Once ready to quit basketball, Reggie Jackson is now 1 win away from the title with Nuggets

DENVER — Nuggets forward Jeff Green landed a late steal in the final minute of their Game 4 victory, just another veteran doing the small things in this big NBA Finals jigsaw.

At that exact moment, another veteran, point guard Reggie Jackson, felt like he was in Green’s shoes, sensing how close the Nuggets are to winning their first NBA title.

“I didn’t know if I would ever come back, as I know it’s a great race, but you’re almost starting to believe it, is it for you? You’ve been chasing something for so long, it’s slipped your mind. Is it really for you? Seeing him, he had a moment, he couldn’t move,” Jackson told Yahoo Sports on Sunday. “I told him, ‘I was living vicariously through you.’ Myself, [DeAndre Jordan], a few vets, we couldn’t say anything for a few minutes. It’s so close.

The backup point guard is one win away from his first title – against the team that denied a rookie Jackson his first chance in a ring, the Miami Heat in 2012.

“It’s fun to watch different moments on this show, especially the older guys,” Jackson said. ” It begins. Guys, we’re so close. We are not going to let go. We can feel it.

Denver Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson smiles after a playoff during an April game at the Ball Arena.  (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Denver Nuggets guard Reggie Jackson smiles after a playoff during an April game at the Ball Arena. (Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports)

Jackson couldn’t have anticipated being here in Denver let alone the NBA Finals. He started the season with the Clippers believing they had a good chance to play in June, but he couldn’t have imagined that either.

It was a resurgence from his darkest days as a professional, when he considered retiring during a time that should have been Jackson at his peak, where all gifts, sacrifices and hard work were meant to come together.

“No, I can’t believe I’m here now,” he said. “Especially after Detroit, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play more then be resurrected in LA [with the Clippers]. Accumulation there, pleasure there. Then being traded comes full circle.

Jackson was ready to walk away from it all. Withdraw. With years remaining on his contract, a five-year, $80 million deal he signed in the summer of 2015, Jackson’s relationship with the game got so bad because his body wouldn’t cooperate.

Lingering ankle injuries wouldn’t go away and he went from being one of the most underrated point guards in the league to an afterthought. After being underutilized in Oklahoma City, he had finally begun to serve his purpose — remember his proud parade around the Auburn Hills courthouse floor when the Pistons clinched a playoff spot in 2016 — against the Thunder.

His first and a half years in Detroit, Jackson averaged 18.5 points and seven assists on nearly 44% shooting. The next two years he couldn’t stay on the pitch, and although he returned in 2018-19 to play all 82 games, the 28-year-old Jackson couldn’t find the magic again.

His numbers were respectable (14.9 points, 4.8 assists), but not up to his expectations.

“I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Jackson said. “I couldn’t find the reason to keep getting up and keep pushing and improving, something I’m passionate about and love doing. But I felt like my body was letting me down.

There’s a lot of work to be done to maintain the NBA’s productive player status, let alone continue to climb. Rehabilitation and his own thoughts became the daily exercises, not being on the floor.

“I felt like I was never going to be able to be healthy and be able to compete,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’m letting people down, my teammates, an organization. You know, the coaching staff, having high hopes and in Detroit at the time, stepping up and making [it] back to the playoffs after being out for so long.

Jackson is an intuitive guy. He asks, “How are you? then look before you listen. Being a military kid, living in so many places, having to be the new kid on the block and adapting on the fly gave him an extra sense of perception.

“You get used to being uncomfortable, and then you feel comfortable and uncomfortable. And who you are and how you relate to the world,” Jackson said. “And how you present yourself I think it helps with empathy. You see yourself in a lot of people, for more than they are. You see the spirit of a person.

Some days it’s exhausting to be so aware, so he appreciates his alone time, rare as it is. But when he asks, there’s genuine interest, so even if he can’t understand, he wants you to know that his energy is in that place, at that time.

“A lot of us just want to be seen. We don’t see ourselves enough,” Jackson said. “It just takes an extra moment to let someone know they’re seen, valued, that you matter. It’s funny how much body language says it all.

During this time, however, Jackson knew it was hard to be there. By his own admission, he was “sulking”. And he was aware of it, which made him retreat even deeper into himself and his own thoughts.

“It was tough trying to stay positive, really believing I would come back and never hit those markers,” he said. “You try to give as much advice as possible, but [at the] at the same time, you have to let the team grow without you.

If the game, if the team was going to grow in a different direction, Jackson wasn’t going to fight it. He went through the stages of most relationships, negotiating and then looking for a lifeline after being released from the Pistons weeks before the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown.

Paul George, a close friend, helped pull Jackson out of the mud soon after – he saw Jackson. Jackson wasn’t sure the game liked him again, but he was willing to try again. Jackson was grateful, enthusiastic in his praise for the team ownership, coaching and teammates at Detroit, some of whom are on the Nuggets roster — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith.

But being in Denver required more twisty turns.

It’s full circle in one way, unfinished business in another – but again, so are many places on Reggie Jackson’s map. By the time his family moved to Colorado when Jackson was in high school, he had already lived in six places – the only NBA player born in Pordenone, Italy. The nomadic nature of professional sports can both leave a sense of familiarity while yearning for stability.

So once Jackson was traded from Los Angeles at the deadline for Mason Plumlee, he was in no rush to leave another place he’d dared call home. Days passed, as his older brother kept reminding him, of packing his bags and preparing for the next spot on Reggie Jackson’s map.

First Oklahoma City was home, then Detroit, then finally Los Angeles. All the required life tweaks, not just the basketball tweaks — then being waived by Charlotte led to Denver signing him immediately afterwards.

Jackson knew he was still productive and the Nuggets had a good chance to go this far – but he felt the push and the pull once again.

Three days left, two days left. The duality of coming home was cause for optimism, but what he left behind made it difficult to get out of bed during those in-between days. He was leaving home, in a new sense.

“Then it got to the last day, I had to come here for the game, you have to pack your bags,” Jackson said. “You have a few hours. It’s hard. I knew mentally that I was going to have to do it, but I had so much love for the organization, the city and what is being built there. Bonds and all.

Reggie Jackson and Paul George kiss during a 2021 game with the Los Angeles Clippers.  (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Reggie Jackson and Paul George kiss during a 2021 game with the Los Angeles Clippers. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

He wished he had finished what he helped start, especially with his longtime friendship with George. Those two took the Clippers within two games of the 2021 NBA Finals, with Jackson averaging 20.3 points in the Western Finals on 46% shooting. But he wouldn’t have bothered to see them in the second round of the playoffs this season either, which didn’t happen as they were eliminated by the Phoenix Suns in five games – without George for all that and Kawhi. Leonard for most of it.

“I just think as you get older, you realize everything has a moment,” Jackson said. “Sometimes things go on forever. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we’re here for a season, sometimes we’re here for a reason.

He’s about to fulfill sanity, as one of the vets giving wisdom and inspiration to the young horses who carried the Nuggets to the gates of history. He hasn’t played as much as he would like, but understands his role right now.

“I can’t wait until hopefully we’re done and then everything, the emotion comes right away,” Jackson said.

From retirement to maybe, a ring.

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