The Gamer

NBA top prospect Josh Jackson learned at too young an age he can't control life and death. But he can control wins and losses.

By Greg Couch

November 7, 2016

Bleacher Report

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."

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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?


Gary Rohman / Special to Bleacher Report

As of four years ago, Jackson couldn't beat his mom in basketball—not one-on-one, not H-O-R-S-E. He couldn't beat his dad in chess, either.

Not once. Not ever.

It is telling that his parents never let him win. Not once. Not ever.

"That made me better," he says.

There is really no such thing as a normal childhood anymore. Who's normal? Jackson's version of childhood came with a loving family...and with a mom, Apples Jones, who had no problem knocking him to the court in a basketball game.

Jones declined to speak for this story, but she was described by people around Jackson as very tough, very loving, very protective.

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Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

"Just around, or out in public, my mom likes to stay to herself pretty much," Jackson says. "But any time she comes to one of my games, she's really, really loud. You can hear her out of everybody in the gym. It depends on what type of setting she's in, really.

"The main thing she always taught me is to make sure I'm always learning from mistakes. Never make the same mistakes other people make, and never make the same mistakes again. And then you become better and better."

Jackson's mom explained to him that she was a top basketball player herself but did not take school seriously enough. She grew up in Detroit, went to a community college in Kansas, then made it into University of Texas-El Paso—but she didn't finish there.

She learned from mistakes, though, and would not let her son make the same ones.

"When I was a kid, I didn't really like school," Jackson says. "But my mom was tough on me and made me realize grades were important—I mean important to myself as well."

Tough on him off the court, and tough on him on it.

"When I was young, we had a basketball hoop in the backyard, and I would always go out there and play," Jackson says. "Sometimes my mom would come around, joke around with me, play me one-on-one. She'd play me seriously. She wouldn't let me win. She wouldn't let me score. I was maybe eight or nine years old, and she would foul me pretty hard sometimes, trying to make me tougher a little bit.

"I think it worked. I finally ended up beating her when I was 14 or 15 years old. And since then, I've never played her again."

It was his dad, though, who taught him how to play chess.

"I was in about the third grade," Jackson says. "At school, nobody ever wanted to play. Nobody knew how. I wanted to know. My dad started to teach me on a chessboard we had at home. I went back to school and started playing and showing my friends how to play.

"We got other kids into it, too."

Thanks to Jackson and his dad, the school started a chess club.

"My dad and I played all the time. I never beat him before he died. Not once."

Think of all that quiet time together between father and son. Thinking first, then acting. Building up that mind and spirit.

"He has a great IQ both on the court and off the court. It's way, way, way beyond his years."

— Kansas coach Bill Self, on Josh Jackson

Kansas coach Bill Self says he hasn't spoken with Jackson yet about his dad or some of the tragedies in his life. But he appreciates the result of this upbringing.

He describes Jackson as a "very deep thinker, ridiculously bright and articulate."

"He has a great IQ both on the court and off the court," Self says. "It's way, way, way beyond his years."

That's what separates Jackson from any old top prospect to Self, who has seen plenty of them: his smarts and his "competitive spirit."

"He'll go for your throat," Self says. "He hasn't really surprised me from a talent standpoint. The thing that surprised me is that he doesn't have to score points or shoot the ball.

"He doesn't have to do the things people on the outside equate with success."

The people on the outside haven't seen a sports star anything like this.


Brian D. Kersey / Getty Images

Vincent Hunter sure remembers the first time he met Josh Jackson. Hunter was the star player on the basketball team at Consortium College Prep in Detroit, and Jackson was a seventh-grade kid. Hunter was enlisted to try to get Jackson to come to Consortium.

"Yeah, Coach Al told me about this kid who was really good. Competitive, loves to play, works really hard," says Hunter, who played professionally in Greece last year and was recently waived by the Memphis Grizzlies. "I was recruiting him. And the first time I met him, he told me, 'I bet I can beat you in a dunk contest right now.'

"I said, 'Whoa, you've got to get a couple years under your belt before you can challenge me.' When he got to high school, he challenged me every day in practice, to a dunk contest, one-on-one, everything."

Jackson joined Hunter at Consortium. Jackson a freshman, Hunter a senior, they became the stars of the team and close friends. Hunter wisely never accepted the challenge to a dunk-off.

In February 2013, Consortium beat Dayton Dunbar 81-44. Jackson scored 27 points and Hunter 24. And then Jackson got the first test of his inner switch.

"I got a call from one of my teammates saying that Coach Al had to be taken to the hospital, and I didn't really think much of it at first," Jackson says. "I thought he was going to be OK because all throughout the season, he'd been making hospital trips.

"But then an hour after that, I received another phone call that he didn't make it. I just couldn't believe it. I didn't know how to deal with it."

He felt as if he were walking in a fog.

"We opened our eyes and said that Coach Al would have wanted us to continue to keep playing, living out his memory. So we did."

— Josh Jackson, on high school coach Al Anderson's death

Hunter, who had just lost the coach he had been close to for years, says he was worried about Jackson when Coach Al died.

"Josh came to me and talked," Hunter says. "He cried a little bit. We were very close. He looked up to me so much. I'm like, 'Wow, I've got to do the right thing here and take him under my wing.' These kids have to go to school, go to class. I tried to take a back seat about how I was feeling.

"Josh was a tough kid. It was just amazing to me. We held each other together."

All that from a high school kid.

"People were talking about canceling games after that," Hunter says. "But Coach was straight up with us that he was having heart problems. And with Josh and me and everybody else, we said, 'We're not canceling any games.' Coach Al didn't cancel games while he was sick. The tournament was coming up, and we knew that's not what he would have wanted from us, to cancel games."

"It hit us hard," Jackson says. "But we opened our eyes and said that Coach Al would have wanted us to continue to keep playing, living out his memory. So we did."

They went right back to winning. The next game was an 82-48 win over Dearborn Heights. Jackson scored 18 points. He flipped the switch.


Gregory Payan / AP Photo

At this point, Jackson was already becoming a national name in the basketball world. Everyone knew him, and people started wanting a piece of him.

Hunter graduated and went on to UTEP—getting an excited note of congratulations, he says, from Jackson's mom—and principal Rod Atkins needed to hire a new basketball coach in a community high on the prospect of having a superstar and a possible state title for the next season. Or two. Or three.

"For all the wrong reasons, people wanted to coach Josh," Atkins says. "The beauty of it was that Josh was a good kid, a National Honor Society kid, and my promise to his mom was to work with him on his education. It was a perfect storm for us. We were a little crackerjack school. The kids called it 'the box.' It was a little rectangle, and we were fortunate to be building a new school.

"So many people applied for the job. That included some real numbskulls and lowlifes and people who, for all the wrong reasons, wanted to coach Josh. I needed to put someone in place with strong morals and strong ethics, and not one of those guys who wanted to hold onto Josh's coattails.

"I basically hired a white guy from Indiana. You wouldn't believe the flak I took. I was called every name in the book."

That white guy from Indiana was Tuomi, and Atkins knew of Tuomi's family coaching history. He also liked that Tuomi was an outsider—"from way outside," Atkins says—who wouldn't have selfish designs on Jackson.

Thanks to YouTube, Tuomi was able to watch video of Jackson before he moved to Detroit.

His first thought?

"Wow! This kid's a freshman?"

"And then I got to work with him," Tuomi says. "I just had no idea somebody could be that competitive. Oh, my God. He's the most competitive person I've ever coached or seen. He's insanely competitive. It didn't matter what the objective of a drill was; if there was a winner and a loser, there would be blood. He was going to win.

"I would try to cater a drill to produce a different result, but...Josh is just not OK with losing."

"I just had no idea somebody could be that competitive. Oh, my God. He's the most competitive person I've ever coached or seen. He's insanely competitive."

— High school coach Tobias Tuomi, on Josh Jackson

But it wasn't just the neighborhood that looked at Tuomi with suspicion.

"It was a lot of guys on the team," Jackson says. "There was a little bit of animosity between us and him. Eventually, that went away. He turned out to be a really great coach."

Yes, animosity and discomfort disappear when you play the way the team did. Behind Jackson, Consortium won state.

The Josh Jackson legend was off and running, and his life was stabilizing.


Gregory Payan / AP Photo

In the fall of 2014, word got around the dorms at Justin-Siena High in Napa, California, that a new student would be looking for a roommate. The kid was a good basketball player.

Alex Sun didn't give it much thought. He didn't play basketball, didn't watch basketball, didn't care about basketball and had never heard of Josh Jackson the basketball player.

"He came to the dorms, saw me and said, 'Hey, I'm going to be best friends with this guy,'" Sun says. "I said, 'OK. Cool.'

"I thought he was just a normal kid who played basketball. We just clicked."

They would be roommates that year and hang out together. Sun says it might have looked a little funny, a 6'8" African-American hanging out all the time with, as Sun describes himself, "a little Asian guy." But they were always together, at the cafeteria, playing pingpong.

"He would help me with my math," Sun says.

Why did Jackson leave Detroit and Consortium right after winning state? He says he wanted to find a higher level of basketball competition to work out against. He found it in a new basketball academy in Napa called Prolific Prep.

Prolific is a top college prep basketball academy that doesn't have a school but has a relationship with Justin-Siena and a few other schools. It's a collection of top national players. Jackson would go to high school during the day at Justin-Siena and then work on basketball the rest of the time.

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Courtesy of Rick Manahan

Napa was much quieter than Detroit, too, and Jackson says he immediately felt comfortable. home, new best friend, new basketball challenges.

And then he was playing a tournament in Las Vegas over the holidays when his mom told him his dad had died of a heart attack.

"It was definitely not expected," Jackson says. "He wasn't in the best shape, but we didn't see it coming. It was really hard. The person I really counted on most was my mom. At this time, I had to be there for her, too. It was different.

"We were both in a different place, and it kind of messed us up. I haven't seen my mom cry many times. My mom's a tough woman, so to see her cry was real big.

"But we got through it. We both knew that we had to continue our lives and continue to try to live for him and remember the things he taught me.

"We miss him, but we're still here."

"We both knew that we had to continue our lives and continue to try to live for him and remember the things he taught me. We miss him, but we're still here."

— Josh Jackson, on his late stepfather

Tuomi says he worried for Jackson when he heard. He remembered how close his former player was with his dad.

"I saw Josh at his father's funeral and procession," Tuomi says. "He was hurt in terms of how he was coping with it.”

Tuomi also pointed out that on a lower level, Jackson had had one basketball coach in the seventh grade, another one in eighth, Anderson and then an interim in ninth, himself in 10th and then another new one at Prolific Prep in 11th—not to mention different AAU coaches along the way.

"There was a day a week that he and his stepdad made a point of spending time together. I don't remember exactly, but they would eat on Sundays at 5 o'clock or something. They made time to spend together. He was the one person who was always there throughout this revolving door [of male figures] in Josh's life."


Leon Halip / Getty Images

About six months later, Jackson was in Greece with the U.S. under-19 team. If his memory serves, it was a couple of hours before they were to play in the championship game when he was told:

His cousin and friend, Sam King, had been murdered, Jackson says—shot after an argument with friends.

"I don't really know what it was related to," Jackson says. "Senseless violence to me."

Ferguson remembers the look on Jackson's face in the hotel that day. Understand that as a top prospect, Jackson traveled around for all sorts of All-Star teams and games, including the McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago. What happens is that a core group of the top stars bond. They might not live in the same parts of the country, but they form a sort of traveling community and get close on the road.

"I don't really know what it was related to. Senseless violence to me."

— Josh Jackson, on his cousin's death

Even today, Ferguson, a rookie pro in Australia, says that he and Jackson, a freshman at Kansas, talk every day.

But that day in Greece, Ferguson was shaken to see his friend's face.

"I never saw Josh cry before, ever in my life," Ferguson says. "Usually, he's an outgoing guy, always excited no matter what time it is. At that time, he wasn't talking. We knew something was wrong."

They asked what happened.

"He said, 'My cousin. I just found out my cousin died.' He needed someone to lean on. We just helped him out. It was silent for a quick second, and then we started talking to him: 'Everything's all right. He's in a better place.' All that."

What Ferguson remembers almost as well was the look on Jackson's face during the game that night.

"I don't know how he did it," Ferguson says. "I wouldn't have been able to play, to be honest. I'd be so shook.

"After that long talk with us, he went to a different focus. Josh was more focused than ever. He had this aggressive mindset on the court, but he definitely wasn't angry at all. It was just a mindset.

"Definitely his mind is different from everybody else."

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Josh Jackson and Terrance Ferguson (Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images).

Jackson says he considered leaving the team and coming home. But the next game was the gold-medal game. For this ultimate gamer, it was the perfect outlet.

"I did consider it [leaving], but then I felt after he passed away that I had another reason to go out and live my dream," Jackson says. "He wouldn't have wanted me to make him an excuse. It made me think about the reasons I'm out here doing what I'm doing, playing basketball, being the best I can be. I had to come out and be focused."

The switch flipped. In his hardest times, Jackson's mind went to work. He had 10 points and eight rebounds in the U.S.'s 79-71 win over Croatia.


Gary Rohman / Special to Bleacher Report

No matter what type of focus you have, or switch, or beautiful mind, these types of losses will change you. They should, too.

"I definitely began to think about potential people I could lose in my life," Jackson says. "It made me start to appreciate the people around me more, tell them I love them more.

"I never got the chance to tell my cousin I loved him."

It changed him in some ways. In other ways, it didn't.

Philippe Doherty, founder of Prolific Prep with Jeremy Russotti, says when Jackson came back for his senior year—after Greece—he was still aggressive on the court and sweet off it. After games, Jackson would get ice for his knees then come back and sit on the bench while little kids from the crowd messed around with him, climbing all over him.

"Josh was like a human jungle gym," Doherty says.

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Courtesy of Rick Manahan

The tragedies haven't broken him.

With his mind, they never had a chance.

"He definitely had his moments," says Kysre Gondrezick, Jackson's longtime girlfriend and a basketball player at Michigan. "But he never had a major setback. We all react differently. He never shut down. Ever. That's one thing I admire about him.

"We've had our talks, but he's always just moving forward. With him, it's more finding the positive inside the negative. And he's always thinking, 'How can I get better?' Not just in basketball, but through everything. He's a very deep thinker. He's always processing things."

Gondrezick says she remembers Jackson's dad giving him things to do, and Jackson responding, "Yes, sir." She says Josh and his cousin were "always together—truly best friends." And she credits Jackson's mom for being his support.

Yes, Jackson has his mom, his girlfriend, his traveling community of friends. But he has found it within, too.

"The average 18-, 19-year-old doesn't act the way he does," Gondrezick says. "What's normal for a guy his age doesn't fascinate him."

Oh yeah?

Ferguson laughed out loud when he was told what Hunter said about his first meeting with Jackson, that he challenged him to a dunk contest.

"I can't even tell you how many times Josh has challenged me to a dunk contest," Ferguson says. "Every time I see him, he's got something new he wants to show me. He says, 'I can beat you now.' I say, 'Stop. You can't. You've got one move.' One time, he came back with no shoes on and says, 'Between the legs, no shoes.' Just his socks. I'm like 'Josh...just talking.'"

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Gary Rohman / Special to Bleacher Report

So it's not just chess and basketball. Dunk contests, too.

Like Hunter, Ferguson also never has agreed to do one.

Jackson keeps looking for a game. And if it's not basketball, dunking or chess, it's his iPad. Everyone who knows him says he plays it nonstop.

"Yeah, but not like killing-zombie games," Tuomi says.

So what does he play? "He downloads these weird, crazy games that play with your mind," Gondrezick says.

Jackson thinks those games translate to basketball, a sport of nonstop thinking. "As smart as you are when it comes to the game, the better you're going to be," he says.

Says Gondrezick, "His mind is always going, always thinking: What's coming next?"

So what is coming next?

Probably stardom at Kansas and then in the NBA.

But truth is: For this beautiful mind, it doesn't matter. He's game for anything.


Greg Couch covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @gregcouch.