|Shadowed by tragedy, Darnell Jackson helps send Kansas to Final Four|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 02 April 2008 11:58|
It first found him in Oklahoma, taking his father, leading him to the crime scene of a classmate's murder.
It tracked him down at Kansas, snatching the lives of friends and relatives - his beloved grandmother among them - and maiming his mother.
Tragedy's pursuit has been relentless, flooring Jackson at nearly every turn, cramming a lifetime of heartache into 22 years. But each time, Jackson pulled himself up - sometimes reluctantly - pounding his chest in defiance.
``You have to keep getting up,'' he said. ``It's the only way you can keep going.''
Jackson was in the eighth grade when his absentee father was killed by Oklahoma City police after he attacked a jogger. During his senior year at high school, Jackson stumbled across the dead body of a classmate.
It didn't get better when he arrived in Lawrence. His close friend was killed by gang members, his paternal grandfather died and one of his uncles was beaten to death with a hammer.
Then came the crash.
It was May 29, 2005, and Jackson's mother and grandmother were heading back after taking younger brother Evan to see his father in Las Vegas. An 18-year-old drunken driver swerved into their lane, causing a head-on collision.
Jackson's mother, Shawn Jackson, was left with a mangled right arm and a crushed right ankle. Evon Jackson, the grandmother who calmed a scared or sad Darnell by resting his head on her stomach, died a week later from her injuries.
To honor those lost, Jackson tried to fend off the latest and harshest blow by thumping his chest with a fist after free throws. By the middle of his junior year, the toll had become too much.
With his mother still hobbled and struggling to support her two younger children because of insurance issues, a distraught Jackson packed his belongings and left Lawrence.
Kansas coach Bill Self and director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers immediately flew to Oklahoma. With the help of his mother, they persuaded Jackson to return.
There have been tough times since - he cried at halftime against Boston College on Jan. 5 because his grandmother wasn't there - but mostly the basketball court has become a sanctuary.
``Just having my teammates and family and friends helping me out has meant a great deal,'' Jackson said. ``When I'm on the court, it's like a whole different world, when I'm not worrying about anything.''
And when he's on the court, Kansas is a better team. The 6-foot-8 forward has always had a knack for rebounding, averaging 4.9 in limited playing time as a sophomore in 2005-06 and 5.1 last year. He leads the Jayhawks at 6.7 per game this year.
Now, Jackson has added some offense, too. Once an afterthought, Jackson has become a spark, a spring-legged ball of energy who infuses teammates with enthusiasm.
Always a spectacular dunker on alley-oops and putbacks, he's refined his post game - thanks in large part to assistant coach Danny Manning - and extended his range to near the 3-point line.
Heading into Saturday's Final Four game against North Carolina, Jackson was Kansas' fourth-leading scorer at 11.2 points - nearly double his previous best - shooting a team-best 62 percent from the field.
``He's playing really well and basketball has served as a great distraction from all those negative things,'' teammate Russell Robinson said. ``He's been able to turn those into positives and that's translating into his game.''
But tragedy is never far away.
In February, while playing some of his best basketball, Jackson learned his 19-year-old cousin, Kascey Corie McClellan, had died after being shot a week earlier at an Oklahoma City nightclub.
The news came the same day fellow senior Rodrick Stewart found out his cousin and adopted brother had been shot and killed while waiting at a traffic light in Seattle.
This time, Jackson met tragedy head-on, using it to form a tighter bond his teammates, to become even closer to his family.
His resolve was evident during Senior Night on March 3. He thanked the fans, his coaches and teammates. Then he asked his mother to stand in front of more than 16,000 screaming spectators inside Allen Fieldhouse.
``It hurts so bad because I wish I could take some of your pain away and put it inside me. I love you,'' he told her, setting off a standing ovation.
Now, Jackson is two wins from a national championship. He's on pace to graduate this semester with a degree in African-American studies. Projected as a second-round NBA draft pick, he figures to be playing basketball somewhere at least for the next few years.
Yet there is the haunting question of whether tragedy will find Jackson again. One thing seems certain, though. He will be ready.
``I think it's remarkable with what he's gone through to get to this point,'' Self said. ``To have everything thrown at him, he's still kept his focus and had the discipline to go ahead and see it through.''