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Stephen Jackson, The Wildcat Who Wasn't, Chasing Another Championship


Lute Olson put together more than a few outstanding recruiting classes: 2001 (Salim Stoudamire, Channing Frye, Will Bynum); 1999 (Jason Gardner, Gilbert Arenas); 1998 (Richard Jefferson, Michael Wright, Luke Walton, Rick Anderson, Ruben Douglas).

The 1996 recruiting class was historic as-is, marking the arrival of Mike Bibby. His No. 10 hangs from the rafters of McKale Center, a constant reminder of the magical national championship run he led the Wildcats on his freshman season.

Bibby was one of two McDonald's All-Americans committed to Olson for 1996. The other was basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy product Stephen Jackson.

Jackson's potential is one of the great what-ifs in Wildcat basketball history. Bibby's inking with UA was much celebrated -- he was an in-state star and son of a former NBA champion. But Jackson's play in the McD's game begged the question who the real crown jewel of the class would be.

Academic ineligibility ended Jackson's UA career before it began. The stellar class Olson had landed was still stellar between Bibby and JUCO transfer Bennett Davison. With Jackson in the fold, though?

Rick Majerus probably could not have triangle-and-two'd the Wildcats into submission in the 1998 West Regional.

After all, Jackson's proven himself to be a valuable commodity amid a championship run. A San Antonio Spurs team lacking star power beyond MVP Tim Duncan in 2003 won the Larry O'Brien Trophy with Jackson as arguably its second best player. Tony Parker was a baby by professional standards, Manu Ginobili was coming into his own his first NBA season, and all-time great David Robinson was on his last legs.

The 2003 championship was a watershed moment for one of the NBA's model franchises. San Antonio won the '99 Finals, but skeptics were quick to cite a lockout-shortened 50-game season as the proverbial asterisk. Los Angeles blasted the Spurs in the 2001 Playoffs, validating some of those criticisms that their championship was a fluke.

Jackson didn't put up earth-shattering figures as a Spur, but he did fill a necessary role.

Arizona's fingerprints -- or 'Cat tracks, as it were -- are all over that '03 title run. In addition to Jackson's contribution, Steve Kerr had a fitting curtain call on his self-described Forrest Gump-like career (seek out Kerr's UA jersey retirement speech if you don't get the reference).

He buried all four of his 3-point attempts and dished three assists in San Antonio's Western Conference Finals-sealing Game 6 defeat of Dallas. Kerr was a worthy supporting star that night to Jackson. Game 6 was a standout moment in his strong playoff run, as Jackson had a team high 24 points and did just about everything else well.

His complementing of Duncan was reminiscent of the role another former Wildcat, Sean Elliott, fulfilled alongside Robinson. Add that night of Kerr sinking the long ball, and it was a bit like UA's 1988 Final Four season.

Jackson turned 34 last month, twilight time in NBA years. He's back in San Antonio, a city famous for the Alamo though the Spurs suggest it also hosts the Fountain of Youth. Jackson is again key to the Spurs' championship aspirations, coincidentally traded for the player who would have been his small forward understudy at UA, Richard Jefferson.

It's quite a road Jackson has traveled to this point. He didn't even play his first NBA game until 2000, bouncing around the CBA and overseas before getting his opportunity. One cannot accurately say how differently his pro career might have gone had he been able to play alongside Bibby, Miles Simon, A.J. Bramlett and Michael Dickerson.

Maybe he wouldn't be working toward his second O'Brien Trophy. Then again, maybe UA would have a second national championship trophy in its case.