Who's responsible for that basketball legend in the making at LSU? Could it be coach Dale Brown, who is most dangerous when backed against a wall? Could it be those no-names, retreads and walk-ons who were considered too young, too short and too Proposition-48ed out to compete successfully in the SEC, much less lead the conference with two thirds of the season gone?
In truth, the fairy tale unfolding down in woozy Looziana is mainly about a blocky little freshman guard named Chris Jackson, who is putting together the finest season of any rookie backcourtman ever. In the process he has lifted a woebegone team to his spectacular level. At week's end the Tigers were 17-6 overall and 9-3 in the SEC.
Forget for a moment Jackson's 48 points in his third varsity game, a 111-109 overtime loss to Louisiana Tech. Forget his already mythic NCAA freshman-record 53 points in his fifth game, a 111-101 victory at Florida. Put aside the memories of his scoring 15 of LSU's last 17 points at Maryland or every one of the Tigers' final 16 at Kentucky. Or even his incredible 50 points last Saturday against Tennessee in a crucial SEC game that put the Tigers one game ahead in the conference.
Discard all that and focus on the Louisiana Superdome three Saturdays ago. As a crowd of 54,321, the largest ever to see a regular-season college game, looked on in amazement, powerful Georgetown, with its own standout freshman, 6'10" center Alonzo Mourning, threw everything at Jackson but John Thompson's towel and walk-out shoes. Still, the LSU kid with the fancy moves scored 26 points as the Tigers beat the Hoyas 82-80.
February 20, 1989
"I never knew which way Chris was going," said Mourning. "He puts you in a triple-threat position. You don't know whether he's pulling up to shoot or to pass, or whether he'll keep driving inside or what. Then, which side? Where? He's everywhere. Give him one step and it's over. And I think he's the best shooter in the country."
With 20 seconds remaining and the score tied 80—all, three defenders surrounded Jackson when he got the ball. Somehow he wriggled free and passed to guard Russell Grant, whose shot was deflected by Mourning. Tiger forward Wayne Sims tipped the loose ball to forward Ricky Blanton, who put in the winning layup. "I wanted Chris to take the last shot, but I didn't tell him he'd get gang guarded," said Brown. "I knew he'd get out of that trap, though. They locked up Houdini, and he got out, didn't he? Chris dances. He skates. Gee, he evaporates. It's like Shazam! "
"What explosion," said Georgetown's Dwayne Bryant, shaking his head after the game. "Jackson lulls you to sleep by drifting around with the ball. Then he explodes. He's the next great college player." The next?
Another Hoya, Charles Smith, who played point guard on the U.S. Olympic team, was not so magnanimous. "Jackson? He's a real player, that's all," said Smith. "Hey, I'm a senior; he's a freshman. Go ask him about me. I'm tired of answering questions about Chris Jackson." Better get used to it, fella.
With most of LSU's luminous 1988 recruiting class—including 6'11" Stanley Roberts, 6'8" Harold Boudreaux and 6-foot Maurice Williamson—ineligible this season because of Prop 48. Brown has turned Jackson loose. The Tigers have spread the floor, run like crazy and taken full advantage of his open-court skills. Had the other frosh been available. Brown might have been tempted to play a more controlled—and perhaps less successful—game.
Brown speaks of Jackson's "magnificent feel" for the game and admits he was "overcoaching" CJ until midway through the Florida game. At that point Brown sat back and flicked his wrist, signaling Jackson to keep shooting. After Jackson spent a couple of minutes passing off, Brown called timeout to order him to fire away. "I want to get everyone involved," says Jackson. "I feel funny taking so many shots." Jackson's brief shooting hiatus cost him a possible 70-point night.
Even when LSU loses, it's clear that showtime has returned to Baton Rouge. After Jackson scored 27 points but fouled out with nine minutes left in Illinois's 127-100 rout of the Tigers on Dec. 22, Illini guard Kendall Gill called CJ "the best guard I've ever played against."
Georgia coach Hugh Durham compares Jackson's impact on the sport with the impact Herschel Walker had on college football as a freshman. More poignantly, an eight-year-old girl recently called a New Orleans hotline to say she was running away from home to go visit Jackson "because he makes me so happy." The counselor who took the call told the girl that if she returned home CJ would win a game for her. The next game Jackson did just that, beating Vanderbilt with a last-second rainbow from 18 feet.
Comparisons with LSU's beloved gunner, the late Pete Maravich, have also accompanied Jackson's ascension. But with his bountiful, bewildering fakes, his sudden leaps and his lightning-quick release, CJ is more reminiscent of one of Pistol's contemporaries, the quicksilver 5'9" Calvin Murphy, who played at Niagara and went on to an illustrious 13-year career in the NBA. Like Murphy, Jackson is an extraordinary leaper—he has a 39-inch vertical leap, an LSU record. But Jackson is a better passer and defender than Murphy was. He's also taller, though not by much. Jackson says he is 6'1", but according to Blanton, a fifth-year senior and the Tigers' workaholic captain, "Barefoot, I'd be surprised if Chris is six feet."
At week"s end Jackson was the nation's third-leading scorer with a 28.2 point average; only Fly Williams, who scored 29.4 per game for Austin Peay in 1972-73 and Harry Kelly, who had a 29.0 average at Texas Southern in 1979-80, have surpassed that average as freshmen. Jackson's huge numbers are nearly as impressive as his humility and the eagerness with which he strives for perfection. He answers elders with "yes, sir" and "no, sir." He is also deeply religious. "When I even think something wrong or bad," says Jackson, "I'll say a prayer for forgiveness right away."
The morning after he missed 14 of 23 shots at Kentucky, Jackson woke up an LSU student manager back in Baton Rouge to get a key to the gym. CJ says he shot and shot "until I got it right."
"This kid has taught me about life," says Brown, a man no one ever imagined could be outevangelized by one of his own players. "As great a player as Chris is, he's a better person."
Jackson's remarkable debut season is all the more special because of two hardships he battles daily: a semiestrangement from his mother, Jacqueline, who's a VA hospital attendant in Biloxi, Miss.; and a bizarre neurochemical disorder known as Tourette syndrome, which usually manifests itself in uncontrollable moans, arm-and hand-flapping and spasmodic twitching and blinking. The affliction is identical to the one that disrupted Kansas City Royals designated hitter Jim Eisenreich's career before the disorder was properly diagnosed and treated.
Jackson grew up four blocks from the beach in Gulfport, Miss.—"I really miss it," he says—as the second of Jacqueline's three sons, each of whom has a different father. Jackson does not know his. CJ used to play basketball from dawn to dusk, shooting alone for hours. "I had the ball five seconds...four...three..." says Jackson. "If I missed, I'd go back to one second left. I'd always pretend I had the quickest defensive man in the world on me to see how fast I could get the shot off."
At Gulfport High, where he was a two-time Mississippi Player of the Year, Jackson made 283 foul shots in a row (he has converted 82% of his free throws at LSU). Gulfport coach Bert Jenkins's practice policy of having his players shoot until they missed went out the window because Jackson was so accurate. Otherwise, the Admirals would never have had time to scrimmage.
The split between CJ and his mother occurred when Jackson, who had become close with LSU assistant coach Craig Carse, announced early in his senior year that he intended to go to LSU. "My mom said, 'No, Chris, you only think you want to go to LSU,' " says Jackson. "That's when I knew somebody else had gotten to her."
Letters with Jackson's forged signature announcing that he was not set on LSU appeared at other schools, including Georgetown and UNLV. Someone claiming to be Jackson also called North Carolina to discuss his recruitment. Rumors spread in the press about Mrs. Jackson's wanting to "sell" her son to the highest bidder. After Jacqueline refused to sign Jackson's national letter of intent—she was pushing him to attend Alcorn State—she had an angry meeting with Brown at which they basically agreed to disagree. It wasn't until August, when CJ arrived on campus, that Brown realized he had won the fight.
"It got so bad last summer I had to leave home," says Jackson. "I came up to LSU and it hurt, but I had to prove to her this was the right place for me." Not long afterward Jackson was listening to a tape by the group 4 By Four when he heard a sad ballad entitled Mommy-Daddy. He broke down and cried. "Right then I wrote her a long letter," says Jackson. "I never sent it, but I went back to Gulfport to tell her how much she meant to me."
On the bus ride to New Orleans for the Georgetown game, Jackson listened to Mommy-Daddy. "I get chills every time," he says. Jacqueline now attends all of LSU's home games. "I think she understands," he says.
What Jackson must still cope with is the perplexing disorder afflicting his nervous system. Some of the symptoms of Tourette syndrome first appeared when he was in grade school, but he wasn't put on medication until the fall of 1987, when Jenkins and his wife became involved. "I try to look on it as just another habit," says Jackson. "I try not to think about it, but it's hard." It's so hard that in interviews Jackson will expend a great deal of effort trying to keep from suddenly crying out or from suddenly flailing his arm that he will literally become deaf to the questioning.
Blanton, whose locker is next to Jackson's, says that he has often been slapped by CJ's hand. And Jackson's knuckles have taken a beating from the involuntarily pounding of his hand into his dormitory wall. "When I first came here, I knew guys were looking at me like, wow, this boy is crazy," says Jackson. "But, hey, this is just me."
LSU notified the SEC's supervisor of officials about Jackson's condition after the Tigers lost to Mississippi State on Jan. 4. During the game a referee mistook one of CJ's involuntary screams—"dom, dom" is the approximate sound—as a complaint about a call. "Chris drove the ball inside 12 times after that and never got one foul shot," says Carse.
Tourette syndrome can also affect how he plays. Depending on the intensity of the game, CJ's face and eyes will twitch and blink with such ferocity it's a wonder he can concentrate on the basket. "I can put on some awesome head fakes, though," he says with a laugh.
No cure is available, but Tourette syndrome can be controlled effectively with the drug Haldol, which Jackson takes every night. "I want to face this in a positive way and help others who have it," says Jackson. "To convince them not to worry about the looks and the jokes and just deal with it the way I have to."
What LSU and Jackson don't need are reporters like the one at Tennessee who had seen Jackson blinking and demanded to know why his shot wasn't falling. "Was it the lights?" the fellow asked. "You don't like the lights? What's wrong with the lights?"
"Nothing's wrong with the lights," said Jackson, and he walked away.
In the meantime, Jackson will go on shooting and scoring and dazzling the daylights out of a game that hasn't seen this kind of talent in some time. The other day a friend of Jackson's came upon him sitting alone in the LSU gym. Just CJ with his ball and the baskets. Just CJ thinking. "It's all happening so fast," said Jackson. "I don't know if I can handle it."
Hey, CJ, figure it out. This is what happens when you're beating the bejeezus out of an entire sport.