The Conversion of Chris Jackson

He was supposed to be the future of the Denver Nuggets. Instead, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf decided that the only way to stand up for Allah was to sit down.

October 2007

Photography by Lara Rossignol

Years later, at Gulfport High School, the basketball coach offered his players an incentive: They could shave minutes off practice by hitting consecutive free throws. Every successful consecutive shot meant less running and fewer drills. One day Chris was the shooter. He made 283 shots in a row. Practice was cancelled that day.

The kid was an athletic prodigy, a great hope in a city where hope was scarce. Those who saw him develop from a youth basketball standout and into a high school star marveled at his abilities. He'd score 30, 40, 50 points a night, set all sorts of records, lead his team to championships, and he became the best high school basketball player in Mississippi—arguably the best in the state's history.

Now, what seems lifetimes later, the two of us drive past a basketball court, a blacktop across from some homes and—beyond that—railroad tracks that separate the haves from the have-nots in the city. Tree canopies hang like teardrops over shotgun houses, and crumpled concrete sidewalks are littered with drug dealers and all sorts of unsavory types. On this afternoon, one boy is on the court, shooting and missing, chasing down the ball.

"Sometimes, it'd get so cold outside, but I refused to leave," Abdul-Rauf says, watching the kid, but seeing himself. "I dribbled that ball around, shot from the outside, the inside. Step in, then back, and POW! nail that shot. But it was so cold. I'd start shivering. My hands would freeze and it hurt to move them." He balls his hands into a gnarled mess of knuckles and fingers. "After I was done, I'd dribble that ball home, through the legs, around the back. Keep that defender off me. Dribble down the street, people trying to sell you marijuana—'Hey, boy, try this'—ignore them, keep dribbling that ball, don't let it get away. Head up."

We stop in a nearby vacant lot, the site of a now-nonexistent store, where neighborhood boys used to buy bread and cigarettes on credit for their mothers. Across the street is a Baptist church. Across from that is the ranch-style home where the three Jackson boys and their mother lived. The house is small and simple. It caught fire a few months ago, and burn marks run up the siding. Overgrown bushes creep toward its high porch. It didn't look much different when the Jacksons resided there in the 1970s and '80s, living the clichéd realities of being poor and black in the American South.

Jacqueline Jackson, a single mother and a cafeteria worker at the VA hospital in nearby Biloxi, struggled to make ends meet. Young Chris watched his momma talk to wealthy whites around town, always with her head down, responding with "Yes, ma'am. Yes, sir." It was deflating enough for the boy to watch her submit to others, but it was what inevitably happened next that filled him with rage: "She'd talk to her friends and say, 'Who does that man think he is? That man ain't shit. Where does he get off talking to me like that?' I hated that," he says. "If you've got something to tell someone, you say it to their face."

Jacqueline enjoyed alcohol, perhaps a bit too much. She did what she could to watch over her three children by three different men, with none acting like a father. She refused help from neighbors, though her sons often went without meals. Chris, his older brother, David, and his youngest brother, Omar, would drink sugar water and eat syrup sandwiches. Sometimes, Chris put instant coffee bags in hot water, maybe four or five at a time, let them soak for a while, then served coffee for a meal.

The boy floundered at school, flunking fourth grade in 1978, and he was put into special education classes in junior high. It wasn't that Chris didn't want to learn. He just couldn't. His Tourette's syndrome was then undiagnosed, and its tics were exacerbated amid the silence inside the classroom. He'd endure uncontrollably painful bouts of eye-blinking, neck-sapping, and jaw-clenching. Nothing on his body felt like it belonged. And his voice rose without warning, producing odd patterns and sounds—Huh? Ha. HA! It took him about an hour just to put on his pants and tie his shoes. When he tried to sit still in class, he says, "It took all of my power just to not twitch or yell out. I'd sit there and pray, 'God, don't let me move, please don't let me move.'"

On the court, though, it was different. With the noise and the constant movement, the tics were hardly noticeable. Even when the tics made him bang his knuckles on the hardwood, it looked like he was a gamer, the sort of cocky sonofabitch the college coaches love. The University of Louisville first contacted Chris when he was only in ninth grade. Coaches lined up outside the Jacksons' rented house. There were rumors that a Georgetown University booster had promised Jacqueline money if her son signed there, rumors that were never refuted, especially after his momma refused to sign the paperwork saying that Chris would attend Louisiana State University. Yet LSU is the school he chose.

On the Baton Rouge campus he felt liberated. He could take classes he wanted; his dorm room was safe; he made friends with black students who seemed to know so much about so much. He was comfortable, and it showed. Forty eight points in his third collegiate game; 53 points two games later; 50 points a few weeks after that. In January 1989, 54,321 people watched Chris battle the seemingly invincible Georgetown Hoyas. In front of the then-largest crowd to ever see a college basketball game, Chris Jackson scored 26 points and led LSU to an 82-80 victory. By the season's end, he had perhaps the greatest freshman season in collegiate basketball history. He finished with a 30.2 points-per-game average, the most cumulative points ever for a freshman, the SI cover, the Southeastern Conference's Player of the Year award, and a plaque saying he'd been named a first-team All-American. His sophomore year was no less remarkable.