Jackson has clear mind, big ideas for senior season

Family tragedy in past, forward becomes frontcourt force

Kansas forward Darnell Jackson, left, and guard Brandon Rush laugh together during a timeout against Florida Atlantic. The Jayhawks will finish their nonconference slate tonight against Loyola (Md.).

Darnell Jackson, left, and Bill Self shake hands after a victory against Eastern Washington. About a year ago, Jackson told Self he was thinking about moving home to be with his family. The

Shawn Jackson, so strong and brave around her son, Darnell, before and after her 10 surgeries the past two years, no longer could mask the pain.

Following last July’s triple fusion procedure to repair ankle, heel and talus injuries sustained in a May 29, 2005, car crash that claimed the life of her mother, Evon, Shawn confided in her oldest of three children she was hurting … badly.

“Darnell sat there in the hospital. The doctor’s assistant came in and my leg was bleeding. It was horrible. So bad. He saw me crying for the first time since his grandmother’s funeral,” Shawn said of Darnell Jackson, Kansas University’s 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior basketball forward from Midwest City, Okla.

“I said, ‘I’ve been in pain two years, and I can’t do it any more.’ Darnell said, ‘Mom, if you can hold on, I will help you. I will help you,”’ Shawn Jackson, victim of a drunk driver who is currently serving 10 years in prison, related.

A strong woman, Shawn did recover from her latest surgery with the support of Darnell’s younger siblings – Ebony (18) and Evan (16), who live in her Midwest City, Okla., home – as well as Darnell, who returns to Oklahoma when he can and cell-phones his mom two to three times a day.

“I love talking to her. It helps a lot when she calls and lets me know exactly what is going on,” Darnell said of Shawn, who has come to grips with the fact she is “disabled for life.”

Shawn looks at the bright side …

“She tells me I don’t have to worry about anything. She’s doing great. Knowing that has helped me a lot,” Darnell said.

Behind the smile

Knowing mom is doing so well two years after both her leg and forearm were shattered in the senseless accident has helped Darnell Jackson fully embrace his final year at KU.

There are times he’s still overcome with emotion – like Saturday when he was brought to tears at halftime of a blowout victory at Boston College thinking of his beloved grandmom. More often than not, however, Darnell has been carefree on the court through 14 games of the season.

He not only rejoices after amazing plays like his one-handed catch of a lob and dunk against DePaul and driving spin move for a hoop versus Yale. The big guy smiles and beats his chest after big plays by his teammates, too.

“I enjoy smiling. I know I have a great smile. I get it from my mom,” said Darnell, smiling Monday after being named Big 12 co-player of the week with Texas’ D.J Augustin as a reward for a career-best 25-point outing against the Eagles.

“When I am out there having fun and smiling, I think it helps my teammates get a little boost of energy so we can play harder for the fans.”

Watching Darnell smile makes mom, who attends some home games in person and watches the rest back home on TV, smile.

Her son, who first played organized basketball in ninth grade, has blossomed into a bonafide college standout, a player averaging 12.5 points (second-best mark on team) and team-leading 6.7 rebounds who has started to attract the interest of NBA scouts.

“He’s always been happy,” Shawn said. “It’s just that his first three years were hard because of everything that had happened – him taking everything in and dealing with it on a day-to-day basis.”

That includes the death of his dad at the age of 13, as well as deaths of an uncle, cousin and childhood friend the past few years.

Also there was the NCAA-mandated nine-game suspension Jackson’s sophomore year as punishment for accepting benefits from a booster, not to mention his persistent back problems.

“He’s at the end. He knows he’s going to graduate on time. He knows things are good at home. More than anything he loves the game,” Shawn Jackson said. “My family … the couple of games they’ve seen, they are, ‘Oh gosh, he’s playing well.’ I said, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet.'”

Shawn figured something special was happening last summer when her son worked out day and night at Oklahoma City University.

“I think practicing with those guys (OKC players) every day gave him confidence. He got it through his head, ‘I didn’t just come to Kansas to be a role player,'” Shawn said. “I had not seen him play this summer because of my surgery, but I heard he was doing well. Now I’m in awe. I knew he’d gotten better. Seeing him now … oh my gosh, it’s wonderful.”

“I worked hard all summer,” Darnell said. “I watched some of the moves of ‘Shady’ (Darrell Arthur) and Sasha (Kaun) and some of the things coach (Danny) Manning told me practiced moves on my own.”

From square one

The only moves the standout football tight end had on the court when he took up the sport in ninth grade at Oklahoma City’s Northwest Classen High School were ones that resulted in turnovers.

“He couldn’t play. I won’t lie,” Shawn said.

Why did he even try?

“I did it because one of my best friends asked me to go out for the team with him,” Darnell said. “We made the freshman team. The next day we made the varsity team. I wasn’t very good but stuck with it the whole way.”

He was supported all the way by Shawn and her brother – Darnell’s beloved uncle, Edred, the father figure in his life.

“Darnell didn’t have any coordination in basketball,” Edred recalled. “He had never played it at all. I think he didn’t think he had it. Like most kids … they want to come out and be Michael Jordan as soon as they touch the ball. I always told him, ‘You’ve got to practice real hard.’ He was discouraged he wasn’t as good as other kids his age.”

A good athlete, Darnell improved quickly at basketball.

He averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds a game his junior season at NW Classen. He moved to Midwest City High his senior year and posted 18 points and 16 boards a game.

Darnell orally committed to KU the summer before his senior year, having also received interest from Oklahoma, Arizona, Illinois, Purdue and New Mexico.

He averaged 2.0 points and 1.7 rebounds while playing sparingly his freshman season, upping the numbers to 6.3 points and 4.9 boards his soph campaign and 5.5 points and 5.1 boards last season before erupting as a senior.

“I am real surprised about it. I never knew I’d get this far playing at the University of Kansas. Everything is coming true,” Darnell said.

Not only because of the work he put in last summer, but the fact he’s at peace with everything going on around him.

“He’s improved a ton,” KU coach Bill Self said. “He’s a smart player. He grasps things quickly. He’s a good shooter, good passer. Look at how many points he scores off hustle plays. His enthusiasm is infectious.

“But the biggest reason he’s playing well?” Self asked. “He’s playing well because his mind is free. That is the biggest reason.”

Self would know. Last year about this time he embraced Darnell at the conclusion of a lengthy meeting in Self’s office in which Jackson pondered giving up the sport so he could move home, be with his mom and continue to mourn the loss of his grandmom, whom he refers to as “an angel.”

“The hand that’s been dealt to that family … you’d say no family can endure that much,” Self said.

Self said he’d abide by any decision Darnell made. His uncle and mom convinced him to remain in college.

Good decision.

“He is playing now without a lot of things weighing on his mind,” Edred Jackson said. “Darnell is a kid you never know what is really on his mind. Ask him and you may never get the full understanding. I can definitely see he is having fun. He is not holding back. He sees the sky is the limit.

“I tell him, ‘You work hard at something and good things will come out of it.”’

‘Nobody can stop him’

So many good things are happening – Darnell, whose middle name is Edred, has had more highlight-reel plays this year than his previous three combined – his own teammates are in awe.

“He’s doing whatever he wants to do,” junior Brandon Rush said. “Scoring, rebounding, passing, dunking … whatever he wants. He’s gotten so much better. Nobody can stop him. He’s always smiling, never depressed. I think there was a lot more on his mind last year.”

“Darnell,” fellow senior big man Sasha Kaun said simply, “is a beast.”

A big, lovable beast.

“I like the way the fans have connected to him. I think they are drawn to him after all the stuff he’s been through,” Self said.

KU fans gave Darnell a prolonged standing ovation after his spin move and layup and ensuing free throw versus Yale.

“Everybody at KU has a sense of pride about his progress. They watched him go through everything from start to finish. It’s a special story,” Self added.

A story that may continue beyond this season.

Shawn Jackson says she’s heard from some agents who may want to represent Darnell once his KU career is complete.

“They say, ‘I enjoy watching him play.’ They can talk to me. I say I’m not ready for all of that,” Shawn said, noting Darnell is focused only on KU.

“We’re on the same page. Right now we are worrying about every game,” she said.

“Nah,” Jackson said, asked if he was an NBA prospect. He’s listed as a second-round choice on NBAdraft.net. “I don’t know anything about showing up on the boards of the NBA. If it happens, it happens. I can’t predict the future. I just stay focused and keep playing.”

You know he will keep smiling.

“He’s always had that smile. Even in bad times he could throw that smile out there,” uncle Edred said. “It’s been a shield a long time. Now he’s letting his guard down. He’s enjoying life.”