Jerry Stackhouse is a walking time capsule of NBA history as deeply embedded in the basketball memories of Generation Y as any athlete with whom he ever shared the court. To anybody of legal drinking age, the mere mention of the name conjures images of an NBA in millenial transition; of the end of the relished MJ Era and the dawn of the iconic decade that soon would follow.
Today, the 17-year veteran is a shell of his former self – a 38-year-old swingman modestly applying the finishing touches to a career that spanned cultures. Despite that it’s been over 10 years since he last played even close to a full season, he remains a living, breathing and contractually active archive of all that we’ve come to love about the game of basketball – an encyclopedic resource brimming with NBA nostalgia.
“We were all young,” the man reminisces, stroking his chin and recanting the days of his youth. He’s a man with more wisdom than reservation. “Allen [Iverson] and I were both young and just trying to prove that we could play in the league, it wasn’t so much about winning at that point.”
He refers to the two-year stint he spent as a Philadelphia 76er to start his career. After being handed the keys to a wayward franchise following the 1995 NBA Draft, the spring-loaded two-guard from North Carolina was charged with the task of splitting leadership duties with a wiry tweener from the prestigious 1990s hoops mecca of Georgetown when the Sixers made Iverson their first-overall draft pick in 1996.
The pair who later independently developed into two of their generation’s most prolific scorers struggled out of the gates to the tune of a 40-124 record over the course of Stackhouse’s first two years in the league. Weeks into the 1997-98 campaign, Stackhouse was shipped to Detroit, allowing Iverson the room and freedom necessary to flourish in the Philadelphia backcourt and make history of his own.
“As you get older, that’s when the winning really comes, it’s kind of a progression after showing that you belong in the league. You want to earn your stripes, get your money, make your All-Star teams, then the winning part comes. It’s tough when you have really young guys like we had then, but I thought we were a pretty good tandem.”
It was all teal, magenta and flaming horses from that point forward as Stackhouse set out to write the second chapter of his NBA career in Auburn Hills, although he remains in touch with Iverson to this day. As a volume scorer enlisted to complement Pistons superstar Grant Hill, Stackhouse settled in Detroit fast. Unfortunately, although on a team markedly better than the Philadelphia franchise he left, the Pistons failed to see life beyond the first-round of the playoffs until the Stackhouse-Hill pairing was officially split by the latter’s free agency in 2000.
Under the leadership of the award-winning Detroit front office in the early aughts, Stackhouse served along with Ben Wallace in the absence of Hill, establishing the framework of a team that would later go on to obliterate the mold basketball fans and critics alike had come to associate with success. Though Stack himself had been swapped over to Washington in exchange for young Wizards guard Richard Hamilton by the time the club won their only championship in 2004, it was in Auburn Hills during the Stackhouse era when the Pistons rounded into the history-making core they would become.
During his oft-forgotten campaign in Motown, Stackhouse went so far as to lead the NBA in scoring, helping to both put fans in the Palace and lay the groundwork for a now-obvious rebranding that returned the Pistons back to their original red and blue color scheme. After years of forgettability a franchise had been resuscitated.
Always a valuable enough trade chip to garner interest from other teams throughout the league but never so established as to build a legacy in a single city, Stackhouse would soon develop a reputation as nomadic star desperate for a permanent home. In the two years he spent in Washington, the Wizards left a lot to be desired, but not, however, for a lack of relevance.
As the major return in the outgoing Hamilton package, Stackhouse joined the Wizards organization as the finest shooting guard on a depth chart that included the consensus greatest shooting guard of all time.
“[Playing with] Michael Jordan was a little bit of a humbling experience, just finally being on the court with him. He was somebody that I’d looked up to for so long.”
Having once been touted as the second-coming of Jordan himself – even before Kobe Bryant or Vince Carter supplanted him as the heir to Air – Stackhouse suited up alongside his fellow Tar Heel until the elder opted to retire for good at the end of the 2003 campaign.
“At that point he wasn’t the Michael Jordan that we all knew, but we still made the most of it.”
In Jordan’s last campaign in Washington, the Wizards limped to a 37-45 finish only barely missing the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The next year, Stackhouse’s last before yet another transaction would take him to Dallas, they dropped further down the standings to 25-57. A nasty, successless trend had resurfaced with Stackhouse’s face plastered all over it.
“You have to take all your experiences and I’ve had a number of experiences playing on really good teams and on bad teams,” Stackhouse explains, knowing full well the varied legacy he’ll leave behind whenever he decides to leave the game for good. “You can kind of see some warning signs when a team is starting to have slippage. I think that’s what veteran guys are supposed to do. To use your experiences to help give back to the younger group.”
As an at-that-point established veteran, when Stackhouse joined the Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks in the summer of 2004 he did so as a 29-year-old whose gradual maturation was constantly overshadowed by the dramatic circumstances in which he played. With the Mavs, as a secondary contributor, Stack helped form one of the most dominant cores in the NBA.
Though the spotlight shone elsewhere, on Nowitzki in particular, Stackhouse’s involvement in Dallas proved instrumental as the club rallied to a Western Conference Championship in 2006. Although they eventually fell in the subsequent NBA Finals it was the first time Stackhouse had truly embraced and flourished in the role of an educator whose extensive experience could help shape future generations.
“That’s kind of where I want to transition to,” he admits, as he removes himself from reflection to talk about where he sees himself today. “I want to actually get into coaching but I think [getting into the media] is a great way to take a little time off away from the game and get a little distance from playing. Going the coaching route, but just continuing to have a voice in the game in the intermediate time.”
By accepting the good along with the bad over the course of his first 15 seasons in the league, Stackhouse has slowly established himself as one of the few all-knowing greybeards still plying their in the game, albeit with different expectations than they had when they were younger.
Now a card-carrying journeyman, if he wasn’t already, Stackhouse has taken his show on the road from Milwaukee down to Miami and now to Atlanta where he serves alongside Tracy McGrady and Erick Dampier as one of three elders on which Josh Smith and the youth in the Atlanta Hawks clubhouse rely.
In addition to his role as a veteran and educator with the Hawks, though, the man’s voice has started to reach off the court as well. Not only has Stackhouse hosted a radio show on XM Radio, but served as a TV analyst and regular contributor to his own website as well. The Stackhouse brand is as active as ever, and with good reason.
“I look forward to continuing to use my voice and speak out on things. Always from a player’s respective though,” he tells me with a smile. “Never going to cross all the way over to the media’s side.”
Maybe this is it, what all those years of NBA exposure have been building to. He may not have had the playing career of some of his Hall of Fame-bound former teammates, but the experience he gained falling short along the way has prepared him better for what comes next.
Besides, given the extent of exactly what he’s witnessed first-hand, from the rise of Allen Iverson to the fall of Michael Jordan and everything in between, it would be a shame if he kept it all to himself.