Gary Rohman / Special to Bleacher Report
The next great American sports star, Josh Jackson, is looking for a pickup game. Anyone willing to face him. Just anyone.
So he heads to the hotel lobby. The hotel lobby?, you think. His friend, another future basketball superstar, Terrance Ferguson, was surprised the first time he saw it, too. "It kind of confused me." But by now, he's used to it. He sees it every time he's on the road with Jackson for some All-Star or national-team game.
"He just starts asking people if they want to play," Ferguson says. "Anybody. And then he starts playing.
"You see that every time—every time—we walk past a random chessboard."
Yes, the next great American sports star plays pickup chess.
"I mean, you look at Josh," Ferguson says, "and you wouldn't really expect him to be playing chess."
Matt Marton / AP Photo
Remember when we first heard about LeBron James, who had a body like nothing you'd seen before? Well, Jackson, the Kansas freshman projected to be the first pick in next year's NBA draft, has a mind like nothing you've seen before.
It's not just that he's smart, though he is. And it's not just that he has an unusual hobby for a basketball player, though he does.
It's something about the way he talks. He looks you in the eye, waits for you to finish what you're saying and doesn't show a hint of emotion before giving thorough, thought-out responses. That applies whether you're talking something trivial or tragic.
It's something about his focus, about his desire to be in a game, any game, to be competing.
To hear him tell it, it's simple really. "I like thinking games," Jackson says.
"Chess forces you to think about the decisions you're making before you make them, after you make them. Just being able to think before you move, think about what happens if you do this or do that."
But it's also not simple.
Talk to those around Jackson, and this beautiful mind, this beautiful competitive spirit, has been shaped by unusually difficult circumstances, by a need to focus his energy on a competition he can control.
His former high school coach, Tobias Tuomi, explains, "Josh just has this switch in his head," and when he flips it, "there's not a thing in the world that can get to him."
The switch is Jackson's safe place. It's his support base.
It's what allowed him to overcome the call he got after a game during his freshman year of high school. His beloved coach Al Anderson, who had kept coming to practice all year for his players despite having a pacemaker and serious heart troubles, had been taken to the hospital again. And the next call, an hour later: Anderson didn't make it.
"That was the first close person I ever lost in my life," Jackson says.
It wouldn't be the last. Over the three-and-a-half years since, as he has ascended draft boards and played his games around the world, Jackson has lost one male role model after another. His cousin, who he calls maybe his closest friend, was killed while Jackson was in Greece with the USA under-19 team. His dad—Clarence Jones was his stepdad, technically, but Jackson knew him as Dad—died while Jackson was in Las Vegas at a tournament.
"He was always telling me to worry about the things I can control. ... It was special to me because at some point, I was dealing with a lot of things in my life that I didn't have control over."
— Josh Jackson, on his late stepfather
Dad, who taught him to play chess.
"He was a life coach," Jackson says. "He was always telling me to worry about the things I can control. He would always tell me that. What he meant was pretty self-explanatory, but it was special to me because at some point, I was dealing with a lot of things in my life that I didn't have control over.
"It was kind of getting to me. … I was worked up over things I couldn't control."
And what to do when there are things you can't control?
Why not look for a game of pickup?