Monday, July 19, 2010
Jerry and Me
It’s impossible for me to be impartial about Jerry Stackhouse. It might seem like an odd choice, but there’s always a player or two that grizzled observers have a blind spot for and Stackhouse is mine. I’ve poked holes at the idea that he was the next Michael Jordan, but that was low-hanging fruit and I felt rotten afterward, like I’d just turned state’s evidence on a distant relative.
As is typically the case with these situations, my connection with Stackhouse stems from childhood. For several summers in the early 1990s, I attended the Carolina Basketball School. It was your typical camp experience, with endless games and former college players running you through drills (thanks Joe Jenkins, bench staple on UNC’s 1987- ’88 team, for fixing my jumper). At the end of the week, the thousands of campers would line up for hours in the humid June weather of North Carolina to shake the hand of Dean Smith, which in that state is on par with getting a private audience with the pope.
In 1993 the camp had a different buzz because the Tar Heels had won the national title a few months earlier. They were losing only George Lynch from the starting lineup, and were bringing in a stellar recruiting class with Rasheed Wallace, Jeff McInnis and this phenom from the rural outpost of Kinston, N.C., Jerry Stackhouse.
Stackhouse pretty much dominated any conversation that summer:
“Hey, man, didja see him score 27 points and win the MVP at the McDonald’s All-American Game? He’s definitely the next Jordan.”
“Yo, my brother played AAU against Stack when he was on the Charlotte Sonics with McInnis and Jeff Capel and them. My brother says Stackhouse’s already better than Jordan.”
The highlight of each week at Carolina Basketball School was always the pickup game at the Dean Dome with Tar Heels past and present. But that year everyone’s eyes darted around the building because word coursed through the crowd that Stackhouse was in the building.
“STACK! HOUSE! STACK! HOUSE!” That was the chant, because that’s what a teeming mass of young males does.
Improbably, Stackhouse surfaced in the stands, running down the steps and onto the court. The campers were sent into quivering hysterics like true believers at a tent revival. Kindly remember that he had yet to suit up for the Tar Heels, and this was well before prep stars were granted instant celebrity status.
As per NCAA rules, Stackhouse couldn’t play in the pickup game because he wasn’t a UNC student yet. I don’t remember the game, because I just watched Stackhouse listlessly bouncing a ball on the sideline. He had a pro’s body already. Maybe he could be better than Jordan.
Stackhouse’s first college game on the national stage (and third overall) came against the John Calipari-led University of Massachusetts in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 24, 1993. I knew this would be the game that Stackhouse convinced everyone of his Jordan-ness.
Stackhouse came off the bench because Dean Smith was always reluctant to start freshmen, especially early in the season. When he checked into the game, Stackhouse promptly tossed an alley-oop way too high for Brian Reese, got whistled for traveling, lost Donta Bright on defense, then got stripped by Lou Roe and turned the ball over. The seemingly indestructible Tar Heels fell in overtime, 91-86, to the Minutemen (Roe was a beast with a 28-14).
Stackhouse played 22 minutes and was only 1 for 7 from the field, finishing with seven points. I was absolutely crushed. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be; it was a quick-and-dirty lesson in reality for a young kid. That season was probably the most confounding in UNC’s history. All that talent never meshed, and the Heels were bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Boston College.
Despite being a more jaded fan, the next season I got tickets when the Tar Heels came to my hometown to play Virginia Tech at the Greensboro Coliseum on Jan. 21, 1995. Stackhouse was already well on his way to being a first-team All-American. But to me, he had lost some of that aura that I had attached to him in my more innocent basketball days.
The Tar Heels had the devil’s own time trying to put away Virginia Tech, thanks to a hot second half from Hokies star Ace Custis. UNC was starting to pull away when, with just under three minutes remaining, Stackhouse got the ball on the left wing. He faked left, getting his defender off balance so he could drive right. He got into the lane and I thought he was going to take a little pull-up jumper before the weak-side help came over. But Stackhouse had no such intention, taking two powerful steps before launching himself into the air off his left foot.
The Hokies’ center finally got over and looked like he was going to try to take a charge, then tried to bail out when he saw that Stackhouse kept rising with the ball cocked. Amazingly, Stackhouse kept going and then tomahawked the ball through the basket, almost decapitating the rim in the process.
The video doesn’t do the dunk justice. The Coliseum went certifiably insane. All I could do was let loose with a guttural howl. The hardness hadn’t completely set in, there was still some giddiness inside. It was easily the greatest dunk I have ever seen in person. (The only one that can even compare is when I watched a former star running back for Western Guilford High School crack the backboard at the Guilford College gym).
So I can never be too harsh regarding Stackhouse. Even when he chafed at playing alongside Allen Iverson with the Philadelphia 76ers or when he shut himself down because of a questionable knee injury with the Washington Wizards, that stuff never bothered me as much as it should have. I’d always be able to mount a defense, and central to that argument would be that thunderous dunk from one of the greatest players to ever come out of North Carolina.