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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Memphis Tigers signee Joe Jackson may be as unknowable as he is unstoppable

The Commercial Appeal
By Scott Cacciola
Posted March 31, 2010

He waded through the masses, and the buzz radiated in concentric circles.

"Baby Jesus! Baby Jesus!" one hysterical woman screamed as soon as she spotted Joe Jackson, an NBA Players Association backpack slung over his shoulder.

Putting up numbers.4 — Shelby-Metro players named first-team Parade All-American (Jackson, Penny Hardaway, Richard Madison, Johnny Neumann)

12 — Jackson's ranking on's Top 150 players list for class of 2010.

96 — Jackson's Scout's Inc. grade, meaning he "demonstrates rare abilities and has the potential to start as a freshman for a national, top-25 program."

3,451 — Career points, second on all-time Shelby-Metro list.
Joe Jackson's high school career. See all
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Next.He had done the unthinkable against Melrose on Feb. 2, a cold night when school officials sealed the doors on a sellout crowd over an hour before the tip. Those who were locked out staged a near-riot, but that drama provided a mere prelude.

Melrose had led visiting White Station by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter before Jackson went berserk. He scored 14 straight at one point, a stirring display of speed and strength and savvy, then dished to teammate Julian Burton for the game-winning layup in the closing seconds.

"He was so wide open, I couldn't force a shot up," Jackson said, "even though I probably would've made it."

A night that began with Jackson barking "My Mound! My Mound!" after his first basket closed with a congratulatory handshake from University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner ("Joe's just a winner," Pastner said) and a business card from former NBA star Greg Anthony ("That's my home number," Anthony told him).

It was the sort of performance that secured the living legend of the self-described "King of Memphis" — the elaborate tattoo on his chest says so — though it also proved too much for him to handle. Jackson left school the following morning and went home. He apparently wanted some time to himself.

"He does that sometimes," White Station coach Jesus Patino said. "He gets so emotional. He wears himself out."

Jackson, an 18-year-old point guard prodigy, plays basketball in a minor key, all fire and angst. He wrapped up his high school career this month as the fourth-highest scorer in state history, with 3,451 career points. A U of M signee, Jackson approaches the game the way he approaches life — basketball as bare-knuckles survivalism — and he will showcase his talents tonight during the McDonald's All-American Game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

"He'd always tell the parents on my summer team, 'One day, I'm going to be the best point guard in the country,'" said Eric "Cowboy" Robinson, Jackson's AAU coach with the Memphis Magic. "He just kept working, working, working. He always wanted to be the best."

His effect on Memphis transcends his young age (18) and slight stature (5-11). In early March, he made an announcement on his well-viewed Facebook page. "Joe KingofMemphis Jackson has over 100 friend requests and cant add any cause Facebook wont let you have over 5,000 friends. :-(." And then he provided a link to his new 'Fan' page, created as a means of accommodating more followers. But the old page is still public, which means anyone can view his occasional musings.

His status updates range from the mundane ("Grind hard 24/8") to the morose ("I let the team down") to the quasi-inspirational ("My life wouldn't be complete without them, so haters keep on hatin' as I continue my journey to success. King.")

But if these posts provide flashes of insight, they create a thin portrait. Few people know Jackson — really know him — and he even has gone to lengths to protect his past from members of his self-described inner circle. That includes his White Station coach, who said he sees no reason to pry.

"What he told you," Patino said, "is about as much as he's ever told me."

He was referring to Jackson opening up about his maternal grandmother, Lillie Cox, who long has been a rare source of stability in his life.

"She's just the best person I ever met in my life," Jackson said. "There's no one like her right now. And I don't know where I'd be without her."

Based on insight provided by those close to him, his childhood featured unimaginable struggle born of urban blight. Jackson has never been particularly forthcoming with details. He acknowledges shuffling from home to home, wondering where he would find his next meal, missing school for weeks at a time.

"You go through obstacles in your life," Jackson said. "I don't regret them because if I didn't go through them, I wouldn't be as tough as I am on the court. But there was just a lot of stuff going on. Financial stuff. But I had to take it."

When he was in the seventh grade, Jackson and his two younger sisters moved into his grandmother's home in Orange Mound. She provided stability that his parents, dealing with their own challenges, could not.

"They're around, but they're not around," Robinson said, "know what I'm saying?"

Jackson keeps his inner circle "tight" by design. Along with his grandmother, Patino and Robinson, there's Leonard Draper — a mentor to Jackson and also a confidant to another Memphis basketball legend, Larry Finch — and a couple of friends. Anyone who wants to join that club is out of luck. Feel free to check him out on Facebook, but that is where access to Jackson begins and ends.

"I don't really got a whole lot of friends," he said, "people I can trust and been trusting. I'm not going to let anyone new come into my circle, because I know they just want to be my friend because of who I am."

His is a public life that he shelters — from the notorious "haters" who he claims want to destroy him, from familiar faces in his neighborhood who want to use him.

"People that I used to talk to," Jackson said, "but I had to let them go. There are going to be people that try to latch on to you and try to be your friend, try to give you things and all that. But you have to make good decisions. It's just a feeling you get. And it's just ... you don't mess with that."

U of M assistant coach Jack Murphy led Jackson down a quiet hallway at FedExForum last fall after Memphis Madness, and they found their man just in time. Allen Iverson, then the Grizzlies' prized offseason acquisition, had judged the dunk contest and was about to leave. Murphy introduced the two.

"We shook hands," Jackson said. "And we kind of looked at each other. And I said, 'I didn't know there were any short people in the NBA like you!' Because he had to be 5-9 or 5-10. And he was just like, 'Height never matters.' That was a big-time quote for me."

Iverson must have seen a younger version of himself in Jackson — Who was this brash kid talking this big talk? — because Iverson, a man who guards his time, kept offering unsolicited advice: Work hard. There are no limits. Drown out the static.

"Then I told him, 'I'm sizing you up right now!'" Jackson recalled. "He kind of took me serious because I wasn't laughing. He threw a little smirk and walked off."

Jackson does not lack confidence. There were times this season — OK, many times — when he grew visibly upset with teammates who missed shots or threw bad passes or simply forgot that they were playing with The King. He conducted his business with the sort of self-assurance that bled into arrogance. But he makes no apologies — and neither does Patino, who maintained separate rules for Jackson. Some might have seen this as coddling. Patino was uninterested in semantics.

"We're treating him like an NBA player," Patino said this month. "It's the first time I've ever done this, but it's to his benefit."

During the latter half of the season, Jackson barely participated in practices. He would shoot free throws and go through game-planning, but then Patino would send him to the side while his teammates worked through drills. It was all designed to prevent fatigue — a constant battle throughout Jackson's high school career. His summers were consumed by hundreds of games on the AAU and elite-camp circuits.

"That little body can only do so much," Patino said.

And Jackson has never done himself many favors with his diet, which — when he does eat — consists of fast food. He also burns through calories like a match thrown on gasoline. So Patino relished taking Jackson on road trips because he could monitor his diet. There was no question that Jackson appeared almost malnourished at times this season, all sharp-angled limbs and shrink-wrapped muscle, an anatomical sketch in sneakers.

"So that's why I tell people that it'll be unbelievable to see what happens when he gets to college and they balance his meals and do proper training," Patino said. "I want to see how he's going to change. Because we had to force him to eat."

Even if his caloric intake is questionable, Jackson has gained premature access to loftier social strata. He befriended Atlanta Hawks forward Maurice Evans at a summer basketball camp, where the two engaged in a little shooting contest — for $500 per shot, according to Jackson.

"Well, we weren't gambling because I didn't have no money to put up against him," Jackson said. "He was trying to make me win some money. And I got up on him pretty good. But he was like, 'Don't quit on me, don't quit on me. But if you do, we can go to the bank right now and I'll get your money.' So I was like, 'No, I'm going to give you a shot.' He shot me out the gym. He was up $2,000 on me. But he didn't make me pay up or nothing."

It was one of the few occasions he found himself on the losing end. Jackson, the Class AAA Mr. Basketball, averaged 32.3 points, six rebounds and three assists for White Station, which lost to Melrose last month in the state championship game.

But there also was the sense that Jackson was anxious to move on. A few hours after the game, he logged onto Facebook: "Memphis here I come..." In that ellipses was his future, The King ready to rule his empire. Is Memphis ready for him?

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