PHILADELPHIA -- Four years ago, the maternal grandmother of Joe Jackson, a 5-foot-10 point guard from Memphis, knew little about her grandson's games.
"Did ya'll win?" Lillie Cox would ask as Joe returned home from Sherwood Middle School.
Typically they had. Given her grandson's considerable talents, Sherwood coach James Moore was curious about her absence from the stands. One day he inquired, "Miss Cox, why don't you come see your grandson play?"
"He never tells us when the games are," she said. "That boy doesn't want anyone to see him."
A few days later, Moore held Jackson after practice, handed him a schedule and said, "Be sure to get this to your grandmother."
Cox knew her grandson was at the Reebok All-American camp last week. As the top point guard there at Philadelphia University, Jackson continued to reveal more about his game with each dribble. A fast-moving waterbug, he cut past defenders in the open court, maneuvered deep into the teeth of opposing defenses and finished drives with two-handed dunks that highlighted his 38-inch vertical leap. "I'm not afraid of anybody," Jackson says. "I keep that rock on a string so defenders can't sleep on me."
Coaches from three schools, in particular, are interested in Jackson's services. Kentucky's John Calipari, Memphis coach Josh Pastner and Tennessee assistants Tony Jones or Steve Forbes sat in the bleachers for all of Jackson's games. Another Big East assistant coach looking to get in on his recruitment said, "He's the one player here who's really set himself apart from the pack."
Calipari has been familiar with the White Station High guard the longest. While in middle school, Jackson participated in the Youth Education through Sports Foundation's tutoring program for inner city students, which Calipari started when he arrived at Memphis in 2000. Jackson also attended Tigers home games throughout the Derrick Rose-led 2008 Final Four run and observed the city's obsession with the team. "Calipari could sleep on the Mississippi," says Jackson, who recently improved his ACT score from 16 to 24. "No one could touch him."
When Calipari left for Lexington, Pastner was named Memphis' head coach. His face was already familiar to Jackson from popping in to say hello each time White Station practiced at Memphis. The change in job title has not affected Pastner's intensity. "He's relentless," Jackson says. "It's always, 'Josh Pastner. Memphis basketball. Go Tigers!' I'd do the same thing if I was a coach."
Pastner's push comes as he tries to maintain the program in the post-Calipari era. When his former boss departed, the 31-year-old workaholic watched the Tigers' top-ranked recruiting class quickly fall apart. Birmingham, Ala., big man Demarcus Cousins decommitted from the Tigers and signed with Kentucky. Oklahoma City wing Xavier Henry withdrew, as well, deciding to sign with Kansas. Then, John Wall, the nation's top guard, chose Kentucky. "People are skeptical of Josh," Jackson says. "They want to know if he's the new savior like Cal."
Sitting in the Larry O. Finch Center on the Memphis campus shortly after Pastner's promotion, Jackson's AAU coach, Eric Robinson, says Pastner made the best pitch for procuring his star. "Joe can't leave Memphis," said Pastner, who landed Will Barton, a wiry wing ranked No. 10 in the class of 2010 last month. "Joe is Memphis."
Robinson laughs. "If Joe left," he says, "it would be like Elvis dying again."
The fearless Jackson is "a poor man's John Wall" says one Division I assistant. Four inches shorter than Wall, Jackson can fit through keyhole-size openings and change speeds better than Wall, but his critics question his inconsistent shooting. At the Reebok camp he impressed with a slew of stop-and-go moves and a reverse layup that he calls the Manu Ginobili two-step, in honor of the San Antonio Spurs star.
Two tattoos are inked into Jackson's right arm. One is for his neighborhood: Orangemound. The other is a basketball with flames burning off it. Atop the ball sits a crown and across it reads: "Polished." His game was not always so refined. Following his seventh grade season, he saw nine VHS tapes on his coach's desk. The tapes, Moore said, were of each game from their season. Jackson asked to borrow them and returned that fall with the tapes in a raggedy trash bag. "I played like garbage last year," Jackson said. "I'm going to put 30 points a game on everybody this time."
Jackson says he "took over the city" that year. But when he matriculated to White Station, coach Jesus Pitino (no relation to the Louisville coach) questioned his durability. "He couldn't guard a door," Pitino says.
By season's end he was MVP of the state regional. Such success so early rankled teammates and seven transferred. Left to penetrate and kick out to a different cast, he led his team to the state final and won it all last winter. "He would be a hero if we played in Kentucky," says Pitino, who coached at Bardstown (Ky.) High for 10 years. "A lot of Memphis people resent that he is so good."
Pitino has also warned his player about the temptations that may await him if he visits Lexington. "I told him if he goes down there he might not come back," Pitino says. "From the time you get on campus to the time you leave, things can change."
The road to Jackson's commitment goes through the two-story house he shares with his grandmother and three siblings. He says he will welcome five schools next fall. Kansas, Tennessee and UConn are said to be in consideration as well as Kentucky and Memphis. Robinson paints a humorous picture of what those visits may look like come decision day. "Josh Pastner's banging on the front door. Bruce Pearl's banging on the back. Calipari and [Kansas coach] Bill Self looking in the windows."
The coaches know where he is playing at all times this month. Meanwhile, Jackson's grandmother opens the recruiting mail. "The coaches always say where they will see him in different cities," she says. "I can keep track of him more easily now."