The picture above came after Reggie Jackson played the best game of his career. With his 2-seeded Thunder trailing 7-seeded Memphis 2-1 in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs - and struggling mightily in Game 4 - Jackson provided the one thing that has always seemed to cripple Oklahoma City in the past: a bailout for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Reducing his efforts to a "bailout" term is an injustice to just how incredible Jackson was in that game. It wasn't just the career-high 32 points on 11-16 shooting, or the nine gritty rebounds, it was the six cold-blooded free throws in the final minutes of overtime that truly sealed the win. Jackson knew he could provide the Thunder what they needed, and it didn't matter that Durant and Westbrook were on the floor with him. He was in the zone and he took the team to victory.
It's impossible not to see that game as the crowning moment in Reggie Jackson's young career. On top of that, you'd be hard-pressed to find any point in time when Jackson's approval rating was higher than it was that night in Memphis. All that James Harden talk, all that stuff about the Thunder not having enough pieces, this moment was the vindication. The Thunder had their guy all along, and he proved himself on the biggest stage.
Of course, you know how things played out from there. Jackson was still good throughout the rest of the playoff run, but never quite as dominant nor confident as he seemed to be that night. By the time the Thunder fizzled out against the Spurs and failed to reach the NBA Finals, the narrative that the bench was too thin came right back up to the surface.
That's where things started to take a strange turn. Even in pursuing free agents to bolster that bench, and even after Jackson had a brief stint in the starting rotation, the one reassurance Thunder fans had was that they still had one of the best sixth men in the league. Only, as the offseason played out, that sixth man's contract became a topic of conversation, and all of sudden the one person that didn't seem to be on board with that notion was Jackson himself.
It started innocently enough, when the casual questions came from reporters in the wake of a heartbreaking loss to the Spurs.
"I'd like to be a starter. I'm not going to lie," Jackson said in his exit interview.
That was on June 2nd, two days after the Thunder were eliminated. OK, fair enough. Jackson did just play a pretty solid stretch of basketball, and he was very clearly the fourth-best player on the team, so of course he felt he deserved to be a starter.
Even in light of those comments, though, it was sort of understood that he would back off and accept his role, even if it was to be sixth man once again. Maybe this was just posturing with Jackson and his agent, making the Thunder front office aware that Jackson knew he could be a starter. With contract negotiations on the horizon - and an outside shot at locking down an early extension before the Halloween deadline that would see Jackson become eligible for restricted free agency in the offseason - why not start driving the price up early?
The summer came and went and there were no real advancements on the contract front, nor did it become any clearer whether or not Jackson would in fact be a starter or not. Then Media Day happened, and the problems only compounded. Jackson dug his feet in even further, hammering home just how badly he wanted to start.
"I want to be a starter," Jackson told the assembled media. "I've always wanted to be a starter. I've always wanted to be great. All the greats I've seen started, so that's kind of the mold."
Then, "I feel like I'm blessed beyond wildest measures. So to me, I don't want to - this is just how I feel, I don't know how people will take it - I don't want to disrespect my God by settling. I think me and everybody else has a reason and a chance to go out there and be great in whatever aspect they want in life, and I've always tried to do my best. That's kind of how I approach life. My family taught me, and especially my brothers growing up, that I always wanted a chance to be great. That's my destiny."
On the one hand, his sheer conviction is refreshing, and in an age where athletes have become so trained to say what we want them to, the idea that he could so adamantly go out there and make his case, knowing what the implications may be, is a nice change of pace.
On the other hand, destiny?! This was no longer what Thunder fans thought it would be.
The continuity of the Thunder is something that makes them so easy to follow and root for. The system seems to have worked well each and every year, and with Jackson filling that sixth man role that has been such a weapon for the Thunder going back to the Harden years, there really isn't much to fear. With his comments, Jackson essentially stood up in front of everyone and publicly rejected that role.
Still, even that storm sort of blew over in the wake of all the recent injury news to the Thunder. Then Westbrook went down once again, and that Halloween deadline officially passed and the question of his future in Oklahoma City was once again brought up to Jackson. As expected by this point, he kept his intentions clear:
"When I said 'command a team,' I didn't mean being a temporary starter or anything like that," Jackson told reporters after the win over Denver. "So I'll just try to fill my role while I'm here and when I get back I'm just gonna try and stay healthy and play to the best of my ability."
It's the "while" that most jumps out in that quote, and it's the reason why it's officially weird to watch Reggie Jackson play now.
In his return against Brooklyn, Jackson struggled from the field. Even more interestingly, as pointed out by Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, there seemed to be a general disconnect between Jackson and his teammates. Whether or not the specific incident Mayberry references was overblown or not, Brooks' comments after the game certainly made it clear that something was wrong with Jackson's game. Brooks told Mayberry, "it's simple, You just have to get off the basketball... In order for other guys to participate you just have to move the ball, and we didn't do that tonight, particularly Reggie didn't do that tonight."
That's a lot coming from a guy like Brooks who usually keeps it lighthearted and rarely gets on his players publicly.
Yet after all of this, the relentless belief that he should start, the seeming disregard for how his public outcries may be construed, the criticism of his coach, there was Jackson on Tuesday night in Toronto limping around the court like a wounded gladiator, refusing to quit the team no one was totally sure he even wanted to be a part of anymore.
In a game where the Thunder had a full roster, Jackson most likely would have come out to heal that limp. But this is the 2014 Thunder, and with the team down to just seven bodies, Jackson battled through to finish out the game with the select few teammates that were still able-bodied enough to complete the contest.
So what is Reggie Jackson at this point?
His comments to the public certainly paint the picture of a guy that would be happier starting for a bottom-dweller than coming off the bench for a contender. Still, is that such a bad trait to have? He's a 24 year old playing in the NBA with dreams of being a star. He's certainly not the first guy to fit that profile.
The other side of the coin, though, is that sacrifice is one of the major components of the Thunder culture. Every guy should be willing to sacrifice for the guy next to him and for the greater good of the team. Presti preaches it, Brooks preaches it, Durant preaches it, and if the guys up top are preaching it, everyone is expected to fall in line with it. Jackson's overt willingness to leave to pursue a starting opportunity seems to fly in the face of all of that.
Maybe it doesn't, though, because for all of the comments, despite some iffy video evidence from a Thunder beat writer, we don't know that his current "dispute" has had any negative effects on the team at all. Yes, the Westbrook injury, along with the slew of other injuries, means that Jackson's ultimate role for 2014-15 may not become clear until halfway through the season.
Whether he is playing for his teammates, or whether he is playing for a contract, it doesn't matter at this point. Jackson is still capable of reaching that caliber he reached in Game 4 against Memphis, and that's the most important thing to a team that has a championship on its mind. He has does nothing on the court to suggest he isn't just as committed to winning with this team this year as he would be anywhere else.
No matter how much heart he shows, it may not be enough to clean up the damage he's done with his comments. It's hard to blame anyone for feeling that way, either. The sentiment that "if he wants to start, he should just go somewhere and start." Maybe he will ultimately end up as a bargaining chip, but it's hard to see the Thunder front office going down that road again after all of the heat they still take for doing that same thing with Harden. It's more likely the team will do essentially what they are doing for Durant in 2016. That is, doing everything possible to make them believe in the organization, and hoping that in itself is enough to win them over.
Jackson is unlikely to ever back down from his dreams of being a starter, but there may be more Game 4s still ahead. If he can accept his role with the Thunder just long enough for them to seriously contend once again, Reggie Jackson will go down as the most important sixth man in Oklahoma City history.
It's not a starter, but it's not so bad, either.