Screws in his right knee and his left foot, two pins in the middle finger of his left hand, Bobby Jackson always played fast, aggressive and with mindfulness of the game — not his body.
“A born leader,” former Gophers basketball coach Clem Haskins said of Jackson. “He led our team by example, how hard he played and his work ethic. [Jackson] is the kind of player every coach dreams of having.”
Now, the retired shooting guard has joined the coaching ranks. He was promoted to assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings — a team he once played for — in November.
Jackson and his Kings (4-10) arrived at the Target Center on Monday to play the Timberwolves (5-8) in a matchup of struggling teams with promising names.
Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Jimmer Fredette took to the court just minutes before tipoff as Jackson’s former NBA coach and current Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman shook his hand and welcomed him back to the Twin Cities.
“This is going to be fun,” Jackson said as he sat courtside before Monday’s game. “He still runs the same system as when he coached me [in Sacramento]. We’ll see how that helps.”
To no avail, Jackson’s struggling Kings ended a five-game road trip with their third loss in a row as they fell to the Timberwolves 99-86 on Monday night.
Though he eventually had a prolific career, the veteran’s success in the NBA didn’t materialize as quickly in the pros as it did with the Gophers.
Jackson was the face of the Gophers’ 1997 Final Four squad.
During only his second and final year at Minnesota, the undersized, 6-foot-1 Jackson led the 1996-97 team to a 31-4 record, earned Big Ten Player and Defensive Player of the Year honors and brought the Gophers to their lone Final Four appearance in school history.
“Without [Jackson], we don’t get to the Final Four,” Haskins said. “You’ve got to have guys like that. Every coach competing for a national championship has a Bobby Jackson.”
As if it wasn’t 15 years ago, Haskins instinctively recalled who his most valuable player was during the run to the Final Four.
“Bobby, without a doubt.”
A rough road in
Growing up in rural Salisbury, N.C., Jackson did not start playing basketball until his sophomore season of high school — a pivotal time in his life, Jackson said.
“I wasn’t a bad kid,” Jackson explains. “But I hung around with the wrong guys. We were in the streets a lot ... so basketball was important.”
However, pure talent wasn’t enough in Jackson’s case to punch a ticket to big-time college basketball right away.
His poor grades did not meet the NCAA’s academic requirement for freshman-year eligibility, so instead of riding the pine at a four-year institution for a season, Jackson went to Western Nebraska Community College, where he could play.
However, he tore his ACL during the first week of practice at WNCC and had surgery to repair the ligament in his right knee with a screw — forcing him to miss his freshman season.
Jackson averaged 11.5 points in the two seasons following, which sparked some interest in the junior college guard. He eventually chose Minnesota over programs like Georgia Tech and even close-to-home Wake Forest.
“Wake was like 30 minutes from my hometown, and I was doing good away from the house,” Jackson said.
The decision meant that Jackson would not be paired on the same team with future NBA Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan.
Instead, Jackson landed with a Gophers team that had just graduated five seniors and was relying on the raw talent of five unproven freshmen.
“Wake [Forest] with Duncan would have given me the best shot at a national title,” Jackson admitted. “But look what I accomplished with Minnesota.”
The summer before Jackson took his first step onto the elevated court of Williams Arena donning a Gophers uniform, he suffered a stress fracture in his left foot.
A pin was placed in his foot, but two months later he broke the same foot during the Gophers’ first week of practice. Familiar, but frustrating news, Jackson recalled.
“Injuries are a part of the game,” Jackson said. “But it sucked having that crazy string of them. I just worked my ass off to get into shape and back onto the court.”
With the injury limiting him in the nonconference schedule, Jackson took the first half of the Big Ten schedule to get acclimated to Haskins’ system and the other half to shine in it.
A natural shooting guard, Jackson attacked the basket with explosiveness that defenses feared. As a result, he could also often pull up and shoot over sagging defenses wary of his quickness.
He averaged a team-high 13.3 points despite missing the preseason and first seven games of the regular season.
Expectations were higher than normal for the fifth-year Jackson and the Gophers entering the 1996-97 season, but they still exceeded even the loftiest projections.
After a 16-2 conference record and a Big Ten Championship, the young, once-uncelebrated squad found itself in the center of a media storm fascinated by its unorthodox coach and lightning-fast point guard.
A consensus second-team All-American pick, Jackson led Minnesota to thrilling victories over Clemson and UCLA in the NCAA tournament to take a 31-3 record into a Final Four matchup against legendary coach Rick Pitino and the Kentucky Wildcats.
Jackson averaged a modest 15.3 points, but his 6.1 rebounds a night and aggressive style of play is best outlined by the 148 free throws he attempted — a remarkable total for a guard.
To put it in perspective, the Wildcats did not have a single player attempt more than 100 free throws that season.
A loss to Kentucky ended the Gophers’ fairytale season, but for Jackson and his team, the true loss came a couple of years later.
‘The easy way out’
On March 10, 1999, a premeditated release set a day before the Gophers’ NCAA tournament first-round matchup against Gonzaga, the Pioneer Press blew the lid off of one of the worst academic fraud scandals to rock collegiate sports.
Jackson was among nearly 20 former Gophers players who had academic coursework completed by Jan Gangelhoff, a former office manager in academic counseling who admitted to completing more than 400 pieces of coursework.
“If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t [cheat],” Jackson said Monday. “At that time I was a young kid, overwhelmed with a lot of things and so I tried to take the easy way out.”
The NCAA levied penalties on the Gophers’ program that included: four years of probation, the elimination of all records from the 1993-94 season through 1998-99 and removing all references of the Final Four title from any University publications.
“I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason,” Jackson said. “You learn from your mistakes and all I can do is try to never repeat those mistakes again. Whether it’s with my kids or myself.”
Jackson was stripped of his Big Ten Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors and Haskins had his 1997 Big Ten Coach of the Year award removed.
The starting sixth man
The stars aligned for Jackson in the 1997 NBA Draft, as the league designated Charlotte, N.C., as the hosting city.
“One of the best moments of my life,” Jackson said. “Everyone from my hometown got to see me walk across that stage and have the commissioner put the hat on my head.”
Jackson was selected with the 23rd pick and a crowd of about 50 of Jackson’s friends and family who made the 45-mile drive from Salisbury erupted in applause, Jackson said.
To this day, Jackson said he believes his cheering section was the loudest of all draft picks that day — even louder than local college hoops star and first overall selection Tim Duncan.
“I might as well have been from Charlotte; [Duncan] couldn’t top that.”
Jackson was selected by the Seattle Supersonics franchise, but was traded on draft day to the Denver Nuggets. In his rookie season with Denver he started 53 games and averaged a career-high 30 minutes.
Jackson swapped his Nuggets uniform for a Minnesota Timberwolves jersey for the two following seasons, but the electric guard struggled with his shot and didn’t see much playing time.
Traded to the Sacramento Kings in 2000, he soon became a spark plug off the bench that fans grew to love.
Sacramento’s starting point guard Mike Bibby broke his foot during the 2002-03 preseason, and his coach Rick Adelman tapped Jackson to start in Bibby’s place.
“Action Jackson” — as he was known to Kings faithful — thrived in Adelman’s system and averaged 20.2 points through 26 starts before breaking his left hand.
He battled through the injury to get back onto the court and finished the season with career-highs in points per game (15.2) and field-goal percentage (.464). The NBA crowned Jackson the Sixth Man of the Year for his efforts.
His 2000-05 tenure with the Kings was the peak of his NBA career.
He then bounced around between the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets before returning to the Kings for a year prior to his retirement in 2009.
Jackson played in the NBA for 13 seasons with six different teams and was substantially more successful in the pros than any of his Final Four teammates.
Since his retirement, Jackson has lived with his wife and five children — four daughters and a son — in Sacramento, Calif. He served as a scouting adviser with the Kings until he was offered an assistant coaching position two months ago.
“I love the game,” Jackson said calling his coaching debutant season a “test drive.”
“But it’s a lot of work [to coach]. You’ve got to know what’s happening on the court with all the players. Letting them know how to beat a certain player or how to get a shot off.”
One of Jackson’s first goals is to convert the vaguely similar 6-foot-2 shooting guard and Kings rookie Jimmer Fredette into an NBA success, he said.
“Bobby’s great,” Fredette said after the game Monday. “He’s been helping me with my shot selection and getting confidence out on the court.”
As Jackson and Fredette both endure a compressed NBA season shortened because of a lockout, they’re both adjusting to their new roles.
“He’s the coach and all,” Fredette said. “But I feel like we help each other out. I’m a rookie and, well, he’s a rookie now too.”