Demetrius Jackson's journey from foster care to Fighting Irish star
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Last June, on the day Notre Dame basketball players reported to campus after summer break, they lined up along the baseline at one end of the Purcell Pavilion floor. At the other end were about 200 kids, from grades five through 12. Their parents sat in the stands while Irish coach Mike Brey presided over the first session of hoops camp. He called forth his roster one by one, stating the player’s name, hometown and class. When the coach introduced Demetrius Jackson, sophomore from Mishawaka, there was really no need to stand on ceremony. This was a gym full of locals, and Jackson, a former high school All-America from the next town over, was one of them.
That didn’t mean Demetrius Jackson was entirely recognizable. The explosive 6’1” guard’s highly anticipated freshman season had been a near-washout. Notre Dame suffered through the suspension of its best player, Jerian Grant, and lost twice as many games as it won in its inaugural ACC campaign. With a three-year starter at point guard in front of him, Jackson struggled to find a role, averaging six points per game and taking fewer than five shots a night. Frustrated by that, Jackson let slide some academic responsibilities, and that earned him a two-game suspension from competition in February. Some of his personal statistics weren’t that bad. But in practical terms, the season was a joyless exercise that Jackson floated through as a shadow of himself.
Over the five weeks between the end of finals and this mid-June return, Jackson regrouped. He also hardly communicated with his coaches. So after the camp introductions, Jackson dribbled a basketball and made small talk with the staff. At which point Irish assistant Martin Ingelsby approached.
“We didn’t know if you were coming back!” Ingelsby said.
As Jackson recalled this scene months later, he was in fact back: He had become a bulldog defender and confident, double-figure scorer for a top-10 team harboring hopes for a March breakthrough. The Ingelsby crack didn’t offend him or strike him as negative, Jackson says. But it reminded him he needed to be better, to do better. He was 12 years old when he was placed into foster care. Two years passed before he found a real home and a new family. He had endured too much in an uncertain life to let slip this opportunity. Of course he had to follow through.
He owed that to too many people, Demetrius Jackson included.
“I’ve just never been a quitter,” he says. “I’ve never been one to give up.”
Anthony Solomon had heard about the young man at Marian, because it is his business to hear these things, so he decided to take a look. The Notre Dame assistant brought his son and daughter to Marian Catholic High School in Mishawaka, Ind., to observe an evening practice. During the workout, a well-built freshman drove the lane, elevated near the rim and dunked with striking strength and power for a guard about six feet tall. All right, Solomon thought. He’s an athlete.
Solomon watched some more, and at the basketball offices the next morning, the assistant reported the shorthand of his findings to Brey: He’s got a chance.
That Demetrius Jackson had even a chance was remarkable. Before he became the all-time leading scorer in St. Joseph County with 1,934 career points and the first McDonald’s All-American from northern Indiana since future NBA All-Star Shawn Kemp earned the honor in 1988, Jackson was a sixth-grader with a father in jail, and a mother and siblings he left behind. He was a resident of two foster homes. Through a friendship with an AAU teammate, he met Dave and Beth Whitfield, who came to be guardians and foster parents of a teenager they’d known for only a matter of months. It’s how Demetrius Jackson found a new home and a new family.
It’s why being in the position to be evaluated by a Division I coach was momentous in itself.
“He had to adjust a lot,” Solomon says. “He dealt with a lot of changes.”
What is known of his family history: His father, who is also named Demetrius, was a star athlete for South Bend's Washington High School, winning a state heavyweight wrestling championship in 1990. He also has a long, complicated criminal record, per court documents.
In 1988, the elder Jackson was charged with attempted murder in connection to a fight at an Elkhart, Ind., playground, but he pleaded down to criminal recklessness. He received two years' probation and continued his high school career uninterrupted. In 1993, Jackson pled guilty to reckless homicide after a gun discharged and killed his then-girlfriend, and he would serve three years of a five-year prison term. In 1998, Jackson was convicted of simple possession of cocaine base and possession with intent to distribute. Because of a paperwork error—upon completing his probation, the 1988 felony criminal recklessness charge was never reduced to a misdemeanor, as was agreed upon in the plea deal—the elder Jackson received a 262-month sentence as a “career offender.” He spent a decade fighting the enhanced sentence in appellate courts before winning his release on July 9, 2013. He now lives in Atlanta.
Jackson’s biological mother, Juanita Jones, is a regular attendee of her son’s games at Notre Dame. He asked that SI not contact Jones for this story, and he declines to discuss the exact circumstances of how he entered the foster care system as a 12-year-old; before the McDonald's All American game in 2013, he told the Chicago Tribune it involved "some family issues, not living in the best circumstances, taking some of the burden off of my biological mother." It all remains too raw a memory for Jackson to reveal publicly—he’s not even entirely open with those closest to him. “We have some idea, I think,” Dave Whitfield says. “But again, if he doesn’t like to talk about it, we don’t bring it up.”
During his time in foster care, Jackson lived in two different homes, neither of which offered a traditionally stable environment. Boys entered the homes, and if they got in trouble, they were kicked out or moved to another home. At first, Jackson was told he would be able to return to his biological mother and family after a short stay in the foster system, according to Beth Whitfield; that he didn't only exacerbated the emotional toll.
Jackson now says he’s thankful for these years. He says he learned about perseverance, hard work and discipline. “I wouldn’t say it was bad, because I never want to disrespect any of the foster homes I was in,” Jackson says. “They definitely tried. Taking foster kids is a big responsibility. I respect anybody who does it. But I don’t think they were the homes for me.”
The path to find one that was began with a car ride after a basketball practice.
In the summer after seventh grade, Jackson struck up an instant rapport with Michael Whitfield, one of his teammates with the local AAU outfit MBA Select. They were born two weeks apart, coincidentally, and they were driven competitors who couldn't be consoled after losses, they complemented each other—Michael was laid-back, Demetrius uptight—and Michael innately empathized with Demetrius without feeling sorry for him. Michael’s father offered him a ride home after one workout, and the first time the Whitfields helped Demetrius Jackson was hardly the last. Soon, on the team’s road trips, Dave was in charge of both his son and his son’s friend.
[daily_cut.college-basketball]Soon Demetrius was spending weekends at the Whitfield’s house; once school ended on Friday, Jackson would come over and stay until Sunday night when he would return to his foster home. As an eighth-grader, he attended an open house at Marian Catholic with the Whitfields, who planned to send Michael there. Jackson wanted to go as well, but it that wouldn’t have been possible while he was in the foster system.
“We could tell he wasn’t happy where he was at,” Beth Whitfield says. “He’d talk to me a lot and say he wasn’t happy and didn’t understand some of the things that were going on there.” But nothing was put into motion until Michael walked upstairs one night while his mother was watching television in her bedroom and presented her an idea .
Do you think ‘D’ could come live with us? he asked.
Well, Beth replied, we’ll have to talk about it.
The prospect of another kid wasn’t daunting for Dave, a financial advisor, and Beth, a kindergarten teacher; they already had five (two girls and three boys), so what was one more? And theirs was the house to which all their children’s friends gravitated anyway, gathering in the basement that featured one television for watching and a smaller one for video games.
Deciding to become foster parents was far simpler than the process to actually become foster parents. That required some 30 hours of courses on parenting, parenting a foster child specifically and CPR, among other subjects. There were group meetings with other foster parents who talked through their own experiences. There were also the regulations for what a new foster child must have, by law: A separate bed and dresser, for example. That meant fitting a new bed in the large room above the garage that all the Whitfield boys shared, which meant sticking the two youngest into a bunk bed. Beth had outfitted the room in a sports theme; Jackson’s arrival required buying a new locker, painted in Marian blue, to add to the other three.
Jackson would soon be in his mid-teens and his caseworker emphasized that the Whitfields had to be a long-term solution. Moving around would only be get more difficult and debilitating. But once Jackson officially became a part of the house on Stonegate Drive in summer 2009, it was clear this was no quick fix. “All my other foster homes felt like a foster home,” Jackson says. “With the Whitfields, it never felt that way. It’s just a really warm place where you can just be yourself.”
Still, there was a feeling-out process. If Jackson's actions required discipline, if the Whitfields had to take away a privilege or an item, he reacted accordingly. “Like a 13 or 14 year old with a bad temper,” he says now, smiling. If there was dinner at Noni and Papa’s—their grandparents—or if another of the siblings had a championship game, the expectation was that the entire family would attend. No questions. Yet sometimes, Jackson begged off. He’d say he didn’t feel good. Or he’d say he was sleeping. Then he’d discover these excuses did not work.
Still, he never ran away, he never acted out in a way the Whitfields could not manage. Typical teenage stuff, they say. Only communicating with Jackson was not communicating with a typical teenager. “My other kids, I’m not saying I sit there and yell at them like a crazy guy, but I’d yell at them and they’d know where I’m coming from,” Dave Whitfield says. “Where he had to adjust, and we had to adjust, too, on how we did things. He didn’t get away with anything. It was just an adjustment."
He became just another personality in a house brimming with it. The Whitfields dealt with Jackson’s dawdling, their new child now always the last out of the house or into the car. (They joke that this explains why he took so long to commit to Notre Dame.) Jackson was picky about food, turning up his nose at casseroles because he preferred to have the various elements of dinner separated on his plate. (Last Christmas Eve, when Dave cooked up a wee-hours feast following midnight mass, Demetrius tried his first bite of bacon.) Jackson, meanwhile, always wanted little siblings, and now he had them. As for his new big sister, Rachel, he alternately loved her and was driven crazy by her. Meanwhile, Demetrius and Michael created a new tradition they named Backyard Basketball, lowering the rim behind the house to eight feet so they and the friends they invited over could dunk on each other’s heads.
And of course, he joined the trips to the cottage at Little Twin Lake in northern Michigan, though that also required some getting used to.
The Whitfields own a pontoon boat and cruise into the middle of the lake, so the children can dive off and swim. On his first visit years ago, the problem was not that Jackson was afraid to join them. The problem was that he refused to even get on the boat.
Eventually, he was convinced. He strapped on a life jacket and took a ride. Once he was out on the fresh water, he jumped right in.
If other circumstances of his life proved out of his control, basketball never was. On the court, Demetrius Jackson could dictate the action. This may help explain his perfectionist streak; if he couldn’t eliminate the uncertainty in other spaces, he damn sure could in the gym. While working on an arcane detail like finger spacing on his jump shot, he would stop if he released the ball and his digits didn’t feel properly spread. Then Jackson would move in front of the rim, three feet away, and practice form shooting for 10 minutes, looking at his fingers the entire time.
“And videotaping it,” says Rod Creech, the AAU coach whom Jackson views as another father figure. “And then he’ll go watch it. And then he’ll go back, and he’ll shoot again, and he’ll go watch it. Honestly, that’s how he’s always rolled.”
His perfectionism also helps explain the better part of an unsatisfying freshman year in South Bend. In 30 games, Jackson averaged 22.8 minutes, 6.0 points, 1.8 assists and shot 42% from the floor. Expected to be a physical, undeterred presence on the ball, his defensive rating of 114.0 was the worst among Notre Dame’s rotation players. Early on, he was a backup to Eric Atkins, a captain and established starter at point guard. When Grant was suspended for the spring semester for an academic misstep, Jackson became a starter, but he often played off the ball.
He was uncomfortable. When he struggled, he couldn’t fix it. Which frustrated him further. “That’s a question I often asked myself,” Jackson says. “It just took me a while to kind of get it. Like the coaches are telling me how to do things and they’re teaching us stuff, but why can’t I do it? That’s a question that, to be honest, I can’t answer. I came to the conclusion that I just needed to do it.”
Within Notre Dame’s circle, the problem seemed clear. “He felt he was a backup quarterback,” said Irish forward Austin Torres, an AAU teammate of Jackson’s since seventh grade. “It wasn’t his team. It was hard to adjust.” Brey concurs, observing Jackson’s progress this season and saying “almost 70% of it is Eric Atkins is not here, and I can give him the ball and I can coach him as my point guard.” It was a relationship that began to flourish, ironically, at the lowest point of Jackson's first season: During his suspension for class attendance issues.
It was an eye-opener, Jackson says, to sit out two games. But as Brey kept Jackson off the floor for games, the Irish coach also insisted the two meet at 9 p.m. every night in The Pit, Notre Dame’s practice gym, for one-on-one workouts and instruction.
The sessions included basketball drills. But the important work was a coach connecting with a lost freshman. Brey talked to Jackson about academics, about family, even about how the 2014-15 season shaped up. “I just wanted to keep giving him something to really look forward to,” Brey says. “It was one of those things where you’re suspended and you understand why, but I want you to know you’re important to us, and to me.”
It meant a great deal to Jackson; it reminded him of his relationship with Creech and the conversations they’d have during hours upon hours of work in the gym. A player slow to trust now was certain his coaches cared. Once Jackson returned from the break, he had arguably his best game of the year, scoring 17 points in a Feb. 19 loss to Miami.
The next step was feeling the same trust with teammates. To that end, rising seniors like Grant and Pat Connaughton prioritized better chemistry in the offseason, and a specific part of that mission was communicating to Jackson how much they believed in him.
“He felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he didn’t really have anyone there to let him know we need him regardless,” Connaughton says. “This year we’ve done a better job of making sure he knows he doesn’t have to do everything.”
The team’s preseason tour of Italy—during which Jackson ran out of storage for all the photos he took on his phone—helped solder the bond. And Jackson became comfortable enough to handle a little bit of everything. Heading into a Wednesday showdown at Louisville, he’s averaging 12.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 50% from the floor. His Win Shares total of 4.2 ranks third among Irish players. He is credited with 363 points produced for Notre Dame, per College Basketball Reference, second only to Grant’s 542.
When Jackson was a recruit, he heard the same question from Solomon so often—Are you getting better?—that he tried to enlist the assistant coach’s children to get their father to stop asking it. The point was to encourage Jackson to pay less attention to frustrations while enjoying the journey of improvement. Solomon pushed the same message during Jackson’s freshman year struggles.
In particularly low moments, Jackson says the idea of a starting fresh somewhere else “definitely crossed my mind.” But there were no serious conversations with anybody about it—“I just never thought it would be something I would do,” he says. He would not be the coveted recruit who bails when he fails to meet expectations. “Every player in America should look at Demetrius Jackson,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory told reporters after a Jan. 3 loss in South Bend. “There’s 400,000 guys transferring because their freshman year didn’t go the way they want it to.”
Instead, Jackson decided to stand for the perseverance to set things right.
“I guess I was just really motivated to be better,” Jackson says.
Last summer, Notre Dame hosted sports psychologist Dr. Joe Carr for team-building exercises. At one point, the players and coaches sat in a circle with one ball for the group, which they called The Cake. The only person who could talk was the one who held The Cake. They spoke about their lives, their expectations. When The Cake landed in Demetrius Jackson’s hands, he told his story—about his mother and father and siblings and the circumstances that brought him to his new family and then to this team. When he finished, some in the room were crying. Torres, for one, recognized the moment as remarkable. Jackson’s longtime friend and teammate, his partner in late-night workout sessions during a trying freshman season, had never heard any of this before.
“He got it off his chest,” Torres says. “I don’t think he likes to talk about it. But I feel like he knows he can tell us anything.”
He has fewer anxieties now. Jackson made a point this year to introduce himself to every professor at the start of classes, and to be an active participant instead of waiting to be called upon. His biological mother asks about his grades and buys him clothes, and when she and Jackson’s siblings attend Notre Dame home games, they sit with the Whitfields. “I got a big family,” Jackson says. “That’s the best part about it—my two families can be here to support me.”
Though he does not mention it, he also has begun to build a relationship that effectively never existed: On Jan. 15, when the Irish played at Georgia Tech, Jackson introduced his coaches to his biological father for the first time.
He seems to be working toward realizing a vision he had when he was 13 years old, along a drive to an AAU tournament in Cleveland. Jackson described it to Creech, his coach, at the time: When he was older, when he could make a difference, he said he wanted to help foster children like him. He wanted to do something to ensure they had opportunities to enjoy life. And when he does, maybe he will tell his story to a strange but expectant audience, every last bit of it.
For now, Demetrius Jackson might not be ready for that. He has family all around and he has found his way at Notre Dame, but he’s still working on opening those parts of him for everyone to see. He’ll get there, on his own time.