Let’s get one thing clear: NBA players have egos. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have made it as far as they have. From pee-wee league to high school to college, these guys are typically the best players on their teams. And if they aren’t they best, they usually think they are, because that sort of confidence is what breeds success at higher levels. Often, what’s driving them to work so hard is their belief that they are the best. Once they get that taste, they don’t want to lose it. So the first time a coach comes to them and says, “how about coming off the bench?” you can understand that it often rubs them the wrong way. Unless it’s done right.
Lucky for the Bucks, Don Nelson did the heavy lifting for them a few years ago with Jerry Stackhouse.
“When I first did it in Dallas, I knew I could still start,” said Stackhouse. “I had a coach (Nelson) that approached me in the right way. I think it’s all about, kind of massaging. You know, everybody’s got an ego in this league and he massaged mine a little bit.”
Accepting the sixth man role may sound like a small thing to do when the other option is earning a reputation as a problem, but it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Look no further than Stackhouse’s one time teammate Allen Iverson. Iverson had an opportunity to be the key to the Grizzlies bench this season. He could have come off the bench as the featured option, got his shots and been a focal point, albeit for fewer minutes than he was accustomed to. But Iverson balked at being a bench player. Perhaps he felt it was beneath a man of his many accomplishments or maybe Memphis just didn’t handle him properly, whatever the reason, Allen Iverson in Memphis lasted just three games.
When he and coach Nelson first talked about it, Stackhouse liked the way it sounded.
“He told me he was a sixth man and it was a real important position to him. He felt that having somebody coming off the bench was almost like a sixth starter. And I was like (smiling) hmmm…okay. Sometimes it’s just having a little tact. It was able to work for us, we had a great team and a great unit coming off the bench.”
The biggest hurdle in the transition from a starter getting big time minutes from the tip to the final horn was the mental one.
“It was a little both (mental and physical) at first, because you know, I always started. You get to warm up and then you right there and now it’s like you gotta sit down and cool off again. It was mostly a mental challenge and once you’re able to get over that hurdle then it is what it is. It was anxious and still, nothing’s changed about that I’m anxious sitting over there waiting for my time. You just sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting for Scott (Skiles) to yell “STACK!”
Ah, the unit coming off the bench, they’re comrades in sitting. Bench units often are close units, bonded by the roles they fill. Stackhouse says, “You have your starters and you have kind of like your bench mob, you know? They kind of have their own identity and that carries on a life of its own.”
The Jerry Stackhouse I remembered from Washington and Detroit was no more. Now, Stackhouse has established himself as an important part of the Bucks rotation, constantly moving the ball or making the quick decision to shoot. His three-point shooting numbers have been better than at any point in his career (40% this season 31% lifetime) and he’s been an important part of the locker room.
“We added Jerry, he’s a very vocal player,” said Coach Skiles. “He’s vocal on the bench and he’s not afraid to get on somebody.”
When the Bucks picked Stackhouse up in January, I couldn’t understand it. His career seemed to have run its course and his skills didn’t seem to mesh with what the Bucks needed, plus I was of the thought that Jodie Meeks needed more minutes. And I was wrong on each account. I think Stack himself put it best.
“You gotta evolve in this game to stick around.”