To follow the actions of Stephen Jackson around would be to see a man's whirling dervish between selflessness and wild action based on very little thinking. Does that make him a thug? It's hard to say, but his past actions tend to speak toward a certain narrative.
Recently Jackson called out Serge Ibaka, basically calling him a fake tough guy and threatening to punch him in the face if he tried the same act against him.
Jackson needed look no further than his own front office for a sampling of public opinion (via Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears):
Spurs GM RC Buford statement: S Jax's Twitter comments were "absolutely unacceptable, can not be tolerated" and dont reflect Spurs standards— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) December 10, 2012
NBA says Spurs Stephen Jackson has been fined $25,000 for "issuing a hostile statement" at Thunder's Serge Ibaka in a Twitter message.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) December 10, 2012
Well, today Jackson apologized.
Whether it was at the behest of the Spurs front office or from his own realization is really unknown, but he did apologize, claiming that he's not a "thug."
There's a fine line between being an enforcer and always having your teammates' backs, and being a guy who is prone to fly off the handle for the sake of flying off the handle. Jackson has spent his career walking the balance beam that is that line, and has been teetering one way or the other throughout his career.
However, he's also got moments, scattered throughout his career, where he has flown off the handle when the spotlight is on him and his team.
Of course, the go-to example is when he followed Ron Artest into the stands in Detroit, back in 2004, after a fan threw a beer on Artest—famously knows as "The Malice at the Palace."
The part of me that wants to argue that he is, indeed, a thug points to his feelings on the entire scenario to this very day, which are entrenched in disregard, but end up looking different once read in context:
When I hit that fan, I definitely enjoyed it -- until that fine came down. That $3 million I lost killed me. It brought me back to reality because I could have lost my job.
That's not a normal thought, is it? The only real deterrent that he would have to doing something like that again would be the memory of being leveled with a $3 million fine and the probability that he would lose his job.
However, to really know what he meant with his actions, you've got to delve into Jackson's personality—something much easier said than done.
The next question Jackson answered is the best example we have that can sum up who he is in one sentence. When asked if he regrets the brawl in the Palace, the answer seems simple to him:
No. Because the idea of Ron laying in the stands unconscious with all his teeth knocked out … no way. That whole arena was against us and I didn’t have it in my heart not to do anything.
Looking back, you can say that it's unlikely that the entire arena would have stood up ready to fight Artest. But there's a legitimate concern that if Jackson wasn't in the stands with him, things would have gotten out of hand in a different direction. One guy in the stands couldn't take on Artest, but a handful of guys surrounding him definitely could.
It's an unlikely scenario, sure, but that's the thought that ran through Stephen Jackson's mind. And that's the thought that he still has years later, even long after he and Artest separated as teammates and moved on.
As an isolated incident, it's easy to look at what Jackson said and call it little more than an excuse. How many people would put their multi-million dollar career on the line to protect some guy that he works with?
Well, Stephen Jackson, that's who.
He was a part of what could be called the greatest "team" (in the sense of how much the guys liked each other) of the past decade:
Monta would wake up and call us and be like, “’I’m cooking today.” Then everyone would just go over to Monta’s house. Baron would call me and ask me what I was doing. Next thing you know, Matt would call me asking if I was going to Monta’s house, and before you know it we’d all be over there.
At my wedding and Monta’s wedding, all of the ’07 Warriors were there.
We’re all still tight to this day. Every summer, we take trips together. Our wives are close. We’re all established, we all got our contracts. It’s just wonderful.
But when you’re talking organizations, there’s never been a team better than the San Antonio Spurs.
His actions are rooted deep down in his childhood. His brother died when Jackson was 16, and he wasn't around to do anything about it.
It started with losing my brother. He died when I was 16 and I wasn’t there for him. That still haunts me.
When I’m on a team, I’m with these guys more than I’m with my whole family over the course of a year. These guys become my family.
There's something in that thought that really makes you realize how deep-seeded his mentality is. It's not a thug mentality to want to protect your family (or in Jackson's case his teammates), even if it does end up with you going into the stands and punching a fan.
In the end, I think it's okay to look at some of Jackson's actions in a different light than other people's just because of his mentality. Because of that, it's easy to misconstrue his actions for unabashed thuggery, and people can form an extremely negative opinion of Jackson, even without context.
There's no way to completely forgive his actions, but there should be a way to look at what he does without immediately jumping to conclusions.