Keepin' It Real: A Turbulent Season at the Crossroads with the NBAby Larry Platt
The Jordan Era is all but over, and for the first time in decades the NBA finds itself deeply troubled. The powers-that-be see a new generation of gangsta players tearing up the hardwood and tearing down the most honored NBA traditions: hard work, teamwork, and respect for the game. Bloodied veterans have to struggle twice as hard to keep up with even younger,
The Jordan Era is all but over, and for the first time in decades the NBA finds itself deeply troubled. The powers-that-be see a new generation of gangsta players tearing up the hardwood and tearing down the most honored NBA traditions: hard work, teamwork, and respect for the game. Bloodied veterans have to struggle twice as hard to keep up with even younger, ever swifter opponents. And the headlines touting exploits on the court are slowly being boxed out by headlines condemning exploits off the court: drug busts, sex abuse charges, back room manipulations and organizations out of control. This is the NBA today, a league in search of a savior, a league at war with itself a league where only the strong survive. But can the NBA itself survive?
Larry Platt answers this and many other questions about the state of the NBA as he recounts from behind-the-scenes the remarkable 1997-98 season through the trials and triumphs of five high-profile players. There's Charles Barkley, bad boy turned old-guard statesman who wants one last shot at the ring. There's Chris Webber, the immensely talented superstar-to-be, who has spent four years fighting his reputation as a prima donna. Matt Maloney is the throwback; Jerry Stackhouse, the crossover star: each will go through a lifetimes's worth of changes, betrayals and morale checks for who they are and the choices they've made. Finally, there's Vernon Maxwell, the original GANGSTA hoopster, who can ball up as well as anyone, but whose career is threatened by his impulse to court danger.
An extraordinary look deep inside the game, Keepin'It Real is also a very American story of ability, achievement, and destructive temptation, a portrait of five athletes who compete mightily with all their heart and soul, not just for minutes and a multimillion-dollar payday, but for dignity and pride, and a lasting place in a brutal league that has offered them the world-at a price that just might destroy them and the league itself.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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- 1 ED
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- 6.46(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.14(d)
Read an Excerpt
opening night just ended badly, a Stack is facing the music. The Philadelphia 76ers, winners of only 40 games the past two seasons, came out sporting new uniforms and a new coach, but delivered the same old result: a loss, this time at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Now the media throng is crowded around Jerry Stackhouse's locker, microcassette recorders bobbing in front of his mouth, camera lights blinding his eyes. It's a jostling, sweating mass of mostly middle-aged, paunchy white guys who want to know what happened.
By now, at all of twenty-three years old, Stack is a grizzled veteran of this routine. In his velvety smooth baritone, he recites all the right phrases. How, with a lot of new faces, you can't expect a team to gel right away. How, without Allen Iverson (suspended for this game because of an off-season arrest for possession of marijuana), tonight wasn't a good barometer of this team. How he never really felt in rhythm tonight. How you'd have to ask the coach why he wasn't put back into the game in the fourth quarter.
Just moments before, the media horde had heard Larry Brown, the new coach of the 76ers and Stackhouse's third in a three-year career, talk about "one or two guys in that locker room who aren't buying into what we're trying to do.... They say the right things, but if you're not going to guard somebody, you're not going to play for me." There was little doubt he was referring to Stackhouse, who got lit up in the first half by Milwaukeeshooting guard Ray Allen.
The stat sheet told all: twenty minutes played, one for five from the floor, 5 points. This after leading the 76ers in scoring during the preseason, at 17 points per game, not to mention leading all rookie scorers in 1995-96 (19.2) and all second-year players last season (20.7). This year, though, there are a lot of doubts about Stackhouse's gamebut one thing he could always do is score. Not tonight.
Now, sound bites exhausted, he straightens his tie, takes one last look at the hang of his olive green Donna Karan suit, slings a pair of his signature Fila sneakers over his shoulder, and steps into the hallway that leads to the players' lounge, where his girlfriend, Shondra, awaits. "Man, coach keeps saying not to think about scoring," he says softly, looking down. "That's hard to do when you're a scorer. That's my game."
I volunteer that this was a one-game aberration: In the preseason, after all, he shot over 50 percent and dropped in 17 a game. "Yeah, but that's misleading," he says softly, clearly concerned. "Look at the Boston game."
In the 76ers' final preseason game, Stackhouse led all scorers. "Sure, I got thirty-three points, but even that was only on eight shots," he says, noting that his points came from the foul line, where he hit seventeen of nineteen.
He sighs, before spying Shondra and their six-month-old baby, Jay Alexander. "Basketball sucks, but life is great," he says, making eye contact with his baby and breaking out into the wide grin that marketing mavens once thought would change the NBA. That was two years ago. A lifetime.
When Jerry Stackhouse opted to enter the 1995 NBA draft after his sophomore year at the University of North Carolina, it was big news. He was Sports Illustrated's College Player of the Year and the comparisons to another athletically gifted UNC graduate started almost immediately. In fact, in a summer pickup game on campus, the legend went, he had even dunked on His Airness. Right in his face.
Yes, Stackhouse would be the latest "next one," following in the footsteps of Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway. The cliché-tossing commenced; hardly a column about the NBA was written that didn't attach the prefix "Air Apparent" to Stackhouse's name.
Of course, the twenty-year-old prodigy was into the hype. He had seen how first Jordan and then Hill had parlayed their on-court skills into the beginnings of empire; that's what he wanted, too. He had watched as theyboth, not coincidentally, products of the ACCadopted the legacy of Dr. J. He saw them do as Erving had done in the late '70s: By cleverly combining an infectious smile with positive (if a bit boring) sound bites and a gracious demeanor, they had "crossed over." They had achieved the pinnacle of media integration: Whites who knew no blacks in real life felt they knew the Doc, Michael, and Grant. And they bought their sneakers.
So even before he had played a minute of pro basketball, Stackhouse made his own crossover moves. He signed for $7 million over three years with the 76ers after getting picked third in the 1995 draft, but before his rookie season began he had almost equalled that figure in endorsement income. Along with "Team Stackhouse"a bevy of business advisershe interviewed the sneaker companies who wanted his name on their shoes. Nike couldn't offer top billing; they already had Jordan and another of his heir apparents, Orlando's Hardaway. He chose Filanot coincidentally, the company Hill had gone with right out of collegeafter the upstart company pledged to feature him in a series of national commercials. Other deals followed with Mountain Dew, Schick, and Fleer trading cards.
But the rush to join Jordan and Hill in the endorsement sweepstakes had its downside, too. If you're acceptingindeed, cultivatingsuperstar hype, you'd better play like one. Last season, Stackhouse's second in the league, things went sour. Sure, he averaged 20.7 points, but there was widespread dissatisfaction with his game. Along press row, the mavens who had anointed him the next Jordan were now mumbling that he might turn out to be a bust. He was a gifted athlete, but he hadn't improved in three key areas: outside shooting, ballhandling, and defense.
The reconsideration of Stackhouse reached its peak in midseason of his sophomore year, when the dismal chemistry between him and backcourt mate Allen Iverson showed no signs of improving. He and Iverson, a breathtakingly athletic but often out-of-control rookie point guard, don't play together so much as compete for the spotlight. "I'm the shooting guard. I think I should be leading this team in shots," bemoaned Stackhouse after Iverson's own shooter's mentality became obvious.
The adjustment to Iverson wasn't made easier by the media's intense scrutiny. USA Today's Peter Vecsey reported that both players' respective "posses" brawled outside a 76ers' practice; vehement denials followed and Vecsey later apologized to the team.
The posse fight may never have occurred, but there's no question that both young guards were having trouble accommodating each others' games on court. At one point, good-natured trash-talking between the two at practice morphed into ill will when Stackhouse made a crack about Iverson's failure to give up the ball; punches were thrown.
Much is made in the NBA about "chemistry," a loosely used term. Too often, it is confused with camaraderie. When Dennis Rodman joined the Chicago Bulls, he and Scottie Pippen didn't hold a personal conversation for an entire year. Yet, on court, they blended together seamlessly. Partially, their success was due to their respective maturity levels and to the wisdom of their coach, Phil Jackson, who preached tirelessly about "putting `we' before `me.'"
Personally, Stackhouse and Iverson do get along. When the team played at Charlotte, Minnie Stackhouse cooked up some artery-hardening Southern delicacies for her son's backcourt mate. No, their problems go deeper than the personal. Persuading young players like Stackhouse and Iverson to embody the selflessness exemplified by Rodman and Pippen has become a trying task, because, more and more, tomorrow's superstars have been treated as such since early adolescence.
Add to the mix the vagaries of youth, not to mention their different backgrounds, and it's no wonder the Stackhouse-Iverson combo hasn't clicked. Both left college early to enter the NBA. Consequently, denied full apprenticeships, both have had to learn as they go. Moreover, but for their precociousness, they are mirror images of each other, each one representative of the divergent paths open to modern-day hoopsters. In his rookie season, Iverson became emblematic of the gangsta player, with his corn-rowed hair, in-your-face rhetoric ("I don't have to respect nobody," he said in reference togaspJordan), and trouble with the law. Stackhouse, on the other hand, is a conscious crossover-era throwback.
Now, as Stackhouse's pivotal third year beginsthe final season of a three-year dealthere are few signs the 76ers' backcourt will gel. Few fans realize just how competitive the NBA is, even among teammates. There are, after all, only 348 jobsand everybody wants one. As a result, all players share the same mantra: Minutes and shots (even the so-called role players). The truth is, while coaches might tell a player his role is to rebound and play defense, the first thing general managers focus on come contract time is scoringor the lack thereof, a contradiction not lost on a generation of players who count among their favorite songs Puff Daddy's "It's All About the Benjamins, Baby." And this is a show-me-the-money moment for Jerry Stackhouse.
For the first time in his life, he hears doubts about the one thing no one has ever questioned before: his game. And they are everywhere he turns. They're coming from the stands, where a smattering of boos is discernible during pregame introductions. They are implied in the thinly veiled public criticisms uttered by his new coach, Brown, who stripped Stackhouse of his team captaincy during training camp in favor of newcomer Jim Jackson, who plays a similar go-to-the-hole (though less spectacular) style. They are in the paper, where one local writer suggests the 76ers hire a shooting coach to work with him. They are on talk radio, where the phone lines light up around the time his latest Fila commercial airs and his shooting percentage hovers below 40 percent; irate fans complain that a top draft pick making millions in endorsements should at least know how to shoot the ball.
How fickle conventional wisdom is. The same media that overhyped him has now reached a damning conclusion: Stackhouse is a perfect example of the type of player who should have stayed in college. By chasing the big bucks, the argument goes, he sacrificed the development of a well-rounded game. That may turn out to be true, but the thinking derives from an overwhelmingly middle-class myopia.
For many NBA fans, choosing a college was about finding a major that meshed with our career goals, but, like so many of the kids today forgoing a B.A. for the NBA, Stackhouse faced different dilemmas. He was the last of eleven children born to Minnie, a cook and preacher at the local church, and the only child of George Stackhouse, a sanitation truck driver whom Minnie married twenty-eight years ago. Minnie was forty-six when she had Jerry and, by the time he'd completed his sophomore season at UNC, she was in failing health. She had diabetes, breast cancer, and had just undergone gallbladder surgery when Stackhouseagonizing all the whileopted for the NBA money. It was not an easy decision. But he had already lost a sister to diabetes and it dawned on him: You don't often hear about the siblings of millionaires dying from diabetes. After he signed, he bought Minnie a Lexus, George a new pickup, and gave them a checkbook so they could pay off all their bills.
Now those who once proclaimed him ready to come out have thought better of it. But what really gnaws at him are the league-wide rumors about his future. It is a given that any day now, he might be traded. The rumors have swirled for close to a year, ever since it became apparent that he and Iverson didn't mesh and that he'd be looking for something in the neighborhood of $10 million a year to re-sign with Philadelphia. "It's like any jobhow would you like to keep hearing that you may be going someplace else and you have no idea where?" he says. "It could be anywhere in the United States, in a city where you don't know anyone. They expect you not to think about that?"
More and more lately, he has. Two years ago, a smiling, wide-eyed rookie, Stackhouse was the only Sixer to leave the hotel on road trips and explore new cities, happy to be recognized, to sign autographs. Now he's brooding, more private. On off-nights, he tends to hang around the house he's renting on Philadelphia's opulent Main Line, where he lives with Shondra; Jay Alexander; his rottweilers, Rendo and Heidi; and a rotating assortment of friends and relatives from back home: guys named Allen, Fen, Drake, and Chuck, who grew up with him in Kinston, North Carolina. They were in his corner before the big money; they were his boys before all the hangers-on started pulling at him. And they are expert, if biased, at analyzing their friend's situation. Playing without a true point guard, they'll offer, is wreaking havoc with his shooting. Every shot Stack takes, he has to create for himself. "Alien is really a shooting guard," Stack agrees. "He's not interested in being a distributor."
It is as close as Stack will come to criticism of his backcourt mate. Ever-mindful of the crossover ethic to "say the right thing," he refrains from making it personal. When it's pointed out that it was he who showed up to unveil the team's new uniforms at a local mall, while Iverson was nowhere to be found, he simply shrugs. He's a good citizen who doesn't want a medal for it. He just wants the ball. Minutes and shots, minutes and shots.
Tucked away just miles from the 76ers' practice facility is the home Stackhouse escapes to, set deeply in a heavily wooded, all-white enclave where his neighbors share his tax bracket but have little sense of the pressure he works under. Who among them, after all, has literally millions of people watching them, analyzing them, and making moral judgments about their work every day? They are far more concerned that their kids are accepted at the right private schools so they can get into the right Ivy-clad universities. To them, having their offspring attend UNC would qualify as a family disaster.
The pressure on Stack exerts itself in ways fans haven't begun to contemplate. In his first two seasons, for instance, Fila sold over 1 million Stackhouse sneakers; this year, though, hardly any are on the market. "Until they know where I'm going to be, they're not sending them out," Stackhouse says. Other signs abound of his strangely precipitous fall from can't-miss phenom to disappointment, like the fact that he no longer needs to register in hotels under an alias. The clamoring fans of his rookie year have found new flavors of the day.
So it is here, in this house, after games, that Jerry Stackhouse, a self-described "homebody," gets all the encouragement he needs from those who, he keeps reminding himself, are the only ones who truly matter. "It don't matter where they trade me. It's all the same," he says, entering his kitchen and greasing up a tin pan. It's a chocolate chip cookie and milk night. "I'm always going to have my family with me. Can't break us up."
Once the cookies are in the oven, he picks up the phone for his daily phone call back to Kinston, where his mother awaits news of tonight's game with an assortment of homespun aphorisms and biblical verses. One by one, Stack's friends and family disappear to different wings of the house, until it's just him, a twenty-two-year-old millionaire man-child, checking periodically on his cookies"I like 'em real soft"while taking comfort in the voice of his mom at his ear.
Meet the Author
Larry Platt is the editor in chief of Philadelphia magazine and the author of Keepin' It Real: A Turbulent Season at the Crossroads with the NBA. His work has appeared in GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Playboy, and Details. He lives in Philadelphia.
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