My mom likes to call my dad the Kevin Bacon of basketball.
Over the course of his 13-year playing career my father, Jaren Jackson Sr., made a bunch of stops all over the NBA, and he even played a few times in the old CBA, too. At different times, while I was growing up, we lived in New Jersey, Maryland and San Antonio. Dad even won a ring with Pop and the Spurs in 1999. Throughout it all, he handled himself in a way that resulted in him being connected to a ton of people — like, Kevin Bacon.
He used to say that wherever Mom was was home. And, after he retired from playing, when she got a great job offer from the NCAA, we packed up and moved to Indianapolis. The Midwest has been home since then.
Basketball has always been in my blood — I don’t think my parents named me after my dad thinking I’d get into badminton — but living in Indiana elevated my appreciation of the sport that much more. I was in eighth grade when we moved, and being the new kid at that awkward age isn’t easy. I was searching for a way to fit in, and basketball became a big part of my identity.
Fortunately, ball has a way of helping you get into the groove of everything. And it was easy to take basketball seriously in Indiana, because there’s nothing Indiana takes more seriously than basketball. In Indiana, ball is so serious that you can probably miss church and get away with not helping out around the house because you’re on the team and the team has a game and you have to show up because it’s basketball.
The summer after my sophomore year of high school I went to Vegas to play in a pretty big-time AAU tournament in front of a bunch of college coaches.
I was really excited to get out there, but I had one problem: my feet. They were growing — again.
The team gear we got before the tournament was super nice, so I tried everything I could to make it work. I was stuffing my size 16s into size 14s and not telling anyone. Yes, it was painful but… I loved those kicks.
To make matters worse, before that tournament, I was shooting around with some friends, when one of the guys (a college player at the time) threw one down and landed hard on my foot. After it happened, I went through a range of emotions like, Whoa! That dunk! That was dope! But that dude! He. Landed. Right. On. My. Foot.
So basically I went into that big-time tournament with shoes a couple of sizes too small and what would turn out to be a fractured foot. None of that mattered to me though. I could have had two broken feet and I would have played.
I was really on a mission. I had been working so hard on my game, and I wanted somebody to take notice. Before I even set foot on the court, I had visualized the atmosphere: All the college coaches sitting courtside, yukking it up and taking notes. The idea of playing in front of them gave me a little jolt. I wanted their full attention.
I don’t remember the particulars, but I do remember that my team did have one of those games in front of all the coaches — and we played. By the end of it I was in a daze. That’s what playing out of your mind feels like — it takes a while to come down from it. So I wasn’t sure if I had heard right when one of the coaches sitting courtside called my name out loud and said, “I’m gonna offer him a scholarship!”
Huh? What? Did I hear that?
Clearly I had to be out of my mind. That could not have happened. But then he said it again. And pointed right at me! I looked all around for my dad. Before I reacted, I wanted to see how he reacted. When I did catch his eye in the stands, he was just cracking up! Oh he heard it all right.
My mom was not there. We told her about it later, but her reaction wasn’t the same as my dad’s. Her impulse was to begin talking about NCAA rules and how I wasn’t allowed to communicate with coaches. When she started with that, my dad and I just walked away. We had to. She was about to kill my joy! But of course I knew that wasn’t her intention — it was literally her job.
My mom, Terri Carmichael Jackson, is a lawyer. She is currently the director of operations at the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, but at that time she was the director of law, policy and governance for the NCAA. So when I said she took a job at the NCAA, I didn’t mean she worked the tournaments or championships. She was the law. She knew all the rules. And she definitely wasn’t about to let her only child violate them.
My dad understood my excitement, though. He got it in a way that nobody else could. One of the things I love about my parents is that, even though they knew I had a talent for basketball, they let me discover my passion for it on my own. Growing up, I had a bunch of different interests. I swam competitively for a brief period. I got really into downhill skiing and survived plenty of falls. When I was little, I even learned how to sing in Hebrew at the local JCC. When I finally did focus in on basketball, my dad did everything he could to teach me how to play the game the right way. He taught me from his experience and helped me improve. He gave me helpful pointers and hard truths. I’ve always wanted to be just like him, so I tried to follow his lead however I could.
That’s why when he got so excited that day while he was watching me, it gave me a reason to feel really excited, myself. Not only did I make my dad proud, but I also made my hero proud. Every kid who plays ball eventually gets asked to name their favorite player. I always looked forward to being asked that because all my life I’ve been lucky enough to have the perfect answer ready to go:
One of my dad’s favorite keepsakes from his college career is an old, faded, thin white T-shirt with GEORGETOWN and STRICTLY BUSINESS printed on it in blue letters. The whole team got one. His T-shirt might have meant more to him because he was a student in business school, studying for a bachelor’s degree in finance. My dad is an aficionado of old-school rap music, so it’s no surprise that Strictly Business was also the title of hip-hop duo EPMD’s 1988 debut album. (If you didn’t know that, then you didn’t grow up in my house.)
“Strictly business” also describes my approach to college basketball recruiting. I hope that does not come off in a bad way. I just mean that I had to look at it like a process so that I would not get overwhelmed by everything — the attention, the information. There is stuff you want to hear and stuff you need to hear. And until you figure out which is which, it’s hard to stay focused and grounded. I learned a lot about myself when I was being recruited, and I have my parents to thank for that.
My dad didn’t just play basketball at Georgetown. He was a student-athlete. My mom was a Hoya too, though she didn’t play sports. She and my dad graduated together and then she went on to Georgetown Law. She’s a Hoya Lawya. (She swears she didn’t make that term up herself.)
Because of who they are and their career paths, I had a fairly unique recruiting experience — in the best way. My parents really helped me ask the right kinds of questions early on, and they supported my requests for unofficial visits so that I could see things for myself.
Location was one thing that didn’t matter to me so much when I was being recruited. Because of my upbringing, I know I can live just about anywhere.
During the recruiting process, I definitely got a better idea of why my mom called dad the Kevin Bacon of basketball. Assistant and head coaches who were recruiting me always seemed to have some kind of connection to him. Some of the coaches recruiting me were his former teammates! No matter what program was calling, I always felt like the conversations I had with coaches about philosophy, fit, game preparation, style of play and systems were real. With what my dad knows about the game, no one was going to get anything past us. He kept everybody honest.
(I don’t know if he wants this to get out, but he scouted the schools that were recruiting me. He studied rosters and watched film. He prepared scouting reports. He studied the different programs and compared what they were telling us with what he saw. Nobody was crossing up my dad on the recruiting trail.)
My mom also kept everybody honest — obviously. I used to get nervous when she came on visits because everyone else seemed to get nervous, too! Conducting investigations wasn’t her job, but she knew practically everyone in the NCAA’s enforcement department. Some coaches would actually try to make jokes with her about compliance and violations. That would be so awkward!
My parents and I would sit down periodically and talk about my decision. I’ll always remember those discussions: lots of paper and notes on index cards and markers and laughter and feelings of frustration and the sense that we were being overwhelmed. And the questions. My parents asked me questions, and I’d ask them questions. Beyond being my parents, they were also the two best resources any kid could ask for during the recruiting process.
Funny thing is, while I would do my best to answer the questions they had for me, they would encourage me to find the answers to the questions I had for them on my own. At first it felt like a cruel mind game. But eventually I realized something: They were encouraging me to make my own decision. I already had all the information I needed.
Academic concerns were very important to finding the right fit. Most of the schools that were recruiting me had great business and communications programs, which meshed with my interests. But to be honest, basketball was my primary concern — I wouldn’t be happy at school if I was miserable on the court. And finding a good fit in a basketball program was where Dad’s experience was really important.
After a lot of charts, graphs and consideration, when it came right down to it, I really wanted to win.
And not many coaches and teams in the country are better at winning games than Tom Izzo and Michigan State. Coach and his staff came to see me last September, right after he’d gotten inducted into the Hall of Fame. Sure, that made an impression but that’s not a reason for a college decision. Truth is, my game matches up with his hard-nosed style. And he’s a winner. I didn’t want to go someplace where I might score 20 points a game and be on a losing team. It just felt like a good fit.
When I was growing up, the recruiting process was something I desperately wanted to be part of, but the actual work that went into it was stressful. But now that it’s past me, I’m thankful for how I was taught to handle it by my parents. Deciding where to go to college is a big life decision, but in the coming years, I’m going to have a lot of big life decisions to make. Now I feel more prepared than ever to take them on.
I’ve always prided myself on being more than just a basketball player, but I cannot deny or hide, nor will I apologize for, my laser-focus on the sport. I am the son of a professional basketball player and I am named after him. My life was enriched because of his career and the professional and personal relationships he made along the way.
I will absolutely stand on my own two feet (which are now fully healed and size 18, thanks for asking). I will carve my own path and create my own legacy. But I recognize my Dad’s influence and impact on the man I will become one day. He’s already been through everything — recruiting, college, the NBA — and I know I’ll always be able to turn to him for advice on anything and everything. So I’m incredibly thankful for all that he’s done to help me pursue my dream, and everything he will do in the future.
For me, basketball is strictly business, but it’s also a lot of other things. It’s passion, it’s hard work and it’s family.
It’s also just getting started.