in Houston’s Third Ward. When a mutual friend introduced them, their resemblance was so striking that Jackson and Floyd jokingly asked each other who the other’s father was. They called each other “Twin.” Jackson had recently shipped Floyd a new suit to wear at a job interview.

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In the weeks since, Jackson has toured the country for rallies and posted relentlessly on social media. (Attempts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.) On Friday in Philadelphia, Jackson hosted a Juneteenth “peace rally” with fellow NBA retiree Rasheed Wallace. In an Instagram video this week, he called for the NBA to halt plans for a return, saying “now ain’t the time to be playing basketball,” because the sport would distract from a more urgent mission.

“None of these white owners are speaking up. None of them are taking a stand,” Jackson said. “Playing basketball ain’t going to do nothing but make them money and take the attention away from what we’re fighting for.”

The superficial arc of his basketball career would present Jackson as an unlikely candidate to help lead the fight for equality. He received a 30-game suspension for his part in the ugliest brawl in NBA history and later received a community service sentence after he fired a gun outside an Indianapolis strip club. He sparred with coaches and racked up technical fouls from referees. He also won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs and spearheaded one of the most memorable upsets of his era as a team captain of the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors.

But the people who coached him, played with him and watched him grow up are uniformly unsurprised by Jackson’s emergence.

“Categorically, Stephen Jackson is a leader,” said Rick Carlisle, who coached Jackson with the Indiana Pacers. “He’s a man of his convictions and always has been.”

Even the episodes that branded him were driven by loyalty and a keen sense of injustice. Those same qualities have now thrust him onto the national stage as one of the most tenacious athlete voices in the movement for racial equality, qualities he learned in the place he grew up.

“I didn’t ask for this position,” he said Thursday in a video posted to YouTube. “God just put me here.”

Donnie Walsh, the Pacers general manager who acquired Jackson, once listened to him tell the story of how his older brother died. Buckner was jumped outside his girlfriend’s home by an ex-boyfriend who had called two cousins to confront Buckner. One of the men hit him over the side of the head with a bottle. When Jackson visited intensive care, 17 stitches held Buckner’s head together. He died the next day. Jackson wished desperately he could have been there to help his brother, that he had gone with him that night.

“And so,” Walsh said, “he will never walk away again.”

From the beginning

Port Arthur sits about 90 miles east of Houston, cornered by the Gulf of Mexico and the Louisiana border. It boomed in the 1960s, its oil refineries providing jobs and a tax base. Urban renewal, white flight and union-busting measures in the 1980s drained the economy and further highlighted an essential truth about the city: There was one Port Arthur for black people and one for white people.

“Southeast Texas, man,” Derrick Freeman said. “This is where a lot of racial tension still bubbles underground, I guess you could say.”

Freeman grew up in Port Arthur at the time same as Jackson. They played Little League baseball together. As Jackson forged his NBA career, Freeman stayed home and became the city’s 42nd mayor, serving from 2016 to 2019.

“We all grew up with the undertone of the segregation that was lingering still as we were growing up,” Freeman said. “Just aware of, ‘This was the black side of town, and this was the white side of town.’ ”

Jackson attended Abraham Lincoln High, which was across town from Thomas Jefferson High. Bartie, a former justice of the peace who replaced Freeman as Port Arthur’s mayor, said the schools remained segregated for a decade after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

“He would have been able to see injustice as to how you were treated because you were a Lincoln student as opposed to being a student at Thomas Jefferson,” Bartie said. “We would get the old books because new books were going to the white school first. He experienced that.”

In the 1970s, federal authorities ordered the school district to make changes because the schools were so obviously separated by white and black students. Even as Jackson attended in the mid-1990s, white students were bused into Lincoln as part of a program for advanced students designed to placate federal agencies.

“Put it like this,” Freeman said. “In the light of where we are, Gen. [Gordon] Granger came down two years after the Civil War and went to Galveston Island, which is about two hours from here, and read the Emancipation Proclamation on Juneteenth. We were two years behind then. We were still behind on some of the federal laws coming down 100-plus years later.”

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Jackson experienced the effects of systemic inequality. In his teens, he drifted into Port Arthur’s pervasive street culture. In a 2005 ESPN interview, Jackson admitted he sold drugs growing up and pointed to a red bandanna hanging on his locker, a nod to the Bloods gang he associated with.

Jackson once described Port Arthur as a “hellhole,” but he has a deep affinity for the place where he grew up. He had a tattoo of the letters “PAT” on his right shoulder — Port Arthur, Tex. — visible for every game he played. He built Stephen Jackson Academy in downtown Port Arthur as an after-school gym and learning center. During Hurricane Harvey, city officials used the gym as a shelter and distribution center. Jackson’s mother, Judy, who raised him with a network of uncles and aunts, volunteered on the downtown revitalization board during Freeman’s term.

Bartie has known Jackson since he was an infant. Back when he was a justice of the peace, Jackson’s grandmother made Bartie peach cobbler at the restaurant Jackson’s grandparents ran.

When Jackson was a freshman, Bartie educated at Lincoln High. One day, a teacher ran toward him when he was a hall monitor and asked for help with Jackson, who was acting up in class. Bartie dragged him into the bathroom.

“This was back when you could put your hands on kids,” Bartie said. “I told him, ‘I could call one of your uncles, or you let me put this wood on your ass right now and you go back in that room.’ He didn’t want me to call his uncles. I gave him about four or five licks.”

Bartie explained to Jackson that he needed to lead, that the other students recognized the special qualities in him. He was already a great basketball player, but there was something more.

“Those children can see God’s blessings on you,” Bartie told him.

Always loyal

The challenges of living in Port Arthur formed a close-knit community. “When you separated folks the way they did with segregation, a lot of times the only thing you could hold on to is your pride,” Freeman said. “Lincoln High had pride.”

Much of that pride emanated from the school’s basketball team, a local powerhouse many members of Jackson’s family starred for before he arrived. In his junior season, following a growth spurt, Jackson led the Bumble Bees to a state championship.

Jackson attended Oak Hill Academy, a national powerhouse in Virginia, for his senior year and committed to play at Arizona. His failure to qualify academically led to years in the basketball wilderness.

Jackson spent one year at Butler Community College in Kansas, where he did not play basketball. The Phoenix Suns drafted him in the second round but waived him before the season. From 1997 through 2000, Jackson played in the Continental Basketball Association and pro leagues in Australia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

He finally landed with the New Jersey Nets after a tryout. In his second season, Jackson found structure with the Spurs. His three-point shooting and defense fit their system perfectly. He made a handful of crucial shots to win an NBA Finals game in 2003 and famously said afterward, “I make love to pressure.”

Jackson signed a six-year, $38 million contract with the Pacers before the 2004-05 season. Early in the year, the Pacers played a physical game at the Palace of Auburn Hills against the Detroit Pistons. Pacers forward Ron Artest’s hard foul led to a shoving match between the teams. Artest lay down on the scorer’s table, and a fan hurled a cup of liquid at his face. Artest charged into the stands, and mayhem erupted.

The Malice at the Palace became one of the most alarming scenes in league history. Jackson was the first Pacer who charged into the stands after Artest. He put his arm around Artest, then started fighting with fans.

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The NBA suspended Jackson for 30 games, giving him the second-biggest punishment behind Artest. Local authorities put him on probation. The episode cost him millions and painted his reputation in a way he could not fully overcome. Even with distance, he did not view his actions with regret.

“There’s no way I could have lived with myself knowing that my teammate is in the stands fighting and I’m not helping him,” Jackson told Grantland in 2012.

In October 2006, Jackson saw Pacers teammates, including Jamaal Tinsley, in an argument outside Club Rio, an Indianapolis strip club. As people surrounded Tinsley, Jackson’s protective impulse again led him to trouble. He fired his gun to scatter the crowd. A cousin of the man Tinsley argued with hit Jackson with his car, which led to superficial injuries.

The incident led to a felony charge and ended his tenure with the Pacers, who traded him to the Warriors. He was sentenced to community service in both Indiana and Michigan, which ruled he had violated probation.

Warriors Coach Don Nelson felt as if he hadn’t come to know Jackson during the blur of the season, so he called him over the offseason to talk. Jackson answered while working on a road gang to fulfill his sentence, picking up trash on the side of a Michigan highway.

“He was just so open,” Nelson said. “He just took his punishments as good as he possibly could, did his work. He wasn’t embarrassed about it. I fell in love with the guy on the phone.”

During that training camp, Nelson took Jackson and a handful of players to his favorite Oakland bar, a spot Nelson cherished for its cold beer and shuffleboard table. The men drank and talked and slid disks over sawdust. One by one, players said their goodbyes. Jackson remained.

“Jack would have stayed all night if I wanted him to,” Nelson said. “He just wanted to stay there with you, protect you if something happened.”

Nelson named Jackson a Warriors captain and bestowed a nickname that stuck: Captain Jack.

“It was a shock to him,” Nelson said. “He had never been a captain before. He really appreciated it. That was probably more important to him than anything. Everybody looked up to him.”

Jackson would play six more seasons, his outspokenness and brutal honestly leading to both exasperation and reverence. Four teams traded him, but at each stop teammates esteemed him.

“Like everybody, he has his flaws and his imperfections,” said Austin Croshere, who played with Jackson for Indiana and Golden State. “Of the teammates I had over a 12-year career, he had more than his fair share. At the same time, he was one of my favorite teammates I ever had. I kind of ask myself, ‘Why?’ He had everyone’s back.”

Standing strong

On May 25, Jackson looked into his cellphone and recorded. Crying into the camera, rubbing his eyes and face, he explained to the world that Floyd was his friend. “My boy was doing what he was supposed to do, and y’all go and kill my brother,” Jackson said. “I’m on my way to Minnesota. Whatever I can do. Can’t let this ride.”

Jackson hasn’t stopped. In the days after Floyd’s death, Jackson flew to Minnesota and held a news conference at Minneapolis City Hall, surrounded by Floyd’s family and other supporters. Wearing a black hat above his dense, graying beard, Jackson spoke firmly in his deep drawl.

“I’m here because they’re not going to demean the character of George Floyd, my twin,” Jackson said. “A lot of times the police, when they do things they know that’s wrong, the first they do is try to cover it up and bring up your background to make it seem like the bulls--- that they did was worth it. When was murder ever worth it? But if it’s a black man, it’s approved.”

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Loyalty defined Jackson’s career, even when it threatened to derail it. When he rushed into the stands after Artest, it was one of the low points of his career. His strategies on advocating social justice are more well thought out, but they come from the same place.

“I think that’s what he’s doing now,” Walsh said. “What I’ve seen, that’s totally in character for him. He had a friend. Something terrible happened to his friend. And he’s going to try to help his family, and he’s going to be behind his friend.”

Said Bartie: “It makes me proud because I’ve known him my whole life. He’s doing things that will allow him to go down in the annals of history as a person who contributed to this American society in a positive fashion, even though the detonator was something that’s negative.”

Carlisle had an old number for Jackson, and it took him a while to reach his former player. When they connected a few days ago, Carlisle told Jackson he admired his inner strength, his authenticity and his loyalty. He also wanted to know how he was doing. In a way, Carlisle already knew. Stephen Jackson needed to help a friend, a man he looked at like a brother, and that meant he had only one choice.

“He’s a strong guy,” Carlisle said. “He’s always going to be strong. I believe he’s going to be even more determined in his efforts to spread the word that needs to be spread.”