Home, friends forge hoops star
Purdue’s Jackson got strength from neighborhood
DECATUR, Ill. – The house looks different now.
The siding is new, no longer riddled with bullet holes. Grass has covered one of the gravel driveways. There’s no basketball hoop.
But when Lewis Jackson looks at the small, white house at 808 East Johns St. in Decatur, Ill., he still sees the place he grew up.
A sparkle comes to his eyes, a smile sneaks to the corner of his lips, and he starts to reminisce.
Right there, in the front yard, he’d play football, “kill the man” and wrestle – complete with championship belts to the winner – with best friends Kyler Works and West Dawson.
See the bit of gravel leading into a makeshift driveway that’s left? That’s one of the spots they’d play ball, honing their dribbling skills by maintaining control despite the rocks. That’s where Jackson’s mom, Zinda, won every time they played.
Turning to the street, Jackson talks about how it’d be overwhelmed with people, mostly youngsters, how no one could “pay the street to be quiet” as kids gathered in their yards until the early morning hours.
Looking down toward Maffit Street, he can see a couple bare rims in the park nearby, and over the hill is the court where he developed his game.
“Best time of our lives,” Purdue’s starting senior point guard Jackson said while he was back home during a three-week break this spring. “I think about that, I guess I’m going to have more fun as I get older, but those days, I don’t regret it.”
Then the mood changes as Jackson’s eyes fix on a spot near a tiny garage, one that barely looks big enough to fit a car.
His voice lowers, barely above a whisper, and Jackson tells another story, another way this street, this town, defined him.
He had raced home from school, even hopped the fence in his excitement to get home quickly. It was his birthday. He heard the arguing before he got in the house. Had heard it before but, still young, didn’t realize the meaning. But then his dad, Lewis III, picked him up and lifted him into the truck, parked in the driveway.
“I’m leaving,” he told his 10-year-old only child, “and, now, you’re the man of the house.”
A click; a realization.
“From that day, I think it gave me my drive just to be better and to do something because then I saw her (Zinda) become a mother and a father,” Jackson said. “Those were the tougher years for her, especially being around here. I now don’t have a father, now the streets are right here, and I was running with the crowd. I’m not even going to call those guys the wrong crowd because they had basketball dreams, but none of us really had father figures. If you had a father, he was in jail or running around.
“I’d seen enough to really make me know I didn’t want that life.”
Lewis Jackson wasn’t perfect after that talk.
He still had to battle the temptations of the street.
Drug dealers gathered on a corner he could see from his window. Some from St. Louis moved into a house on the street to stake their claim to new territory. Two people Jackson grew up with are in jail now for selling drugs.
Violence was part of life. He not only frequently heard gunfire, he’d been in its sights. As a toddler, he slipped out of the house without anyone noticing to ride on his Big Wheel and soon was in the midst of gunfire. When he was older, he was sleeping on the floor in the house on Johns Street – it’s the safest place to be, he says, and still does it now out of habit – when bullets rifled through it. When he was 11, he saw his first shooting – a drive-by – when he was walking back from playing basketball at the court over the hill. His uncle’s house next door was raided by police.
But Jackson wasn’t scared by the environment. Instead, he said he was “intrigued by everything.”
Without getting specific, Jackson said he rebelled when he was in seventh grade and got into some trouble.
But Zinda did everything she could to keep him from it.
She had him in private school.
She had him play soccer, football, baseball and basketball, anything to stay busy after school.
She moved them out of the neighborhood after Lewis’ seventh-grade year, a choice that had him crying because he was leaving all his friends.
Ultimately, Lewis Jackson knew it was right.
He knew the neighborhood was dangerous, saw it “getting crazier the older we got.”
He started to embrace the group of family and friends who surrounded him.
He didn’t want to let down his mom, who had him when she was 19, and the other women who helped raise him: grandmother Lessie Chargois and aunts Sonja Chargois and Tanja Chargois. He appreciated the support and guidance of guys he refers to as brothers – Dawson, Works and Cody and Antonio Carr – and mentor Felipe Phillips.
“We tried to build a circle around him where we didn’t allow certain people in because a kid don’t come out of this town, going to a major school like Purdue, like he was able to,” Phillips said.
“He’s one of the chosen few,” Antonio Carr said.
So Jackson started changing.
He shifted focus to basketball and school.
“Everybody here, all them, they know, the first thing they say, ‘You better keep going. You’re doing the right thing,’ ” Jackson said. “Once everybody saw the way my talent was pushing, it become more, ‘You don’t need to do what we’re doing. You just need to play ball. We’ll help you here and there.’
“Everybody understood I was my own man. If I had to do what I did, I did it. But nine times out of 10, nobody was allowing it. God has blessed me to give me enough people to watch me.”
‘Born to ball’
Jackson slowly walks toward the court, surrounded by trees, at Johns Hill Park.
This is different, too.
There isn’t a crack that runs down the left side, one that helped Jackson learn to control his dribble.
The length has been extended, too, closer to regulation size.
There are actual nets on the rims, the first time Jackson has seen this. People used to steal the nets, he said.
And both rims are the correct height, not having one 6 inches shorter like when Jackson, Dawson and Works played there.
And when the group saunters toward the court, occupied by a one-on-one game with tree branches encroaching enough to alter shots, the memories flood back.
“This is how I learned how to play,” Jackson said. “We always used to hear people say, ‘Go in the gym. Concrete going to tear your knees up.’ But we couldn’t get in the gym. Our high school coaches didn’t really open it up for younger kids. So this is all we had.”
Initially, they’d come during the sweltering summer days – nights were reserved for the high schoolers. But it didn’t take long for them to quickly rise in the ranks of the city’s best and, soon, they were the ones playing in front of packed crowds under the lights.
They’d send out notices on MySpace with the time of games.
People would pull up park benches and surround the court. Girls would come just to watch. Guys who didn’t play ball would come just to be at the hot spot.
“If you could play here and actually play, you probably could play anywhere in Decatur during our age level because the best competition was coming from out South where we were from,” Jackson said.
Everywhere Jackson played, his talent was on display.
Phillips remembers seeing Jackson play for the first time in a three-on-three game when he was in sixth grade. Phillips liked Jackson’s quickness and skills with the ball but was floored by his leadership ability and how hard he went despite being the smallest and youngest player.
Sonja Chargois remembers when Jackson was 3, standing on the edge of the sofa and leaping to dunk it on a hoop hanging on the door.
“We would be like, ‘Boy, you’re going to break your neck.’ But I think it was just always in him,” said Sonja, who considers Lewis more of a brother than nephew because they were in the same house for four years. “I think sometimes you just can’t help what you’re born to do. That was it. He had a love for basketball even before he ever hit the court.
“I think because of that, those other things that were out there, basketball had his attention from the get-go, so he just never fell into that stuff. You can say he’s lucky, but I just think that he was born to ball and that’s what grabbed him at an early age.”
Beating the odds
With that strong support system and a confidence boost by starting as a freshman on varsity, Jackson excelled at Eisenhower High School and landed a scholarship at Purdue.
In the three years since arriving in West Lafayette, Jackson has been a steadying influence at point guard for the Boilermakers while adding unique elements to the program.
No one has his quickness, which allows him to get to the basket and defend opposing point guards with an in-your-face ferocity.
His leadership has been critical, both in what he’s willing to say and by the example he sets in work ethic and toughness.
But it’s not just his presence on the court that impresses people in Decatur.
Family and friends gush about Jackson the man.
He’s matured, is responsible and accountable for his actions. He’s shown he can learn from mistakes. Since being arrested in April 2009 and pleading guilty to charges of illegal alcohol consumption and possession of drug paraphernalia, there have been no more incidents.
He’s opened up a bit, giving others a glimpse into what his family has always seen: a big heart and a generous approach to life.
He’s kept a focus on academics, landing on the “Coach’s honor roll” (minimum 3.0 GPA) and is on target to graduate with a degree in organizational leadership and supervision.
“He already did what nobody does, graduating from college,” Cody Carr said.
“That’s rare. Normally people, they don’t finish college. They start, but they don’t finish. Besides him playing ball, he’s going to have a degree. … The main goal is to get away from here and set up a better living, ’cause if you settle for less, basically you don’t want nothing out of life. So if he strives for what he wants and pursues it and just continues to do it, he can’t do nothing but be a success story.”
To many, Jackson already is.
“Growing up in our neighborhood, a lot of guys his age are either dead or locked up. He has beat the odds,” Sonja Chargois said.