Something good was going on this summer in a Southeast Texas town. Inside a pristine shell of a new gymnasium, chocolate with red trim, neighborhood children, their families and local officials were buzzing over the unveiling of a desperately needed multipurpose center.
But, as is usually the case with Warriors' swingman Stephen Jackson, the good was obscured. Smoke-colored clouds, driving rain and flooded streets created a gloomy atmosphere in downtown Port Arthur, which bears the appearance of an abandoned oil town.
The weather couldn't dampen the energy inside this instant local landmark, however. Visitors beamed as they crossed a calf-high puddle on a wobbly, makeshift plank to get inside. Their applause drowned out the rain beating against the building.
It was as if they didn't even notice the negatives. They were too busy ogling the local celebrity who was unveiling his latest community venture: Stephen Jackson Academy.
"The young man that I see is one that I have absolutely no reservations about," Port Arthur Mayor Deloris Prince said. "He's a decent, honest young man. So here in Port Arthur we love him. No questions about it. And we'll challenge anybody to that."
It would be easy to say the people of Port Arthur are star-struck apologists for their celebrity son. But perhaps they are in a better position to appreciate the best and worst of their homegrown hero, who has gone from poster boy of what's wrong with the NBA to beloved team-captain type.
The complexity that is Jackson is more clearly seen through the lens of Port Arthur. Here, his volatility starts to makes sense. It becomes easier to understand why he ran into the stands of the Palace at Auburn Hills, flinging haymakers during an infamous brawl with fans in 2004, and why he started shooting a gun in the air outside an Indiana strip club in 2006.
Here, you see the whole person: a relentless, conflicted, bleeding-heart thug with an extremist's loyalty, a kindly Southern demeanor and an addiction to hoop. This is the real Stephen Jesse Jackson.
Home sweet home
The letters "PAT" that cover Jackson's right shoulder don't stand for Point After Touchdown but for Port Arthur, Texas. And the tattoo would be over his heart except he wants you to see it.
Port Arthur is about 90 miles east of Houston in the Gulf Coast region. With sister cities Beaumont and Orange, it forms the Golden Triangle, though Port Arthur is the ugly stepsister.
Thanks to the oil boom, Port Arthur thrived in the early 1900s. According to the city's official Web site, Gulf Oil Corp and Texaco set up refineries in the city early in the 20th century. Port Arthur became a refinery hotbed.
By 1914, it was the country's 12th-largest port city. It was known as the center of the refinery industry by the late 1950s.
In the '40s, middle-class African-Americans flocked to the city from surrounding areas. But racial tension, economic recessions and natural disasters (including Hurricanes Gustav and Ike this summer) have reduced the city to slum status. Crips, Bloods and drugs infested the streets, and the school systems deteriorated.
According to census data, the median income for Port Arthur in 2005 was $27,400 nearly $15,000 shy of the median income of Texas. And based on 2006 FBI crime reports, Port Arthur was above the national average for violent crime rate (per 100,000 inhabitants), fairly amazing for a city with a population shy of 60,000. In August, five campuses in the Port Arthur Independent School District were rated "academically unacceptable," including the lone high school.
This is the background from which Jackson, 30, emerged. This is the root of the toughness, grit and emotion the Warriors acquired when they traded for him in January 2007.
Growing up with a single working mom, Jackson was the man of the house as a teenager. He was shaped by his circumstances, which included hard times and dozens of street fights.
"Coming up, he did portray this tough-guy attitude," Stephen's uncle Samuel Jackson said. "Here, you gotta have that attitude because you'll fall by the wayside. Somebody will run over you, take advantage of you."
It's little wonder that Jackson has a soft spot for Port Arthur, because the city has looked out for him. Partly because of his family's popularity, partly because of his charming personality, mostly because of his athletic success, the community constantly protected him, encouraged him, scolded him, never gave up on him.
When he was caught with drug paraphernalia in his possession, or in a fight, the police would let him go. When his head swelled from his local fame, his uncles or his high school coach would put him in his place with tough love. When the pull of the streets was getting too strong to resist, his mother and grandmother reminded him of his religious roots.
He said his friends once dropped him off at home before commiting a robbery. "They know I ain't no punk, they know I mind my business, and they know I had a chance to make it in basketball. My city took care of me."
It is from his city that Jackson has developed his extreme loyalty a loyalty that makes him what Tim Duncan called "the ultimate teammate," that propelled him to "defend my teammates" during those highly publicized run-ins with the law.
A big softy
In a banquet room at Suga's, an upscale southern cuisine restaurant and jazz bar in Beaumont, Jackson addressed his dapper guests. His white suit jacket complemented his beaming smile, which is now noticeably absent a gap between his teeth thanks to new dental work.
He thanked the guests who paid $150 a head to attend the kickoff banquet for the Jack1 Foundation. He thanked his high school basketball coach who introduced him. Then he thanked his mom.
That's when his throat tightened.
He stopped talking, drooped his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. Pausing forever, he sighed to compose himself. It was too late. Before long, Jackson — this 6-foot-8, 218-pound pro athlete — had tears running down his cheeks as he invited his mom on stage.
"Told you he was going to cry," his uncle Samuel Jackson said. "He's always crying."
Jackson is seen as a menacing figure. But those closest to him, his family and friends from Port Arthur, call him a softy. They've witnessed his sensitivity, experienced his deep concern for others.
They know the Jackson who sang in the choir at Mount Calvary Baptist Church and listens to gospel music before Sunday games. They know the Jackson who respects his elders and makes time for charity work when he's not tending to his six children.
The leadership at an Oakland Public Library came to know this Jackson. Not long after trading for him, the Warriors agreed to send him to the library to read to students. The library didn't want him. Bad reputation.
Well, Jackson wound up impressing library officials so much that six months later they asked the Warriors for a photo from his visit. They wanted it for their annual report.
"I always told him that he was a wanna-be thug," his mom, Judyette, said with a smile. "People labeling him a troublemaker and all kind of different things. Your heart's got to ache because you know better, that he's not that type of person. He's a caring, genuine person."
However, his family willingly acknowledges that Jackson can be a stubborn hothead with too much of an affinity for street life. His mom said he used to sneak out of the house, forcing her to drive around late at night to look for him. Elizabeth Segler, a teacher at Lincoln High, said Jackson loved to roam the halls. Andre Boutte, Jackson's prep coach, said he once benched Jackson because of his disregard for school.
The Port Arthur perspective makes it clear that Jackson is neither all good or all bad. He is a dichotomy, a walking tug of war, torn between the good bubbling inside him and the tempting vices around him.
One day, he is dedicating a new court in the inner city. They next, he is wearing gang-related paraphernalia, such as a red Phillies hat altered to read "Piru" — homage to his Bloods affiliation. You'll hear about him surprising a needy family with Christmas gifts. Then you Google image his name and find a photo of him downing a bottle of Belvedere vodka at a party.
"I want to tell the people who think that I'm this thug and this gangster and all that stuff I am one somewhat," he said. "Because that's how I was raised. I can name 10 guys right now that I grew up with who 15, 20 years ago you would've seen me outside on the corner with these same guys. I could easily be one of those guys in jail right now."
Jackson has always been the one to learn by consequences. It often takes the thud of a precarious fall from grace to rekindle his resolve to do good.
It took him not qualifying for admission into Arizona in 1996 for him to take school seriously. It took him nearly costing the Warriors a playoff series in 2007 with his technical fouls and ejections for him to work at controlling his emotions in games. It took him serving time (albeit 30 days on a farm) to swear off his gun.
"I think he has made a dramatic change for the better," said Bianca, Jackson's older sister. "He looks more at the consequences that his actions can carry. As opposed to doing and thinking later, now he's thinking first."
Whatever the motivation, Jackson's image has come a long way.
He ramped up his community service efforts, earning the NBA Community Assist Award for March and the Warriors' annual Angela and Christopher Cohan Community Service Award.
But his prized jewel is the Stephen Jackson Academy of Art and Science. The private school originally operated out of his childhood church. On August 20, he unveiled the gymnasium to his new school, which has enough space to hold classes and an afterschool program. According to Jackson's mom, the gym had all its windows and glass doors shattered in Hurricane Ike but is in good enough condition to house the Academy until the main building — a worn-down pile of bricks across the street — is renovated. There are plans for a third building.
In the end, Jackson is hoping that his legacy includes his school, not his role in a brawl or a strip-club incident. He wants to be remembered for the complete person. The real Stephen Jesse Jackson.
"I can be the same person — this giving person, this caring person, this loving person, this person who is there for his teammates — even though I'm in this shell," Jackson said. "Because when you die, these tattoos, this money, this haircut, these teeth, all that, it goes in the grave. My heart is what I want people to know, not my outside."
Contact Marcus Thompson II at firstname.lastname@example.org.