Life as it was a year ago for Jim Jackson has changed.
The Toledo native, looking ahead to an 11th season in the NBA, believes it's all for the better.
Career-wise, it was anyone's guess at this time a year ago with whom or when Jackson would find work. It wasn't until a month into the 2001-02 regular season before he joined a Miami Heat team that was underachieving with arguably one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the Eastern Conference.
Personally, the 6-6, 220-pound swingman blessed with TV-anchor looks was still single.
Now, fast-forward to summer of 2002. While he remains an NBA free agent, that's not the case in his personal life. On July 6 Jackson married entertainment manager Shawnee Simms in Atlanta in a huge wedding that included heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson among the wedding party.
Unlike last year, the former Ohio State All-American and Toledo Macomber star views his period of professional free agency with a positive outlook.
Jackson says he believes his play in Miami helped cure some negative perceptions some held about him as a player and a person. He felt a year playing for Heat coach Pat Riley allowed him to show that past injuries hadn't taken away his game or desire. It also gave him a chance to shed what he considers an unwarranted tag of being a malcontent.
“To be honest with you, I felt I got a little blackballed last year before the season started,” said Jackson. “But the way I played this past year with the Heat, and some of the [positive] comments the coaches and management have had to say about me, I think it's a totally different situation for me as a free agent this year. You really can't compare the two years.”
As for the negative perceptions about Jackson, he attributes those to NBA management-types from early in his career.
He had a well-publicized, spat with teammate Jason Kidd in Dallas in the mid-'90s, then got into an argument with coach Mike Dunleavy in Portland following a playoff-game loss in 1999.
“I think it was just some negativity spread between some coaches and general managers,” Jackson said. “I'm the type that I speak my mind. If you ask me a question I'll give you an answer. A lot of times coaches and general managers don't like that. They like you to be the yes man and agree with everything they say.
“But this is my career I'm talking about, and the decisions they make affect me and my career.”
After signing a one-year deal with the Heat last fall, following a season split between Cleveland and Atlanta, Jackson put together a productive season while playing for his eighth team in 10 years. He averaged 10.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 55 games. He shot 44 percent from the field, which included a 47-percent effort from 3-point range.
His arrival in Miami coincided with a brief surge by the Heat in a too-late attempt to move up in the standings. The Heat's season ended out of the playoffs, and Jackson limped through the latter part of the season on a gimpy ankle.
He says he doesn't believe that the team's failure to qualify for the postseason or the fact he came down with another injury should be used against him this off-season while he looks to sign a multi-year contract with the Heat or another team.
“I'm a free agent right now, but I know [the Heat] want to sit down and talk,” said Jackson, who will turn 32 in October. “It's a matter of if I'd like to be there or not. I'd like to play another 3-5 years, and that's the kind of deal I'd like to see happen. But all options are open.”
Jackson has made it known this summer that his first option would be to remain with the Heat. Before his wedding he spent much of the summer in Miami working out under the watch of the Heat's trainers to show that the ankle sprain is no longer an issue. More significantly, he remained in Miami to work out and show he's committed to helping the team make a turnaround from an ugly year.
Playing for Riley was among the positives in Miami. Riley, known as a no-nonsense coach who allows his players to voice their opinions, gave Jackson the opportunity to play in a system he felt comfortable with.
“I enjoyed playing in Miami,” Jackson said. “I had a ball and I learned a lot under coach Riley. Unfortunately we didn't get together early on in the season, and I think if we had all been together in camp we could have been the team in the East.
“Playing for Riley allowed me to deal with somebody straight up. Whether you'd like it or not he'd tell you the truth. That's all I've ever asked for.”
Mark Termini, Jackson's Cleveland-based agent, also said the Heat has expressed interest in re-signing Jackson. Yet Termini, who also represents 2001-02 rookie of the year Pau Gasol, said there's nothing certain about when and where Jackson will sign.
“There have been other teams that have expressed interest in [Jackson],” Termini said. “Close observers of the Heat admit that had he been signed sooner it might have been a different season for them. And Miami has made it very clear that they want Jim back for another year.”
Miami used its first pick in the June draft on another swingman, 6-7 Caron Butler, who's considered versatile enough to play guard or forward. Butler was a highly rated player whose availability at Miami's No. 10 pick was a surprise, and his selection at least raises questions about Jackson's future with the Heat.
Butler, who played only two years at Connecticut, has vowed to make the nine other teams regret passing on him in the draft. Butler averaged 20 points a game and 7.5 rebounds last season at UConn.
Termini said he doesn't think the Heat's selection of Butler diminishes the chance for Jackson to return to Miami.
“Obviously they wanted to add a young and talented player to that position, but it really won't affect [Jackson],” Termini said. “They still have made it clear they want him back.”
One possible drawback is that the NBA salary cap for this season will be about $3 million less per team than it was last season.
If the Heat and Jackson can't come to terms, it wouldn't catch Jackson entirely by surprise. His time in the NBA, which includes playing on eight teams in the past six years, has allowed him to understand how the game he grew up loving to play is more about business once a player reaches the pros. Jackson admits that in some ways playing in the NBA hasn't been all that it was cracked up to be.
“I still love the game, but [the NBA] has broadened my horizons and has made me think totally in a different perspective. I tell people all the time that you might see the glamor, the glitz and fame, but behind the scenes it's much more treacherous than that.”
Jackson will probably remember the summer of 2002 more for his wedding day, attended by more than 500 family and friends. More than a hundred people from Toledo were in Atlanta, including Mayor Jack Ford.
Simms, who works as a promoter for Tyson, was given away by the controversial fighter.
As Jackson attempts to secure a multi-year NBA deal, he feels complete on a personal level with the lifetime commitment he's made with Simms.
“[Marriage] changes everything because you're talking about being with someone for the rest of your life. It's a commitment you're making that gives you some stability.”
Jackson, who has homes in Dallas and Toledo, isn't planning to uproot himself entirely from his hometown anytime soon.
“Toledo will always be home for me. I will always have a home here and locate my business here.”
Jackson intends to remain involved with Toledo after he's done with basketball.
“I think about [retirement] all the time, and that's why I've started my own company here in town, preparing myself for when that day comes. I'm looking forward to that because that's another challenge in my life.”
Jackson and fellow Toledo high school standouts Dennis Hopson and Todd Mitchell have been responsible for a weeklong basketball camp intended primarily for inner-city youths. Jackson has been involved with the camp for 10 years; Hopson and Mitchell started a few years before Jackson joined the project that drew more than 200 participants this summer.
This year's camp lasted only three days instead of a full week at the University of Toledo because of Jackson's wedding.
Jackson also established a summer league for high school players. It had taken place for several years until this summer, when uncertainty about recent NCAA rules changes and wedding plans forced its postponement. Jackson said plans to have it next summer are already in the works.
“They grow and they learn and they keep coming back,” Jackson said.
Perhaps more than ever before the newlywed/NBA veteran free agent can relate quite well with the young campers.