KU's Darnell Jackson leaned on his support system to get through rough times
By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
OKLAHOMA CITY | The names are written on a white sheet of paper, and Shawn Jackson won't let them go.
On this February afternoon, she's giving a tour of Darnell Jackson's Oklahoma City. Not the places. The people.
Darnell and Shawn went back and forth about who to include on the list, but they finally came to an agreement. It was so typical Darnell, deciding that his story should be told through the voices of others.
"Don't give your credit away, Darnell," Shawn has often told her son.
The first lesson you learn about Darnell Jackson: It is never about him. Try as hard as you want, but the Kansas senior forward simply won't take credit for anything.
"It's as if he's embarrassed just to say something good about himself," Shawn says.
The list should help explain. Shawn is eager to introduce what she calls her village, the network of souls who helped a 16-year-old mother get her son on track. The boy lost his father when he was 13, and the village would grow larger. It would have to, if the boy was ever going to amount to anything.
"Everybody that came through my life," Darnell says, "I took a little bit from each person and put it all together, and I guess it came out as me."
The first name on the list takes you to a small church on the outskirts of town. That's where you meet Cory Colbert.
Colbert walks into the sanctuary and sits down in a pew to talk. He's helped hundreds of kids just like Darnell Jackson in his day ... well, maybe not just like him.
Colbert remembers when Jackson first walked through the doors of the Oklahoma City Parks & Recreation building at McKinley Park. It was spring break during his eighth-grade year, and Jackson had been caught at the scene of a burglary. The two other boys involved had to serve time in juvenile custody, but Jackson was given community service. Turns out, he was given Colbert, too.
Jackson was at his lowest when he walked through those doors. He had lost his father, James, that year, and there was no telling where the pain would lead him. James was a drug addict who was shot and killed by an Oklahoma City police officer when he attacked a woman jogger. James was not around much for Darnell, but he was his father nonetheless.
"You look like a basketball player," Colbert first said to Jackson. "You don't look like a thief."
Jackson had always played football. He'd talk about playing tight end someday in the pros. Basketball? Despite being about 6 feet 4 at 13, he had no interest. But because Darnell had to do community service, he had no choice but to hang with Colbert and learn how to play the game. They'd practice the basics - dribbling, shooting, passing - and it wasn't pretty.
"He was uncoordinated, for real, man," Colbert says. "I like a challenge."
It took all summer, but Colbert got Jackson to where he needed more competition than the little kids at the rec center. Colbert started making Jackson play in the men's leagues on Monday nights. He wouldn't be soft for much longer.
"I was scared to play with them guys," Jackson says. "Guys that were fresh out of jail or guys that had been in jail."
The men would bully Jackson, beating him up and calling him "sorry" and a waste of height. Every time, Colbert was there when he'd fall.
"Stand your ground," he'd say.
Sometimes, after those games, Darnell and Cory would sit in Cory's truck and talk for hours. Darnell would cry, and Cory would cry with him.
Darnell had always been a crier. When his little brother and sister would get spankings from Shawn, Darnell would cry for them. He just cared too much about others. At least with Cory, Darnell wasn't alone with his thoughts anymore.
"When they call you sorry," Colbert would say, "that means you're getting better. Let them talk about you. Because you're going to be somebody."
Jackson had never heard that before.
"I always wanted to be around him," Jackson says.
In a short time, Colbert had ignited the fire inside Darnell Jackson. It was time for high school, for new battles and new friends.
Shawn Jackson grabs a pen and scratches out Cory Colbert's name. It's on to lunch at Panera Bread, where Mary Deaton and Kenya Kraft are waiting.
It doesn't take long to realize that Deaton and Kraft, now retired, were once the cool high school teachers. Their smiles are welcoming, and they love telling their favorite Darnell stories. Basically, as soon as Jackson arrived in their classrooms in the ninth grade, he stole their hearts.
Their rooms were right across the hall from each other at Northwest Classen High School. If you were looking for Jackson, that's where you went. Sometimes, he'd skip his other classes and just hang in theirs. It wouldn't be long before he was calling them his "mothers of another color."
What left a lasting impression on Darnell's new mommas was his ongoing basketball development. Despite the rawness of his game, Classen coach Gary Wright called Jackson up to the varsity his freshman year. Those first two seasons, Deaton and Kraft went to all the games. One moment has stuck out in their memory ever since.
"He only played under the basket," Deaton says. "Somehow, he got the ball and started down the court, and it was, 'Oh my God, Darnell has got the ball!' His grandmother was yelling, 'Give it to somebody! Give it to somebody! You can't dribble!' "
Eventually - Wright remembers it being about halfway through his sophomore season - Jackson started dominating games.For so long, he'd had it in his head that he couldn't do anything on the basketball court. When it started coming naturally to him, it was overwhelming. Maybe Colbert was right.
Darnell had carved out a home in the halls of Northwest Classen. The only problem was, the school wasn't adequately preparing Jackson to pass through the NCAA clearinghouse. In March of his junior year, Jackson still hadn't passed algebra I, and he was taking some general math classes that wouldn't cut it with the NCAA.
Shawn Jackson may have received lots of help from her village - her mother, her sisters and her brother - over the years, but she was going to handle this one herself. Shawn decided that she had to move her family to a new school district where Darnell could get the proper help to qualify. She chose Midwest City.
But Darnell would never leave Deaton and Kraft.
"If you're lucky enough to have him as a friend," Kraft says, "he'll be your friend forever."
Don Davis knows what she means. More than two years after the NCAA handed Jackson a nine-game suspension for his improper relationship with Davis, a KU booster, Jackson and Davis are still friends. Darnell calls him "Double D."
Davis knows there is an image of him as a seedy booster who performed under-the-table dealings to get Jackson to choose Kansas. He told his side of the story for the first time recently over sushi in Edmond, Okla. The way Davis explains it, to understand Darnell's story is to understand his own.
The seminal moment of Davis' life was when his father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 13. Davis became a Christian at age 37, and his mission became to help young men overcome the loss of their fathers. He saw a United Way video of Jackson talking about some of the adversity he had overcome with the help of Colbert, and his interest was piqued.
Davis, a huge KU basketball fan, would often go to the games of former KU player J.R. Giddens when he was in high school. Davis saw Jackson, a friend of Giddens', at a game and struck up a conversation. At that point, Roy Williams was the coach of Kansas, and Darnell was not being recruited by the Jayhawks. After one conversation, Davis was hooked.
"As I got to know Darnell," Davis says, "it became very obvious to me, Darnell didn't relate to anybody. Everything in Darnell was inside. It became a crusade for me to be the one that was going to get inside this kid's head and let him open up and pour out some of the pain."
It didn't happen easily. Davis knew he had to be consistent to earn Darnell's trust. He'd call Shawn every morning before he went to work to see if she needed anything.
Don and Darnell would talk on the phone for hours at a time. One night, about a year after they first met, it happened for Davis. A breakthrough.
"If it wouldn't have taken time," Davis says, "it wouldn't have been real."
By that time, Kansas had hired Bill Self to replace Roy Williams, and Self had told Jackson that it was either going to be him or eventual Missouri Tiger Kalen Grimes wearing crimson and blue. By that time, Jackson and Davis were so close that there was no way they were going to break their ties.
"We had that soul connection," Davis says. "Basketball is great, but when you lose your dad, that's a critical part of you. He related to me. He didn't have that in his life."
Says Jackson: "I never imagined one time just trying to use him because he had money or I knew he could get me things I wanted. It was like a father-son relationship. He was our godfather."
Jackson would have to stop talking to Davis at the worst possible time. In November of 2005, Jackson was grieving the loss of his grandmother, Evon Jackson, who died in a car accident in June of that year. Shawn was critically injured in the accident and battled depression in the aftermath. All the while, Darnell was in Lawrence, discovering that the NCAA had found $5,000 worth of improper benefits exchanged between him and Davis.
Davis and Jackson were ordered to cut off communication.
"It hurt a lot," Jackson says, "because to this day, people don't know the real story."
It was Davis whom Darnell called on May 29, 2005, when the accident happened. It was Davis who took him out for Taco Bueno that night, listened to him sob and bought him a couple of tacos that would later be reported as a $1.50 NCAA violation.
Jackson had put aside the loss of his father as best he could, but he could not stomach losing Evon. Jackson, above all else, was a grandma's boy. She had always been the most important member of his village.
"His grandma was everything," Deaton says. "Grandmas are a safe haven."
It all became too much for Jackson. By Christmas break of his junior year, he had decided to transfer from KU. He packed up his dorm at Jayhawker Towers, every last possession, and headed down Interstate 35 in his girlfriend's SUV. In his mind, he wasn't needed at Kansas. He was needed at home.
For Jackson to come back to Lawrence, the village would have to grow once more.
It's Senior Night at Allen Fieldhouse, and Darnell Jackson never thought this moment would come. His teammate, Rodrick Stewart, brings him a couple of Kleenex as he begins his speech to 16,300 fans.
"Coach Self," Jackson says, "I just want you to know that when I leave here, I hope I have a place in your heart and your home. You helped me out a lot. I love you for that. Thank you."
Bill Self joined the village in January of 2007 when he flew down to Oklahoma City to convince Darnell to come back and finish his career at KU. Shawn didn't know what to do; she sure could have used him at home, but she wanted to do what was best for him. Shawn told Self the only thing she could, that Darnell didn't feel needed at KU.
It was Self's job to convince Jackson that he was wrong, and it may go down as Self's greatest recruiting pitch yet. Darnell decided not to transfer.
That night, Darnell walked into his mom's bedroom. He was ready to let her in.
"Momma," he said, "I didn't want you to know what I was going through because of what you're going through."
Finally, for the first time since Evon died, Darnell cried in front of Shawn. He told her about how he would lay his head on Evon's stomach when he was sad. At that moment, Shawn put Darnell's head in her lap.
"Darnell," she said, "I'm sorry."
Jackson has been a new man ever since. His tear ducts are always open, his emotions sometimes too available. His free mind, as Self calls it, has helped him evolve into one of KU's most reliable players. This week, Jackson was named a consensus All-Big 12 third-team selection. Most importantly, he will graduate with a degree in African-American studies.
While everyone around him talks about the NBA, Jackson says "it's a big if." NBA, European ball, no ball at all, it doesn't really matter to Jackson. Early in his career, he thought about being a nurse. Now, after basketball, he wants to help kids, maybe through a Boys and Girls Club or something like that.
"I want to believe in that next kid," Jackson says, "tell him, 'You can do something great with your life.'
"I care so much about people," Jackson says. "When I was getting older, I was realizing how crazy the world is and that people really don't care. I told myself, 'Every day, I will always smile and always be that person that would care.' "