Commentary

Jack takes unlikely trip to stardom

Updated: February 17, 2010, 10:08 AM ET
By Nina Mandell | Special to ESPN.com

Kadeem Jack's journey from the island of Trinidad and Tobago to must-have recruit sometimes seems like a fairy tale.

Jack, the nation's No. 43 power forward, has a long list of schools after him including UCLA, Arizona and UConn, but he has not always been interested in basketball.

He was sent to live in Trinidad and Tobago with family by his mother, Louisa Hall, at the age of 2, and like most Trinidadian children, grew up on a steady diet of cricket and soccer -- where he played goalie and had dreams of playing for the national soccer team.

Kadeem Jack
AP Photo/Hans PenninkKadeem Jack, a 6-foot-9 forward, is drawing interest from Arizona, UCLA and UConn.

"I wanted to play [in the World Cup] with the Trinidadian team, to play against [Brazil]," Jack remembered.

When his mother completed nursing school, Jack returned to the U.S. -- and his dreams changed. While leaving a local park, he caught the eye of basketball entrepreneur, Damian Leslie, who took one look at this 6-foot-6 baby-faced kid and asked if he wanted to go to Catholic school -- and play ball.

The decision was easy for Hall and Jack, who understood his size could make him a special talent.

"He always said, 'with my height, what else can I do?'" Hall said with a laugh.

Leslie set him up with Maurice Hicks, the Rice (New York) coach who had been the recipient of another recommended player of Leslie's only three weeks prior.

By his sophomore year, Jack was enrolled at Rice and began playing for the Gauchos, a legendary AAU squad in New York. Under the tutelage his coaches and Leslie, he became an intense student of the game.

However, it was a slow journey. For the first two years of his Rice career, Jack spent much of his time on the bench. He sat behind players that included UConn's Kemba Walker and Miami's Durand Scott, something that frustrated him and gnawed at his confidence, Leslie said.

The waiting, however, did teach him maturity and work ethic and Jack continued to climb the Rice roster. That work ethic is on display at the empty park outside of his home, he is often found shooting 100 free throws, 200 jump shots and working on layup drills. Leslie said Jack also works on his ball-handling by dribbling the 25 minutes between their houses.

"They say if you work hard, in a game it shows," Jack said. "I work very hard."

The extra work began to show last January at the Big Apple Tournament. Jack grabbed 11 points, eight rebounds and helped his team to a 71-45 win over Long Island Lutheran.

But the numbers didn't tell the whole story. In the dominating win, Jack says it was the first time he played consistently for four quarters -- earning the attention of not only the Rice coaching staff, but his mother as well.

"She talked about it all night," he said proudly. "She said, 'that's my son, that's my son.'"

That performance helped kick off Jack's recruitment, a process Jack said is overwhelming and gratifying at the same time.

"When it first started, I used to pick up the phone for a lot of coaches and they would talk for half an hour," Jack said. "It was a point where my minutes ran out. I had to wait 18 days for the next cycle."

Jack, now a 6-foot-8 senior, is starting for the Raiders. He joins Kansas State-bound Shane Southwell on a team that could be headed for a state title and Hicks credits much of their success to Jack's physical stature and growing maturity.

"I think right now he's beginning to become a better student of the game and understanding what he can do," Hicks said.

Hicks is not the only one taking notice. After a comeback win against All Hallows, coaches from UCLA and Manhattanville College waited outside of the tiny locker room to say a quick hello. Those coaches join Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan on the list of coaches who have made the trip to see him as well as Jim Calhoun who, despite being on medical leave, called to let him know the Huskies' coaching situation would be stable.

Hicks often checks in and sometimes even referees his star pupil's recruiting process. Georgetown's John Thompson III has said he would call Jack and Kentucky has joined his list of suitors, but Hicks doesn't want him getting too excited before a big weekend for the team.

"I haven't told him about [Kentucky] yet," Hicks said slyly.

When it comes to deciding where he'll play his college ball, Jack remains characteristically understated. His first official visit was to Arizona and he says he wants to visit UCLA, Arkansas and either Miami or Florida.

He might not have decided yet, but for Jack, it will just be another chapter in what's already been an unlikely tale.

"I never knew it would have gotten this big," said Jack. "But it's been a storybook ending."

Nina Mandell is a freelance writer in New York. She can be reached at ninamandell@gmail.com.