- Chris Palmer, ESPN the Magazine
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Stephen Jackson peers out the window of a swank hotel on a San Antonio Spurs road trip to Los Angeles in early November, a couple of weeks before a fractured pinky would land him on the injury list.
There’s a direct view of an empty Santa Monica beach and the morning sky is cloudy and dark, contrasting his upbeat mood.
He plops down on a plush couch in his one-bedroom suite. In an alcove is a tray with last night’s room service. The complimentary mini ketchup and mayonnaise bottles haven’t been touched.
The muted, wall-mounted television plays an old action movie with Sylvester Stallone battling some obligatory Hollywood evil.
On the coffee table in front of him are several cellphones and a modest stack of cash.
Settling in, he adjusts his loose-fitting cargo pants. The team bus won’t leave for the airport for a couple hours.
He fires off a text and then silences his phone to field questions about his musical aspirations, his favorite team, the Palace brawl, cheating death and what it’s like to be the notorious Captain Jack.
When did you realize you could rap?
About 13 years ago, when I recorded my first song, I was always freestyling. I was in the studio with Paul Wall and I was just saying whatever came to my head.
When they played it back, it didn't even sound like me. I was wondering if the producer did something to my voice.
I wasn't really that confident at the time. My delivery wasn't what it is now. I was pretty much just reading it off of the paper instead of rapping it. I had to learn a lot about delivery.
Did you have any doubt about whether or not you were going to sound good when you first got in the booth?
Definitely. It was my first time and I just wasn't sure. I was in the studio with real rappers, guys who actually do this, so I was definitely nervous because I didn't want to embarrass myself.
On the court I'm the most confident person in the world, but in the studio back then I was second-guessing myself.
What was the first concert you ever went to?
It was a UGK concert at a club called Chocolate Time that was unbelievable. When Pimp C came out on stage with a red bandana over his face and just stood there, people went crazy.
I was amazed that one person could just control the crowd without doing anything. I remember it vividly.
My mom wouldn't let me go to a concert when I was 16 so I had to sneak out of the house. We drove an hour and 15 minutes to Houston, which was like going to Paris for us.
I was about 6-foot-6 at the time and when UGK saw us in there, they pulled us on stage because we were from Port Arthur. It was just an incredible experience.
As a young rap fan, who were you listening to back then?
I grew up on Geto Boys and of course UGK, who put my hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, on the map. I was about Goodie Mob and OutKast too.
Being from the South, I was really into Southern rap, but I listened to a lot of stuff from all over. I was into N.W.A out West, but probably my favorite rappers at the time were Das EFX when they came out with “Dead Serious.”
Did you ever have cassette tapes?
I couldn't afford to go to the record store to buy new tapes, so I'd tape everything off the radio. Just hit record when my song came on.
I used to take my mom's tapes and tape over them. I had a nice little collection. Had my own Stephen Jackson mixtapes off the radio!
How would you describe your flow?
I can't compare myself to anybody. Being from Port Arthur, my style is trill. A lot of people use that word but don't know what it means.
When Bun B and Pimp C started saying the word, a lot of people ran with it without knowing the history.
You Texas dudes are always talking about “trill.” What does that mean?
These guys named Spoony G and Lil' Block who were in the drug game at the time used to say, “We too real down here in Port Arthur.” Then Spoon changed it to “true real” and eventually to “trill.” So that’s what we are … trill.
How many songs have you recorded?
Close to a hundred. With my two mixtapes and my album, I've got a lot of material. I've also got about 70 songs I've recorded with other people that haven't come out yet.
What's your writing process?
I'm all about the vibe. I really don't write outside the studio. I like to be in the studio with the loudspeakers when you can't hear anybody talking and just let it come to me. I'm not going around jotting something down.
How did “Lonely at the Top,” the collabo with Kevin Durant, come about?
Over the summer Kevin came down to my hometown with Kendrick Perkins. He had heard my stuff and was telling me he could rap too. He was talking about all these bars he had, so we exchanged numbers.
Shortly after, I sent him a track I had for him to rap on. Some time passed and he didn't send it back. Then I saw him rapping on WorldStar online and he could actually flow.
At that point I really wanted him to record his verse and send the song back, which he did.
So you were never in the studio with him?
No. I did my two verses and left the middle blank for him. He has his own studio in his home in Oklahoma, so he recorded his verse there.
Before I sent the track, I took all the cursing out so there wouldn’t be any backlash against him since he's the face of the NBA.
When I heard KD I was really surprised.
You and everybody else.
What if he wanted to be on a track with you and he was terrible?
I wouldn't have put him on. Being that he's the NBA's new poster child, I didn't want to put him in a situation where he could embarrass himself. But he held his own and actually sounded like a rapper.
What rappers are you tight with?
I used to be tight with 2 Chainz, but now that he's blown up we really don't speak that much.
He has his success now and it recently changed. We were closer before that. But I'd rather us not be close and him reach his dream if that's what it takes.
At one point we were inseparable, just going everywhere and doing everything together. If you saw him out, you saw me. We were just tight like that.
We met in the club in Atlanta in 2003 long before he was famous. He's how I met Ludacris and that whole rap scene in Atlanta.
What’s up with him not being on your album?
I'm kind of upset that he's not on my album since he was one of my closest friends. I texted him that I had this beat for him and I wanted him to be on it so I sent it to him.
He got back to me and said it probably won't get done until next year because he was so busy. I didn't take that well at all.
I was just like: Go in there, record it and send it back to me. I know when you're signed to a label you have to get stuff cleared, but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been a problem. Well, it is what it is.
Every time an athlete raps, people start rolling their eyes. How do you gain credibility?
People look at my reputation and that helps. They know I have credibility in the streets. People know I'm real, whether it's going in the stands to help Ron Artest or getting Jamaal Tinsley's back when trouble broke out at the strip club. Without even thinking about it, I pulled out my gun and started blasting for him. People know my loyalty is real and that I'm not acting.
People know the things I say in my rhymes, I really live. I don't talk about shooting people or selling drugs because I’ve never done that. I live good. I like jewelry and I'm a fly guy. I'm a man and I don't take no s--- from nobody.
I’m real and there’s no rapper saying the things I’m saying.
I never met a dollar that could change me. Been the same guy since day one. I do what I do. I drink like I want to. I do what I want to.
I’m who I am. When you get all this money, people expect you to be somebody that you’re not, but I’ve never changed.
What do you think of all the other athlete rappers?
Well, 98 percent of them have been terrible. The only one I can give credit to is Shaq. He went platinum. But he’s a big guy. It’s hard to swag that out and he did it.
Are you close with Shaq?
Yeah, for real. When I talk to Shaq, it gives me confidence. He texts me all the time that I can do it.
Every once in a while he’ll send me a text quoting one of my lines. He’s probably my inspiration and my mentor as far as rapping, besides Bun B and Killa Corleone.
What do you think of the Cash Money movement?
It wouldn’t be what it is without [Lil] Wayne and Drake. I don’t think nobody else in their camp is selling records.
Cash Money was a bigger threat when they had B.G., Juvenile, Turk and Wayne because all those guys can really rap, and they were real street guys with real credibility.
Who would you like to work with?
Drake is unbelievably talented and I’d love to work with him. Wayne, of course, is unbelievable.
Where would you rank Wayne in hip-hop history?
He’s in my top seven. I got Hov, 'Pac , Biggie, Rakim, Scarface, Nas and Wayne.
You know, I like a lot of guys like T.I. and [Rick] Ross. But a lot of those bubble-gum rappers, the swag rappers, will never be in my Top 10. I don’t buy that, I like real rap.
What about Kanye?
I like him more as a producer-slash-beatmaker than a rapper -- what he can bring out of a rapper as opposed to spitting bars. His talent as far as making music is what I love. Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” was all him.
The video for your most well-known song, “Fall Out,” has 18,000 views and 35 dislikes on YouTube. What do you say to those who disliked it?
Opinions are like buttholes, everybody has one. But that’s wonderful. I’ll take that any day. At least they’re still listening.
Outside of hip-hop, what are you into?
I grew up in the church listening to gospel music. When I wake up on Sunday that’s what I’m listening to.
What guilty pleasures are on your iPod?
I’ve got Ashlee Simpson’s song “Pieces Of Me.” I listen to that every day to relax me before games.
I mess people up when I’m on the plane listening to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”
I got that song by JoJo called “Too Little, Too Late.” I love that beat.
I’ve got a lot of old-school stuff like Hall & Oates.
What’s your favorite team you ever played for?
Golden State in 2007, no question. Not only was it my best year playing basketball, but the whole team was close. If one player went out, we all went out.
There wasn’t any ego and nobody tried to outshine each other. That’s the reason we were so successful. I’m talking me, Al Harrington, Matt Barnes, Monta Ellis, Jason Richardson and Baron Davis.
I heard you guys had a mini-reunion in Hawaii this past summer.
Yeah, Tichina Arnold, who played Pam from “Martin,” married one of our old coaches. I think about the Golden State days maybe once a week. It was a special time. We hung out together on a daily basis. Whoever woke up first and called everybody else, that’s who’s house we’d be at.
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.
How did you get this rep as a great teammate?
I was taught as a young kid playing basketball that if someone pushes your teammate down, you go and defend him. Loyalty is all I know. There’s no effort with me. If I’m with you, I’m with you.
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.
Well, I’ve shown that with putting my career on the line for Jamaal Tinsley and Ron Artest.
Were you that tight with them to take that kind of risk?
I put my career on the line twice. We were all basically the same age on a young, fiery team who had its share of legal struggles. We all grew up basically in the hood, so we related to each other.
So when Ron went into the stands, I didn’t think twice about it because he was my brother. I just went up there.
Weird question, but to battle like that … was it fun at all?
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.
It was wild because it had never been done before. And it will never happen again so, yeah, adrenaline was flowing. How many people can say that they’ve punched a fan?
Do you know all the stuff that they say to us? The racist stuff they say to us? We get the N-word and people talking about our wives and family.
Just because we make a lot of money we’re supposed to be the bigger person? Fans tell us that our kids are ugly and that they should have thrown our mothers in jail for having us. That’s not disrespectful?
I’ve been in a lot of fights and done some things I shouldn’t have done, but I’ve never sold drugs or been locked up, so for people to think that way about me isn’t right.
They had life-size posters of me in Utah with me behind bars. Before the situation with Jamaal Tinsley, I had never been in jail, and I’m from the projects!
Do you regret the Palace brawl?
No. Because the idea of Ron laying in the stands unconscious with all his teeth knocked out … no way. That whole arena was against and I didn’t have it in my heart not to do anything.
What was it like in the locker room immediately after that?
The funniest thing in the world. Ron leans over to me and asks me if we’re going to get into trouble! I looked at him like he was crazy. We laughed so hard. Jamaal fell out of his locker.
I looked at Ron and asked him, “Do you realize what we just did? We’re lucky if we have a job tomorrow.”
We just went into the stands. We just banged out on fans. Are you serious? Trouble? I couldn’t believe he asked me that.
How did you get through all that?
When Donnie Walsh was in Indiana with me, he had my back. He knew my heart and knew what kind of person I was. I would have never went in the stands on my own. I would have never shot up a strip club on my own.
It was always to help somebody, so when people say that type of stuff, it definitely pisses me off.
So what happened with the strip club incident?
I was there with Jamaal and some friends just for a night of fun and everything was cool. At the end of the night, I was in my car ready to leave.
Then I seen Jamaal walk out of the club with some guy walking behind him with hands in his back pocket like he was fixing to shoot him.
I hopped out of my car with my gun. I had a gun license at the time so it was all good. People think I was shooting up the place willy-nilly, but my gun was registered.
I saw the guy with his hand in his pocket so I cocked my gun and put it in his face. I slapped him with the gun and we got to fighting before I realized they had planned to jump Jamaal.
I’ve been in too many club fights not to know what’s going on. I’m not going to get hit from behind, stomped out and just be laying there. So all of a sudden all these cars pull up and I let off a couple warning shots, like telling everyone to back up.
After that had happened, dude had jumped in his car and planned on trying to kill me. He hit me with his car. He drove straight into me and I flipped up in the air and landed face-first on the ground and knocked all my teeth out.
I hopped right up and lit his whole car up. I didn’t think twice because I’m figuring he tried to smoke Jamaal.
This is not an everyday situation. Were you worried that you could have killed somebody?
No, because he tried to kill me. I knew it was self-defense. He hit me with his car at 45 mph in the parking lot. He tried to kill me. I was cool. I didn’t have one drink that night.
As I was walking to my car and he was coming straight for me, I’m glad I was sober where I could think, and I just turned sideways. I hit the windshield and flipped up in the air; then I hit the ground.
I had to get plastic surgery on my lips with no anesthesia, with all my teeth gone. Can you imagine how painful that is?
Your career could have ended that night.
That night. That’s why I know I’m here for a reason. My life is bigger than basketball.