- Dana O'Neil, College Basketball Reporter
- 0 Shares
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Nine years ago, owner Michael Heisley plopped the forlorn Vancouver Grizzlies in Memphis, hoping the city's love for basketball would reverse the fortunes of his franchise.
But what Heisley, NBA commissioner David Stern and all of his associates failed to realize was that Memphis long ago gave its basketball heart away. This city belongs to the other Memphis team in town, the Tigers of the University of Memphis, and the roots of the love affair run deep. The fans aren't fickle and won't be easily swayed by some other fancier or prettier team in town.
The seeds were sewn in 1957 when the program made a run to the title game of the then-prestigous NIT. A little more than a decade later, Larry Finch walked straight into the fires of racial tension and decided to stay home. Memphis was still in the throes of a firestorm following Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination in the city, when Finch defied the advice of others and signed with then-Memphis State.
Four years later, he and the Tigers made it all the way to the 1973 national championship game before falling to Bill Walton and UCLA. It was a memorable and unifying experience for the city, and locals to this day give that racially diverse team a great deal of credit for the community's racial healing.
In the 1980s, it was Keith Lee from just across the downtown bridge in West Memphis, Ark., who led the Tigers to their first No. 1 ranking and another Final Four berth, with a roster of almost exclusively local players. Treadwell High product Elliot Perry took the baton from Lee in the late '80s.
And in the 1990s, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, the Parade National Player of the Year, shunned all other suitors to stay home.
"This is a unique place, a very unique place,'' Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "The DNA here is all Tigers.''
Then along came John Calipari and a consistent run of success unlike anything Memphis had ever known. But as much as Memphians took pride in all that Calipari's teams accomplished, many remained wistful that he didn't do it with a bunch of kids from their hometown.
With that rich yet complicated history serving as his backdrop, Joe Jackson ambled into the scene.
He doesn't look like he's made to carry the burdens and hopes of a city on his shoulders. Wearing an oversized leather jacket, baggy jeans and a baseball cap, the slight-shouldered, reed-thin and undersized Jackson looks like some kid who just happened in off the street.
Not even the big coat can contain a confidence that borders on hubris. Jackson may be small, but he packs a cocksure sense of who he is and what he's supposed to do.
As the 21st-ranked player in his class, Jackson was well aware the pressures he was heaping on himself when the kid from the south side of the city opted to stay home with Memphis.
And that's why he made the choice.
"I want to be remembered,'' Jackson said. "I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'''
Who Jackson is and what he's overcome is exactly why Memphis fans adore him. He is one of them, geographically and demographically.
Jackson grew up in the Orange Mound section of the city. Once a source of pride for Memphis, Orange Mound was the first neighborhood in the United States built by and for African-Americans.
Lillie Cox remembers those days. She, like her classmate Finch, went to Melrose High School in its heyday and remembers the thriving community.
Things change fast in struggling cities and tough economies. Over the years, Orange Mound became just another part of the urban decay in Memphis. The crime rate is well above the national average, and the community, like some others, has been infiltrated by drug dealers.
Only recently have the city and the private sector joined forces in an attempt to revitalize the area.
"When I was growing up, Orange Mound wasn't like it is now,'' Cox said. "People took pride in their homes. It's disappointing to see it change, but the older people died and things changed. Things happened.''
The crime and the troubles sucked up a lot of people, including Lachaundra Jackson, Cox's daughter and Joe's mother. Joe is reluctant to speak specifically about his mother's problems.
Cox said simply that "his mother wasn't able to care for him."
Jackson somehow avoided becoming a statistic. When his friends and even his older brother made the wrong choices, Jackson went to the basketball court. He'd spend hours there, mimicking moves he'd watched and studied on television until he got them right.
The playground had no lights and was surrounded by trees, but even in the pitch-black Jackson would play, staying out until 2 or 3 a.m.
"I got to see a lot at a young age, stuff you shouldn't see as a kid,'' Jackson said. "Me? I just went to the park and didn't leave. Everyone knew where to find me."
Even though Jackson ignored trouble, it still affected him. By seventh grade he was one of the better players in the area, but his coach told him he couldn't play.
He had missed too much school.
Jackson wasn't your typical truant. He wasn't against school. He simply had no means to get there.
"I had no clothes, no transportation and no one really telling me what to do,'' Jackson said.
That coach called Cox, and that night she drove over to her daughter's home and told her grandson to come live with her.
It wasn't supposed to be forever.
But Cox, a service coordinator at Baptist Hospital for the past 36 years, could offer the emotional and financial stability her daughter couldn't.
She took in Jackson, as well as his two younger sisters, and went to work as early as 5 a.m. so she could be home in the afternoons after school.
That was six years ago. Jackson still goes home to get his laundry done. His sisters are still there.
Cox, who everyone (including Pastner) calls "Miss Lillie," has a quiet voice and a sweet manner. She was not, Jackson said, a strict disciplinarian. Instead, she raised her grandchildren on sound advice, counting on their ability to do right and their desire to not disappoint her.
"I really didn't have too many problems because he understood what I was trying to teach him,'' Cox said. "It was a challenge, and I put my life on hold a little bit, but my time will come. This was his time. This is what I needed to do.''
Jackson maintains a relationship with his parents, explaining simply, "The Bible tells you to honor your parents and I do." But he knows that without his grandmother he could easily have slipped and disappeared.
It is because of his struggles -- perhaps even more than his successes -- that Memphis embraces Jackson.
He is a kindred spirit and kid who didn't have it easy and had to work and survive to make it.
"So many of these kids, like Joe, have special backgrounds, difficult backgrounds,'' said Jesus Patino, Jackson's high school coach. "People here can relate to that. They know what they've been through because they've been through the same. They want to see them do well, but they want to see them do well here. They can identify with these kids because they're just like them.''
Well, perhaps not on the basketball court.
On the basketball court, Jackson is like few others. He scored 3,451 points in his high school career at White Station, growing into an urban legend whose electrifying abilities were all the more jaw-dropping because of his size.
Fans weren't the only ones impressed. College coaches were, too. On the first day that they were officially allowed out, a who's who in the coaching ranks planned on flying to Memphis to watch Jackson practice.
The day before, Jackson called Patino.
The two had become far more than coach and player during Jackson's time. Patino is a Venezuelan immigrant and one of seven kids raised by a scrappy and worldly mother not unlike Lillie Cox. When Jackson arrived at White Station, he wasn't sure who he could trust.
Slowly, he found someone in Patino. The two spent hours in the coach's office, talking about basketball and about life and its challenges and pratfalls.
When critics questioned if Patino was molly-coddling Jackson, accusing the star of being uncoachable, it was Patino who defended him. He admitted that yes, the practice rules sometimes were different for Jackson, but it wasn't because the player wouldn't practice. It was because the coach didn't want the player to abuse his body.
So when Jackson called Patino and threatened not to practice unless he told all of those other coaches to go away, Patino knew he was serious.
"I got all of these coaches on the phone and told them to stop the Lear jets,'' Patino said. "Joe didn't want to waste anyone's time. He knew where he was going.''
Jackson knew all along, as far back as the ninth grade. But when he made if official, announcing his decision to sign with Memphis in September 2009, the city celebrated.
"Every time I step on the court, it's with a purpose,'' Jackson said. "Guys on the team here who are from Baltimore or Georgia, it's just different. Everybody here knows who I am. Some of them love me for it and some of them hate me, but they all know me.''
Jackson, Pastner said, is built for the big stage. But it is one thing to be the star of the high school court and another to be the star at FedEx Forum.
Jackson swore he knew what he was getting into, that he knew the scrutiny would come in more waves than the praise.
But knowing it and living it aren't one and the same. Pastner has been admittedly harder on Jackson than some of his other players, recognizing not only Jackson's ability but also how critical he is to the Tigers' success.
He is averaging 10.8 points and 4.0 assists per game and has one posterizing YouTube sensation dunk on his stat sheet already.
He also is shooting 23 percent from 3 and is coughing the ball up 3.6 times per game as he tries to learn how to be more of a floor leader instead of the scoring point guard he was in high school.
"Being a hometown kid, you're so excited to stay home and play for the University of Memphis, but you have no idea how hard it is to stay home and play for the University of Memphis,'' said Hardaway, still a legend in these parts. "You have to perform every single night because the people here, they don't think you're just representing the school. You're representing them.''
In some ways, Jackson is even more critical for the city and the team than Hardaway. Hardaway signed on when Memphis kids still played at Memphis.
Sure some local names have littered the roster in the years in between, but Jackson is one of a handful of truly national recruits from this basketball-rich city to stick around since Hardaway.
And the suspected dividends didn't take long to come due. In October, Adonis Thomas, rated eighth in the ESPNU 100,
announced that he, too, would stay home in Memphis.
Thomas' decision brought things almost full circle for the basketball community here.
This year Thomas will graduate from Melrose High School, alma mater to Finch.
"Joe started a trend,'' Hardaway said. "This team has been successful for a long time, but now it's going to be successful with local guys. That's different. That's special. It's going back to how it used to be.''
The tattoo stretched across Jackson's chest is little more than inked blasphemy.
He got it on a whim in the 10th grade with his friends because, in the age-old wisdom of teenagers everywhere, "everyone else was getting one."
The tattoo reads King of Memphis.
"I know there's already a King in Memphis,'' Jackson said. "That's all right. Elvis can be the king of music. I'll be the king of basketball.''
Just ask around.
He already is.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because of his struggles -- perhaps even more than his successes -- the city of Memphis and its basketball team have embraced hometown hero Joe Jackson.