Far too often, people rely on the usual suspects when talking about great performers on the March Madness stage. Just because a player might not have won a national championship doesn’t mean that his accomplishments and dominant performances should be brushed aside.
Unfortunately, I think this is the case when discussing Jerry Stackhouse. Through the filter of time, and despite being named Sports Illustrated’s National Player of the Year and leading North Carolina to the Final Four while playing alongside Rasheed Wallace as a sophomore in 1995, most casual fans don’t associate his name with college basketball greatness.
But that’s why we are here, to set the record straight. Before we even address his magnificence in college, let’s start at the end and move backwards. Stack wound up having an 18-year career in the NBA. Just pause and let that marinate for a second. 18 years!
Throughout that incredible span, he averaged 17 points per game. If you want to know who he really was, at the apex of his powers, watch some tape from the 2000-2001 season, where he averaged a mesmerizing 30 points and five assists per game for the Detroit Pistons.
But we’re here to discuss how the elements of his younger days coalesced to create the dynamic player he later blossomed into. In college basketball, Stack wasn’t just a great player. He was a veritable force of nature.
Among a talented crop that included Rasheed, his gifted college teammate, UCONN’s Ray Allen, Villanova’s Kerry Kittles, UMASS’ Lou Roe, Arkansas’ Corliss Williamson, Michigan State’s Shawn Respert, Maryland’s Joe Smith, Oklahoma State’s Big Country Reeves, UCLA’s Ed O’Bannon and Arizona’s Damon Stoudamire, Stackhouse reigned supreme as the nation’s best player. As a sophomore!
During his freshman year, despite it being obvious that he was one of North Carolina’s best players, Dean Smith never started him. And yet, he was still the team’s second-leading scorer. When Smith came to his senses, he tapped Stack on the shoulder prior to the ACC Tournament and said, “Take over, kid.”
He proceeded to ignore the resentment of the upperclassmen and earn the conference tournament MVP award. He played forward in college, but his true position was simply “Basketball Player.”
As a sophomore, he showed his true versatility and averaged 19 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots per game. Not only did he convert over 50% of his shots from the field, he also connected on 38% from three-point range.
In essence, he was about as dynamic and versatile as Christian Bale playing Dicky Ecklund in The Fighter one minute, and Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle the next.
And in terms of aesthetics, I dare you to name five players who were more scintillating with their flight and slam-dunk repertoire.
With the Final Four on tap this weekend, we sat down with one of the most vibrant, determined and gifted competitors to ever flash across the college hoops landscape.
Here is part one of our discussion with one of the best NCAA players of all-time, Jerry Stackhouse.
If you don’t think that description is warranted, you either didn’t see, or weren’t paying attention, to what he did while wearing those delicious powder blue uniforms during his two-year stint as a University of North Carolina Tar Heel.
So if you already know, sit back and enjoy our conversation. And as my former neighbor once said, “If you don’t know, now you know…”
Talk about being the baby of the family and having eleven siblings, which included seven older brothers.
Some of them were older, so I was really only home with about four of them. The oldest is 60 and I’m 39. I have nieces and nephews that are older than me. Some of my brothers were in high school and middle school when I was young. But family reunion time and the holidays were always big for me because that’s when everybody would come back and the basketball court was where we would congregate.
What was the significance of the basketball court in your upbringing?
As far as I can remember, that’s how I tested myself growing up. My brother Avery would play one-on-one with me. That’s where I got my confidence. He’d let me win a little bit, and when I’d start getting a big head, then he’d start playing like a man. That’s where my competitiveness comes from, always wanting to win, no matter who I played against, even if they were older.
Did all of your brothers have some size to them? And I imagine that you took different elements from each of their skill sets.
All of my brothers are over six-feet and they all had different styles. My brother Thomas was a shooter. Avery was the tough guy, he was only 6-foot-4 but he always played in the post and liked mixing it up with guys bigger than him. Greg was a shooter as well and my brother Tony was an unbelievable scorer who should have had a long career in the NBA. I tried to take some things from each of their games and their personalities. They never backed down from anyone.
Tony played briefly in the NBA when you were younger. What did you take away from his pro experiences?
If you talk to the people that played against him in the CBA and the leagues over in Europe, one of the first things they’ll say is, “Man, Tony Dawson could put that thing in the hole.” He had a couple of ten-day stints with Boston and Sacramento in the NBA and they’d try to invite him back for veterans camp, but he went with the sure thing of full-year contracts overseas. That’s where I got my desire to want to play at the top level, from him. He was the one that I was able to watch play college basketball as I was coming up as a middle-schooler. That’s what made me want to excel, especially watching him not get drafted.
How did you feel when he didn’t get drafted?
That was probably one of the most hurtful times of my life because he was projected at a late first round or early second round pick. We all huddled around the television, watching the draft in 1989 and it didn’t happen. That motivated and fueled me to take it to another level in my preparation and competitiveness on the court. At the same time, he had a reputation for having a bad temper and a bad attitude. I don’t know if that hampered his success but I channeled all that stuff. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall in that same category and got held back due to something beside the game of basketball.
Were you more of a wing player or a post guy when you were younger?
I was about 6-foot-4 when I was in the eighth grade. I thought I was going to be a 7-footer. So I was more of a power forward. I had the ability to handle the ball, step out on the wing and do some different things, but I spent most of my time down low. The first time I ever really played shooting guard was in the NBA. Most people don’t realize that.
You were notorious for having one of the meanest knuckle games in the league. I’m guessing that you got that from getting knocked around by your brothers.
Watching my brothers, that’s how they handled things. We were tough on each other but we always stuck together when it came to those types of situations. When you have a lot of Alpha males and testosterone in the house, you’re going to have those types of challenges growing up. We had our dustups, and then that was it. That’s how I thought it was, so when I had misunderstandings with teammates and other players and you got into something physical, after that it was over.
I remember how you handled Jeff Hornacek. I think he quickly regretted squaring up on you after you lumped him up with that mean combination.
A lot of people go back to the Jeff Hornacek situation. I felt like it cost me the Rookie of the Year award. I don’t know what he was thinking when he was rushing at me, but my natural reaction was to protect myself. I never started any of the altercations that I had. I was never the protagonist. My dad always told me, “If somebody hits you, you hit them back.”
I learned growing up that, sometimes, you had to take some lumps. I couldn’t come in the house crying, talking about somebody hit me or beat me up, no matter who it was. I didn’t win them all, but I won most of them.
Both of your parents were the children of sharecroppers. How did their work ethic influence you?
The athletic toughness came from my brothers, but the overall toughness comes from my parents. I grew up hearing stories about them working in the cotton and tobacco fields. My mom only finished the tenth grade and my dad finished the fifth. They had to go to work to support their families.
I think my mom could have been anything she wanted in life. She’s as smart as anybody that you’ll ever meet. She’s a people person, very caring and compassionate. She wants to help people. She would give people the last of whatever we had. If we didn’t have anything but sugar and somebody wanted to borrow some, she would give them half of what we had.
What about your dad?
My dad was different. He’d be like, “This is all we’ve got. They need to go and get their own.” I had a blend of both of their personalities. They taught me how to view people and decipher different situations. My dad was like a super hero to me, in terms of how he worked and provided for us. His full-time job was as a sanitation truck driver. He never missed a day of work.
And after he got off work, he mowed lawns, did masonry, cut down trees or did electrical work. He did it to provide for us. We were probably living below the poverty level, but they always provided for us. I never wanted for anything. To me, I felt like we were rich.
You were a gifted baseball and football player growing up. Was basketball your favorite sport?
I was a bigger football fan when I was younger. I wanted to play pro football. To me, that was the tougher sport. I played linebacker, quarterback, running back and wide receiver. I always felt like sports would be a part of my future. I think basketball chose me, more so than me choosing basketball.
When did you give up other sports to concentrate solely on hoops?
I was going out for the varsity football team during my freshman year in high school. I came home from practice one day and the principal, the athletic director, the basketball coach, and my junior high school basketball coach were all sitting in my living room. They said, “We really feel like you have a great chance of really being special at basketball and in our opinion, we don’t think you should play football.”
How did you react?
I fought it because all of my friends were playing. That was the sport I loved the most. That was a damper for me, but I listened to their advice and focused on basketball. I ran track in the spring to work on my speed. I ran the 100 and the 200. I was a 6-foot-5 power forward and a sprinter. But that was tough, listening to them tell me that they didn’t want me to play football. But I put all of my energy into basketball and started going to different camps in the summer.
What was it besides the obvious athletic talent that separated you from the other players in high school? I can still remember the awe in people’s voices when they talked about you when you were just an underclassman in high school.
I see the kids now, and they have all of these unbelievable skills. But they never develop that ability to truly want to compete, to want to win. Most kids say they want to win, but they aren’t willing to work as hard as possible and do what it takes to be a consistent winner. There were plenty of people that I played against that had more skill than me, but they didn’t have enough “Go-Hard” to beat me.
In college, when I got around Coach Smith and Coach Ford, that’s when I really began to develop some real skills. I built my skill level up, but I always had a love of competing and doing what was necessary to win.
By your junior year in high school, I remember people mentioning you along with Worthy, Jordan and Dominique as one of the best to ever play high school basketball in the state of North Carolina.
When did that proverbial light bulb go off, when you knew that you had a chance to do some special things in this game?
When I started to beat my brothers, when I started to punish them, that’s when I knew that I was getting there. Tony was the last one that I was able to beat. And we had to stop playing against each other because it would always break out into a fight. Mom and dad made us stop playing. Once it got to that point, we had to play on the same team. We were both so competitive that there would be riots in our yard.
What about when you played against other guys that had big names and reputations?
My sophomore year in high school, Donald Williams was one of the best players in the state. We were in the same AAU program, the Raleigh Stars, but he was a rising senior on the 17-and-under team and I was on the 15-and-under team. We scrimmaged them at Cardinal Gibbons high school in Raleigh and we beat them. I had 58 points and was like, “Wow!” That’s when I knew.
Did you play against them again?
We did, in the state tournament. I had 54 points in that game, but Donald hit a shot at the buzzer to beat us. But that’s when it all began to come together for me. Bob Gibbons, the big talent scout, was at that game. He put my name out there on the national stage and said that I was a right-handed version of Rodney Rogers.
Man, Rodney Rogers played some muscular, grown man basketball.
That spoke to the power that was a major part of my game at that time. He wasn’t comparing me to any guards. Later, the Michael Jordan comparisons came along because I was 6-foot-6 and coming out of North Carolina, but those comparisons were never accurate because I didn’t play the guard position until I got to the pros.
I didn’t work on ball-handling and pick and roll situations in high school. But on the wing, my thing was the isolation. I was like, “Give me the ball and I’m gonna take my man.” I could penetrate against anybody on the wing because of my first step and my quickness.
You decided to leave Kinston High School and play your senior year at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. What factored into that decision?
I was playing on an AAU team out of Charlotte at the time and Jeff McInnis was the point guard on the team. We had such a good chemistry playing together. I never played with a point guard who could throw the alley-oop like he could, or get me the ball every time in the exact spot that put me at an advantage.
We had the same mentality in terms of going as hard as possible and always wanting to compete. We just hit it off and he was like, “Hey Stack, you need to come to Oak Hill so we can play together.”
Given how close you were with your family, that must have been a tough decision.
I come from a small town where a lot of people want to see you do well. But there are also a lot of people who don’t want to see you do well. I saw little things that were happening and even though that was my home, where I had grown up my whole life, I didn’t want to have anything get me off track. I was so close to my dream of going to college. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.
Looking back, how did that experience at Oak Hill benefit you?
A lot of people go there because they need help in terms of getting their academics in order. But I already had good grades and my qualifying scores. I wound up having the second-highest GPA in my graduating class at Oak Hill. But I was able to do things on my own.
I became the mother hen of the dorm. I took all of those skills that I learned from my mom, so I was always cooking, or having some food on the grill. I would help people do their laundry. I was the barber who cut everybody’s hair. I was also a tutor, helping other guys out with some of their work.
What about the basketball part of the equation?
It was great. We went all around the country playing against the top teams. We went to Hawaii, Vegas, D.C., everywhere. From the standpoint of being able to play against tough competition day in and day out, you couldn’t beat it.
Before Oak Hill, what do you remember about some of those first times you played against great players from other parts of the country?
When I was a ninth and tenth-grader, Mr. Ernie Lorch brought me up to New York to play some AAU ball with the Riverside Church Hawks. So I was testing myself against people from around the country at an early age. Some of my older brothers lived in D.C., so I would spend some time up there in the summer. So, I was playing against some of the best players from New York and D.C. and having some success.
So you already had confidence once you got to the prestigious Nike camps where all of the top players would battle.
Yeah, when the Nike camps came around, I already felt like I didn’t care where somebody was from, or what their reputation was. I was gonna give it to 'em. You’d hear these other names, like Rasheed Wallace, and the Nike camp was where you met everybody that had a name.
People were saying that Rasheed, Randy Livingston and I were the top players in the country. So the Nike camp was where you finally got a chance to see those guys, compete against them and test yourself.
You and Rasheed wound up at North Carolina together and did some magnificent things as a duo in college. Tell me about the first time you guys went at it at the Nike camp.
The first time I played against Rasheed, I got off early in the game and my team won. But man, in the second half, this dude became another person. There wasn’t anything anybody could do with that dude. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, could stop Rasheed Wallace.
Luckily, we had a big enough lead where they couldn’t come back. That was the first time I really played against a guy that, no matter what a defense did, he could score the ball in so many different ways.
Did you have an idea that you guys might team up later in college?
I had no idea that we’d be teammates in college. But the way we competed against each other, there was a bond right away. We developed that at the Nike camp, a mutual respect for one another. We started hanging out together and became inseparable.
Was the basis of that bond your similarities in terms of being so competitive?
A lot of guys are happy to be ranked in the top 50 or the top 20. But that wasn’t our mentality. Our mentality was to be THE BEST PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY! During our senior year in high school, my Oak Hill team was undefeated and his team at Simon Gratz in Philadelphia was undefeated.
We were hoping that we’d get a chance to play against each other and settle that debate for the mythical national championship. But it never happened. We wanted to be the best. We went at each other.
The McDonald’s High School All-American game was this week. Every time I see it, I think about the serious work you put in at the game in 1993.
I’m still really proud of that experience. I grew up watching and dreaming of being a McDonald’s All-American. Being selected to play in that game is huge. It means that you are the best of the best.
Your family, brothers and the folks who were in your corner back at home in Kinston, North Carolina must have been beaming with pride. What was your mentality walking into that game and playing on that stage?
Charles Shackleford was the last McDonald’s All-American to come out of Kinston High in 1985, so it was huge at home. I went in with the mentality to be the best player on the floor. I wanted to compete as hard as I could and show my talent. I wanted to leave my mark. I didn’t look at it as a destination, it was a stepping-stone in terms of where I wanted to go.
Looking back at that experience now, what resonates with you?
I wish I would have taken some time to savor the moment. At the time, it was like, “OK, now it’s on to the next step in terms of chasing my dream.” I wasn’t ever satisfied. Now, I can look back and say that it was a helluva ride. But back then, I couldn’t look at it that way. It was always about moving on to the next challenge.
You were being recruited by every basketball power in the country. Did any school other than the University of North Carolina have a chance of getting you?
Yeah, my brother went to Florida State, so I thought about going to FSU. North Carolina State was there too. And I really liked the University of Virginia. But when you looked at all of the players that came out of UNC, the success they had, and me being from North Carolina, it was hard to tell Dean Smith no.
With you being the baby, did your mom encourage you to stay close to home when the recruitment started heating up?
I’ll tell you a funny story about my mom. Steve Fisher came to my house on a recruiting visit, trying to get me to commit to Michigan. Dean Smith was scheduled to come to the house a few hours after that. My mom got some donuts and some coffee for Steve Fisher. When he left, she went into the kitchen and got busy. She cooked up some cabbage, some corn and some pork chops. She never told me what school she wanted me to go to, but I could tell.
Yeah, that wasn’t a subtle hint.
Yeah, when Dean Smith came over and she was feeding him pork chops, when Steve Fisher got the coffee and donuts, I knew which way she wanted me to go.