Love and basketball

He got game? Not so much anymore, but trying out elevates @kcjhoop's esteem for aspiring pros

The magazine is in mint condition, and Jerome Jackson carries it almost everywhere.

The white lettering and red trim make the date jump off the cover: August 15, 1994. That's the year Time magazine profiled Lake Providence, La., painstakingly poring over poverty's effects on the town of 5,000 Jackson once called home.The issue accompanied Jackson as he first landed a basketball scholarship to a junior college in Missouri, which he parlayed into a two-year ride playing alongside former Bull Trenton Hassell at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn.

Jackson, 31, has carried his motivational magazine to so many professional tryout camps that he might lose count if the stakes weren't so high.

"This is No. 25," Jackson says on the eve of last weekend's first NBA Development League predraft camp at the University of Texas-Arlington.

"It's to the point now where it's not even about me making it anymore. It's just everything I do, word gets back home and people know that I'm at least still trying. That's what I'm trying to relate to the community -- at least keep trying. Even if it takes you 25 times, the 26th time may be the one you need. You never know.

"A lot of kids in my hometown try something one time and they give up if it doesn't go their way. I just went home for the 4th of July and kids asked me, 'Are you going to camp this year?' Even though I know my age is a factor, as long as they keep pushing me, I'm going to keep trying until I just can't do it anymore. If I can inspire anybody, that's my dream."

Dreams, of course, come in all shapes and sizes.

That truism was on full display as 200 players of various talent levels descended upon this town's college campus to play four games in two days under the eyes of D-League coaches and officials.

Their goal was a D-League contract that would pay $12,000 to $24,000 depending on draft status. The NBA and D-League invited the Tribune for a behind-the-scenes, participatory look.

Friday, 9 p.m.

My wife pushed me over the edge.

As I weighed the options -- weekend at home with our 17-month-old son or surely a torn ACL in Texas -- she suggested the opportunity would be "fun" and "once in a lifetime." Of course, she's four months pregnant, so hormones have robbed her brain of any logical thought.

Still, the chance to peek behind the curtain, to play (or get dunked on) with youthful Division I players, to follow George Plimpton's classic lead, pulled too strong.

I was the oldest camper by seven years, so I called my college coach, Bill Knapton, for advice. Knapton spent 40 seasons at Division III Beloit College. After he stopped laughing, he said, "Stop and shoot the jumper. If you drive, your layup will be blocked."

Perhaps that's why I smiled knowingly when my D-League coach, Jaren Jackson, gathered his 10 players for our first team meeting at the camp hotel, pointed at me and asked if I was "a pick-and-pop guy."

My teammates clutched their official uniforms like gold. Jaren Jackson, the ex-Georgetown star and 12-year NBA veteran, drew simple offensive sets with black marker on a white sheet of paper.

Afterward, Arnold Dillworth, a crafty point guard from Tacoma, Wash., burned his nervous energy by inviting everyone to his room for "bonding." Jaren Jackson emphasized rest. A noon tip on Saturday beckoned.

Saturday, 8 a.m.

Long before his first game, Chris Blackman picks at his oatmeal and sausage and studies plays.

"I know a lot of people won't know or follow them, but I think it's the right thing to do," he says.

Blackman, 23, played at Leo High School and now stocks shelves at a supermarket on the South Side. League officials invited the 6-foot-1-inch point guard as one of 30 players who submitted videos off Miller Lite's Go Pro Challenge.

The other 170 campers arrived as invitees of the NBA or D-League officials or because their agents secured spots. Still others, like Jerome Jackson, paid a $500 registration fee out of their own pockets.

Blackman, who never played college basketball, represents the longest of long shots. He's in stark contrast to, say, fellow Chicagoan Marcus White, who played with Ben Gordon as UConn won the 2004 NCAA title, and then transferred to Purdue.

Still, Blackman is already beaming at the memory of a town car picking him up and driving him to O'Hare on Friday and at traveling outside Chicago alone for the first time.

"That's why this is a great experience no matter what happens," the thoughtful, soft-spoken Blackman says. "I was telling one of my friends that it's not a bad idea to travel more, broaden your horizons."

Saturday, noon

Some players already have found their dreams.

Bulls killer Mikki Moore, who recently signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Kings, dominated for the D-League's Roanoke Dazzle in 2002-03. He's here as the camp's honorary spokesman.

"Some of these guys can go astray and get discouraged real quickly," Moore says. "I'm trying to let them know that I had to go through the same thing and I got to where I am. It's time to give back."

It's also time for Moore's advice to a scrawny, 6-foot-3-inch, over-the-hill reporter.

"Take your time," he says. "You ain't got to be in a rush."

Given my quickness level, or lack thereof, that won't be a problem. Moore watches as Jaren Jackson gathers us into a pregame huddle.

"Win on three," he says.

My first jumper is uglier than a Lindsay Lohan mug shot. Luckily, Jerome Jackson, who plays way larger than his 6-5 frame, is a beast down low -- steady, perseverant, relentless. Donielle Davis, a quiet scorer from South Carolina, is equally impressive.

When I hit my first basket, a garbage put-back, I'm tempted to pull a Corey Benjamin. The former Bulls first-round pick used to run downcourt with his index finger aloft after hitting a jumper to pull Tim Floyd's woeful teams within 30.

But there's no need. We're up big. And Jaren Jackson is howling on the sidelines, shouting out "Chicago," his nickname for me, over and over.

Saturday, 3 p.m.

Some players have tasted their dreams briefly and want more.

Melvin Levett was known as "The Helicopter" during his dunk-filled dominance for the University of Cincinnati. The Pistons took him in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft and traded him to the Lakers.

After his brief NBA career, he had stints with the Harlem Globetrotters and nearly every fledgling pro league you can name -- ABA, IBL, IBA. He also started an athletic organization called Mad Hooper Athletics, which stands for Motivation, Attitude, Dedication, Heart, Originality, Optimism, Perseverance, Excellence and Respect.

Currently coaching junior-college basketball in Middletown, Ohio, Levett, 31, is here to show he's more than an acrobatic dunker.

"I feel I can compete at that high level, it's just getting to the right place at the right time," he says. "Now that I've grown and matured a bit mentally and physically, this D-League might be the opportunity.

"Realistically, I have to look at the fact that I might not get many more chances. But if it doesn't happen for me, I won't stop. I feel like I have three or four years left in this game to play before I call it quits. I'm going to give it my all."

Levett's skill level represents the high end for participants. Other campers' play ranges from the sublime to the sloppy. Some games involve legitimate ex-Division I players and players playing professionally overseas. Others feature your JUCO or community college types.

Perhaps that's why our team moves to 2-0 with an easy victory.

Five-man substitutions come every five minutes. Except on free throws, there's a running clock. Can we get a Hallelujah?

Still, my wind is surprisingly strong considering my "training" consisted of slightly increased workouts and not drinking beer for nine days which, trust me, can be as grueling as a five-mile run.

Jackson demands full-court defensive pressure. Of course he does.

Saturday, 6 p.m.

Even coaches have dreams.

Jackson, 39, graduated from Georgetown with a degree in finance but always knew he would enter coaching. He learned from greats like John Thompson, Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich and Flip Saunders.

A rotation player for the 1999 NBA champion Spurs, Jackson spent one season assisting at Georgetown after his retirement in 2002. He then plunged into minor-league coaching -- a brief stint with a Philadelphia ABA franchise that folded, a successful, runner-up finish with Gary in the CBA, another CBA job in Pittsburgh.

"I'm going to be in this for a while," Jackson says. "I loved playing, but this is a way to contribute to the game and have an impact on young lives. You can teach. That's the joy of it."

When the 2007-08 D-League season starts in November, Jackson will assist at Ft. Wayne (Ind.) under Kent Davison, Mikki Moore's coach at Roanoke.

"It's the love of the game," Jackson says. "I enjoy ball at every level, watching my 7-year-old son in rec center games, whatever. I'm not a guy who has ever been caught up in the quote-unquote NBA life. I know everyone looks at that and thinks that's the ultimate goal. And financially it is.

"I was fortunate to be involved in the NBA. But I've met some of the greatest people in the world who enjoy the game of basketball who haven't been near the NBA. You can be successful at basketball without being in the NBA."

Sunday, 8 a.m.

Some players know people who have fulfilled their dreams.

Daniel Artest lives with older brother Ron in Sacramento. The two share the same birthday, same facial expressions, same walk, same laugh and same passion for the game.

The younger Artest played at junior colleges in Nevada and New York. Despite his roundish size and small-time hoops resume, he displays agility and skill. His enthusiasm is infectious.

"Ron's happy for me that I'm chasing my dream, having fun," Artest says. "All I want to do is make my brother and father proud."

After chatting awhile, Artest looks down and sees the official camp shorts hanging below my untucked shirt. A look of surprise and perhaps horror crosses his face: "You're playing in this?"

Kind of.

In fact, I'm pretty sure I just pulled a lung. At this hour, I'm typically building block towers with my son, not getting posted up by Marcus Sloan, who is 6-9, played four years at TCU and currently draws a basketball paycheck in Germany.

I have no chance, and Jaren Jackson knows it. I get benched. We lose by 30. Some dreams are dying.

Sunday, 12:30 p.m.

Other dreams are merely fading, but some are still flourishing.

Blackman rebounds from a rough Saturday performance, by his account, with a solid second day. Still, he isn't confident.

"I thought this camp was just the 30 [video submissions]," Blackman says. "I didn't know it was going to be 200 guys here. So I thought my chances were good. But I don't know now. Who knows? Maybe the coaches saw something.

"If not, when is enough enough? I haven't thought about that. I'll probably still work out and I might give it one more shot. I might work out a lot harder and try to get to one of the teams' camps. I understand the intensity level now."

Indeed, Chris Alpert, the league's vice president of basketball operations, estimates only 10 players from this camp might be signed to contracts and placed in November's draft.

White, who played at Whitney Young High School, understood the intensity needed from the outset. Having played professionally in Lebanon and the Dominican Republic, he knows he has a basketball job somewhere next season.

White, 23, plays with an elegant edge and stealthy shot-blocking ability.

"Sometimes I look at some of the college players I played against and felt I was better than and see they already got millions and I'm still working hard in the grind," he says. "It gets frustrating.

"But I have faith in my skills. Everywhere I play, I dominate, know what I'm saying? So it has to pay off sometime.

"If I'm not making, like, more than high six figures before I'm 29, I have a political science degree. So I would go back and get my masters or something. But that's secondary for now. I don't have any kids. I'm not married. I can get up and go at the drop of a dime. Have to do something with my 20s."

For those of us more than a decade older, the wheels are falling off. If muscle memory exists, it must be short- and not long-term. I've long figured out my role is to set screens, rebound and perhaps score some garbage baskets.

That doesn't keep our team from getting blown out by 40 in our final game, evening our weekend mark at 2-2. Jaren Jackson gathers us, tells us that he loves us.

Then comes tough love.

"None of you should be expecting a call," he says.

The directness dispels all delusion. Players trudge to the bus that shuttles us back to the hotel.

Other than the sound of players text messaging, the ride is silent.

Sunday, 4 p.m.

Freshly showered, Jerome Jackson is waiting for a friend to drive him to the airport. Simply put, he carried our ragtag team all weekend with his play.

An assistant varsity coach at Clarksville (Tenn.) Academy, he also teaches classes in the agricultural field in which he got his college degree.

Unlike the old magazine, that degree is a possession he proudly carries to Lake Providence during his five or six annual trips home.

"Every time I go home I try to talk to the kids and give them hope," Jackson says. "The kids grow up and they have nobody to look up to. They all know me as one of the only kids from my high school to get a scholarship and finish all four years. Most people get one and then quit and go back to Lake Providence and do nothing.

"That's why I take film from these camps and show kids that there may be somebody bigger than me, there may be somebody quicker than me, but they're not going to outwork me. I run up against people all the time where I know they're better than me. But they won't outwork me. I tell kids: Always try to do your best no matter what you're doing."

Jackson looks away, adjusts his glasses.

"If I were to make it, it would do so much for our community," he says. "And that's why I keep trying."

A reporter can dream, too, and have it be nothing about cracking a professional basketball league while nearing 40.

When you cover sports for a living, sometimes the passion and commitment and majesty of athletes can get lost in the police-blotter silliness and million-dollar holdouts.

Then a weekend like this takes place, and those flush feelings of sport for sport's sake come flooding back: players pushing themselves to beat long odds, chase lofty goals.

So at least one dream is realized: Cynicism and jadedness are nowhere to be found.

Back at the hotel, phone numbers and e-mail addresses and hugs and hand slaps are exchanged. Goodbyes are said. The trip to the airport is quick. On board, a beer is poured, impossibly cold and refreshing.

The glass gets raised to dreamers everywhere.

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