Is it the shoe? The most valuable basketball sneaker in the world? The only combination of leather, shoelace and rubber sole deserving of a Lloyd's of London policy? The left half of the red, white and black shoes that should prompt the NBA to give the Clippers a dispensation for a sixth man on the court, a security guard?
Mark Jackson first tied his wedding ring to his shoe during summer-league games around his native New York, since there was no place for players to lock up valuables. He has continued the habit--off the left hand, onto the left shoe--even now, during NBA games when jewelry and money are routinely secured in locker rooms.
Kenny Smith of the Houston Rockets, Jackson's counterpart at point guard when the playoffs continue Saturday with a deciding Game 5, used to do the same thing until he accidentally gave the sneaker to a fan after a game. Biggest turnover of his life.
The thing is, though, Jackson doesn't need that row of baguettes with the gold setting for flash. All that glitters north of the Nikes in his first season as a Clipper has at times made his first five pro campaigns, which included the 1987-88 rookie-of-the-year award and an All-Star berth the next year, seem like cubic zirconia by comparison.
He surpassed career averages in all of the seven most prominent individual categories: scoring, assists, steals, rebounds, field goal and free-throw percentage, even blocked shots. He was rewarded with a five-year, $13-million contract extension that kicks in next season. Almost as important, he seems to have renewed zest for the game after five emotionally taxing seasons with the New York Knicks, where fans and coaches loved him one year and trashed him the next.
"I think the last couple of years in New York had been real tough on him," said Kiki Vandeweghe, a teammate the previous 3 1/2 seasons with the Knicks and now with the Clippers. "It seems like he's got a lot of his enthusiasm back. He's always been a great player, but he has a lot of energy back."
Energy? Enthusiasm? Back in 1991 BC--Before Clippers--the hometown fans were weary of Jackson's showboating--spreading his arms and starting upcourt like an airplane after a flashy play--which had bothered opponents for years. But he arrives in Los Angeles, makes a great play in an early game, does a chest bump and shakes as if his upper body were made of Jell-O. The wiggle soon becomes a regular occurrence and fans take to it so quickly that they see him at the mall and want to do it.
"Things were hard the last year or two in New York," Vandeweghe said. "Maybe some of the fun of basketball had been taken out."
So, perhaps it is fitting that Jackson's statistics rival those of his rookie season, because 1992-93 has been a season of rebirth.
Jackson wasn't just from New York. He was the dream of New York--from the playgrounds of Queens and Brooklyn, from P.S. 176 to college at St. John's to becoming a first-round draft pick and standout with the Knicks. He was so hometown that for a while he lived with his parents even after joining the NBA, sharing a room with his 15-year-old brother.
And then, last summer, he was traded. For the first time in his 27 years, he wasn't a New Yorker.
"Sometimes you take that for granted," said Jackson, who has been married to Desiree Coleman for almost three years. "That's not anything negative, that's a compliment. You enjoy those moments, but you don't enjoy them as much because you know they're going to happen tomorrow, it's going to happen the next day. And that was taken away from me, and I miss it dearly. But it has allowed me to grow.
"The main thing is, I trusted God and just put it in His hands from the beginning. When the trade happened, I didn't have any problems with it. The only thing was being away from my family, being away from my parents, my brothers and sisters. That was very tough. Being away from my in-laws. I'm a very tight-knit family guy, and that was the toughest thing for me. It still is. That's the only thing I miss when I think about it."
Not the Knicks?
"I don't watch them because I'm not a fan of the New York Knicks. I'm a fan of the L.A. Clippers."
But that was your team growing up . . .
"That was my team growing up, and I was a fan of Earl Monroe and the great players and the great New York Knick teams, and I'm a very good friend of Patrick Ewing's and wish him well. Other than that, I really couldn't care less about them."
But you lived with that team and were part of that team for five years . . .
"Exactly. And I've been through a team where players didn't like certain players, where coaches didn't like certain players, where management didn't like certain players and there's still people there I have scars with. That was unnecessary.
"When I went through things, there was only one guy that was in my corner and stood firm and spoke up for me--with the exception of Kiki, who's here now--and that's Patrick. I pull for him and have a lot of respect for him and a lot of of feelings for him and wish him the best. But as far as the team, that's behind me."
The Clippers are ahead of him. Not to mention the Rockets, one more time.