Jackie Robinson has become a hero to Jerry Stackhouse. But while growing up in North Carolina in the 1980s, Stackhouse was thinking about another idol.
Stackhouse looked up to James Worthy, who had starred at the University of North Carolina and went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers from 1982-94. Worthy wore No. 42 in the NBA.
“I wore that number way back in junior high school because I was a really big James Worthy fan when he was with the Lakers,’’ said Stackhouse, a Kinston, NC, native who would go on to don that number while also starring for the Tar Heels. “It was only later that I learned more about Jackie and his story.’’
Robinson had made the No. 42 famous when he broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. His story is told in the movie “42,’’ which opens in theaters Friday.
Stackhouse’s 18-year NBA journey has taken him to eight teams and now the guard is with the Brooklyn Nets. After the Nets had moved before the season from New Jersey, Stackhouse became the first major pro athlete in Brooklyn to don No. 42 since Robinson retired after the 1956 season.
“It’s fitting the fact that we have a representation of who he was,’’ Stackhouse said. “Every time you turn on a Brooklyn Nets game, you can see his number and see Brooklyn with it. I’m proud of it and proud to be the one that they allow to bring it to the borough. They could easily have said that number wasn’t available and I would gladly have understood. But they kind of looked at it that I was paying homage to it.’’
Yet it actually was several years into his NBA career before Stackhouse really learned the significance of Robinson or even found out Worthy had chosen No. 42 because of Robinson.
When Worthy starred at North Carolina from 1979-82, he wore No. 52. But the forward knew that after being taken by the Lakers with the No. 1 pick in the 1982 draft he wouldn’t be donning that number anymore.
“I had worn No. 52 since high school and when I got to Los Angeles Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes had it,’’ Worthy said of the Lakers forward who was inducted into the Hall last year, nine years after Worthy had been enshrined. “I was talking to my dad and I said, ‘You know, 52 is out of the question,’ and I thought about 50 or 51.’’
Worthy’s father, Erving Worthy Sr., who was then the manager of a tool supply company in Gastonia, NC, and who would die in 2004, had an idea.
“My dad was a big baseball fan and so was my grandfather (the late Ager Worthy),’’ Worthy said. “They had always told me stories about the old players and the old Negro Leagues, about Satchel Paige and some of the great players. My dad had told me about Jackie Robinson and said, ‘Why don’t you wear No. 42 to recognize Jackie?’’’
Worthy said it took him less than hour to ponder it. He considered it a great idea, and Worthy was issued that number for his rookie season of 1981-82.
Worthy wore it while winning three NBA titles, including being named Finals MVP in 1988. Being in the Los Angeles area, where Robinson had grown up and starred at UCLA in baseball, basketball, football and track, Worthy gained an even further appreciation of him.
“I’ve played in the Jackie Robinson golf tournament with (Robinson’s widow Rachel Robinson),’’ said Worthy, now a Lakers studio analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet. “I’ve been to Jackie Robinson Stadium (UCLA’s baseball field). I’ve been to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and learned a lot about Jackie.
“I was honored to have worn his number with all the sacrifices that he made… I know he was a great baseball player and a great athlete. But even if he had been a doctor, he would have a made a difference because he was very intelligent and had a great dignity.’’
While Worthy was finishing his career with the Lakers, Stackhouse was starting to make a name for himself at North Carolina, where he starred from 1993-95 before being taken with the No. 3 pick in the 1995 draft by Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until he was with Detroit several years later that Stackhouse began to learn a lot about Robinson.
“I was doing some stuff for Black History Month (in February 1999) and I read stories about Jackie Robinson, and that kind of enlightened me and I saw what he did for us and how that translates to sports,’’ Stackhouse said. “Once I did that, I wrote his name on the back of my shoe. So that was kind of the start of it. I did it for a couple of games during Black History Month.
“And I found out the reason why James Worthy wore No. 42, so in a roundabout way it all came to fruition because of Jackie Robinson… (Robinson) kind of set the path. Even though he didn’t play basketball (as a pro), he did it for sports. He was the first African-American to kind of break the barrier.’’
Stackhouse, who played briefly for the Miami Heat in 2010-11, looked to be at the end of the line when he averaged just 3.6 points last season for Atlanta. But Avery Johnson, once his coach in Dallas, brought Stackhouse, 38, to the Nets this season for spot duty and to serve almost as another assistant coach.
Johnson was fired as Nets coach 28 games into the season. But Stackhouse, who said this likely is his last NBA season, has had his moments. He’s averaging 4.6 points, including scoring in double figures five times.
Stackhouse also has been plenty busy off the court with all hubbub surrounding his wearing No. 42 in Brooklyn and with the movie coming out. Last December, he took part in a ceremony with Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, that included relocating the Ebbets Field flagpole to outside the Barclays Center and putting up a plaque.
“It’s a good thing,’’ Stackhouse said of wearing No. 42 in Brooklyn. “I’ve gotten a lot of mileage with it, especially with the movie coming out right now. Everybody is excited about it. I’m looking forward to it as well.’’
Worthy also is excited about seeing the film. Although Worthy never has talked to Stackhouse about his wearing of No. 42, he appreciates how the guard has been able to help honor Robinson this season in Brooklyn.
“It’s cool for him to choose my number and now he’s recognizing Jackie Robinson,’’ Worthy said. “It all came about in an indirect way.’’
The No. 42 never will be issued again in Major League Baseball after this season. The number was retired in 1997, although players who wore it then were allowed to continuing doing so until they retired. New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, the last remaining player wearing No. 42, has announced this is his last year.
If Stackhouse does indeed retire after this season, it remains to be seen if there ever will be another No. 42 in Brooklyn.