In early May of 1987, Jeep Jackson, along with many of the Miners, played at a benefit game at Fort Bliss. Early in the game, Jackson collapsed.
I got a call at home minutes later from Joe Gomez, the unofficial archivist of UTEP basketball. He said I needed to get to Beaumont Hospital, pronto. Joe met me at the emergency room door, and his face said it all—Jeep was gone. He’d never regained consciousness.
The El Paso Police Department wrote, in an affidavit, “it is believed that cocaine was the contributing factor.” A young woman was arrested. Rumors swirled around town.
Jeep was buried in his #22 UTEP uniform.
A cloud seemed to settle over sunny El Paso, one that would take forever to blow over. I sat at my desk in the Special Events Center and stared at the walls for weeks.
The coroner’s report took forever. When it came out, we learned that Jackson did not have cocaine in his blood, and he didn’t die directly from the drug, although traces were in his urine. It was a “congenital heart defect,” the coroner suggested. But by that time, the damage had been done in the national media. Jeep was compared to Len Bias, the deceased Maryland star who’d partied too hard just eleven months earlier.
Haskins, on his own, quietly “retired” Jeep’s locker, had a plaque put above it. No player would ever use it again. Last time I checked, Jeep’s stuff was still in that locker.
Any player currently on the roster was, according to Coach Haskins, simply not very good. In fact, there usually wasn’t one damn thing a player with eligibility could do well.
Yet anyone who finished his career for the Miners was a fine player. No matter how little a guy had played, how bad his stats were, he’d be difficult to replace, and Haskins would praise him. Steve Yellen, for example, averaged less than one point a game, but he was transformed into “a helluva competitor.”
Thus, the true greats from UTEP or Texas Western took on legendary status around the basketball program. Big Daddy Lattin was like a Marvel comic book superhero. Gary Brewster was as much a myth as a man. Gus Bailey, who played in the NBA despite a gnarled knee, should have been given the Congressional Medal of Honor. The best players—especially the ones with great heart—became immortal, due to Haskins’ embellished storytelling.
Yet, Haskins refused to get involved with media questions like “Who were the best five players ever at UTEP?” He treated every player equally to the public: they were practically worthless when they played, irreplaceable when they finished. That was it, as far as the fans would ever know.
But despite his public claims, and treating the Miners pretty-much equally, he didn’t feel the same about all of them. How could he?
Haskins loved Jeep Jackson. He never said that, of course, but there was simply no disguising it. Despite Jeep’s one aberration, his chafing at halftime of the Iowa game, Haskins loved him. He’d felt the force of Jeep’s personality, how one kid playing really hard could lift his teammates—and our fans, coaches, and even our P.A. announcer and radio voice—into a tireless intensity. And Haskins had seen Jeep transform from a decent shooter to a great shooter when the game was in the balance. And, let’s face it, Haskins never laughed around the Special Events Center. Jeep changed that, just a few times, but enough to notice.
Haskins didn’t get to reminisce about Jeep Jackson’s career for very long. Jeep died less than two months after the Iowa game. So Haskins never told Jeep stories, the way he might tell tales about past players. He was never immortalized in the film room or commemorated in team meetings, not like Nate Archibald or Bad News Barnes or Bobby Joe Hill.
I was glad Haskins didn’t tell Jeep Jackson stories. Hearing them would have been too painful, and anyway, the coach never showed his emotional cards. Still, anytime I went into the locker room for games or meetings, or just to think, there it was: Jeep’s locker. And I knew Don Haskins had done that.
Today, a quarter of a century after he checked out of the game, I keep seeing Jeep. I remember the way he would glance back at his teammates when the Miners needed a defensive stop, then slap the floor with both hands. That wordless gesture meant get down low in a stance, and don’t you quit—precisely what Haskins would have told the team if he could have been heard above the roar.
It was a great irony that Jeep’s heart was blamed for his death—something was wrong with Jeep Jackson’s heart? You sure wouldn’t have guessed that from watching him play. You would have figured Jeep was going to live forever.
Rus Bradburd was an assistant coach at UTEP from 1983 until 1991. Now an assistant English professor at NMSU, he’s the author of “Forty Minutes of Hell: the Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson.” His first book of fiction, Make It, Take It, will be released in January 2013.