The scowl is gone from Jerry Stackhouse's face. It's been replaced by a smile. But make no mistake, the spirit is still willing.
"I've got a burning passion still to get out there and compete and play," said Stackhouse prior to the Hawks' Friday night game with the New Jersey Nets at Philips Arena. "But I'm realistic about what I need to be for this team."
At 37, this Jerry Stackhouse is not going to go off for 30 anymore. But he's also not going to go off, half-cocked either. Gone is the loose cannon. Welcome the canon of wisdom.
"What he's doing over in that locker room is absolutely phenomenal from all the reports that I'm getting from some of the other players," said second-year Head Coach Larry Drew. "He's really holding that locker room together, which is something we've needed in the past."
"I think he's tremendous in the locker room for us," agreed power forward and two-time All-Star Al Horford. "He's making sure that he's keeping us together more than ever even though we're already a close group."
Atlanta is a close group, whose core of Horford, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams, has grown together for four years. But there is still great potential to unlock in Atlanta, as the Hawks have hit a ceiling in the Eastern Conference Semifinals the last three seasons.
As an Atlanta resident, Stackhouse has seen the progress and wanted to come to Atlanta reaching out to the Hawks on several occasions. But the timing was never right. Even after playing only seven games with Miami last season, the Hawks resisted bringing him aboard.
The timing became right on Dec. 9, when Atlanta signed Stackhouse, as part of their signing spree that included Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic amongst others. They took a shot on getting a leader and veteran presence who could score, regardless of his reputation something he insists was somewhat off-the-mark.
"I've always kind of had a knock, for whatever reason, perception. When I had the scowl, people just kind of felt that I wasn't approachable," he said. "But that's how I played. It didn't matter to me. As long as it gave me that kind of 'Stay back a little bit' edge on the basketball court. It worked out. My teammates always respected my rapport with them and that's all that really matters with me. That's continuing with this group.
Stackhouse said that the leadership he's showing with these Hawks, especially the young players, is based on his experiences, which werent nearly as positive.
"When I was in Philadelphia, I had older guys who didn't really offer any advice," he said. "They were so concerned about their hanging on another year that they didn't want to help the young guys. I promised myself that I never would be that guy. Whenever I got in that position, the knowledge that I have about the game, that I would share it."
Stackhouse believes that what he has to share can help the Hawks break through in the playoffs, as hes already played on a team that has the 2005-06 Dallas Mavericks, who reached the Finals before losing to Miami.
"I've adjusted over the years and I think my role over the years has put me in a lot of these guys' places," he said. "I've been the guy. I've been the Joe Johnson, the guy you want to try to get the ball to. I've been the guy that comes off the bench to provide the spark. I've been the guy who's had to accept a role to make a team work.
"I think I can relate to all of them," he added. "Hopefully just from my experience and the fact that I've accomplished more other than 'Twin,' (Jason Collins) we're the only two who have gone to the Finals I think that's the one thing that's eluded us, not winning it. I think we have a lot to show and tell these guys and they're eager to listen."
For now, Stackhouse, who is 13th among active players with 16,119 career points, is the one doing the listening. He's listening for his name to be called. It hasnt been frequent, as he played six minutes in Atlantas season opener and not at all in the home opener. Waiting is a difficult process, but one he's ready to make.
"The main thing for him right now is to stay ready because you just never know," said Drew. "We have a very tough stretch of games coming up and there's a high probability that I'm going to need him."
"I'm biting at the bit," he said with a laugh. "My opportunity is going to come. It's about being ready. I think that's my message to the younger guys. Stay prepared. You never know what's going to happen and when they're going to need you. I have to make sure I tell myself that as well."
His teammates believe in him.
"I know that on the court at any point, if we need a big basket from him or a big play he'll be there to provide it," said Horford. "He really wants to win and we're lucky to have a guy like him."