Orchestrating A Career
After a childhood playing violin, Larry Jackson Jr is ready for a long career on the court.
by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer
Larry Jackson Jr awoke from a three-hour nap and slid his long legs into and across the back seat of a small, two-door, navy blue car. A new teammate and his father drove the Florida native to the gym in which he would play his first professional basketball game. Upon arriving at the Lagomar team complex in Canelones, Uruguay, Jackson entered a whirlwind of screaming fans. He couldn’t understand what the raucous home crowd was jeering as he walked to the locker room, but he knew they were directing their hate at the visiting team’s new American player.
When the buzzer sounded, the gym began to spin. Jet lag from his nine-and-a-half-hour journey from Tallahassee to southwest South America clouded his head. His legs grew stiff from the blood test his team physical required that afternoon. His lungs struggled to adjust to the sticky tropic heat that permeated the already-sweltering gym. The first three minutes of the contest might have been the worst of Jackson’s life.
People say that basketball played to perfection—a harmonious pick-and-roll or a silky corner three following a drive-and-kick—is like poetry in motion. For Jackson, now a 25-year-old, 6-6 Florida A&M product, the game is a lot like smooth classical music flowing from the f-holes of a violin.
As a child, Jackson’s parents, Larry and Stephanie, prohibited their son from playing organized basketball and encouraged him to focus on becoming a well-rounded scholar. As a result, Jackson spent his days studying and his free-time dabbling in sophisticated extra-curricular activities. The couple wanted their child, growing up in the small town of Chattahoochee, FL, to be more than just another athlete.
“Being a young black man, there’s all kinds of stereotypes against us, so my mom and dad were extremely tough on me to prepare for the world,” Jackson says. “You know, every young black man is supposed to be a good basketball player or a drug dealer and my mom and dad didn’t want that for me. They wanted me to have other options.”
His parents first pushed their son toward music, where Jackson’s abnormal height and size for a pre-teen narrowed his options on which instrument to take up.
“He was always tall and he had long fingers, so it was either going to be the piano or the violin and the violin is what he liked and did very well with,” Stephanie says. “He won a lot of ribbons, a lot of competitions and did very well. Not only in violin, but also in public speaking.”
Jackson frequently participated in public speaking and debate competitions as well. He would annually contend for first place in 4-H/Tropicana Public Speaking Contest, a Florida state tournament for children ages 5 to 18. Jackson remembers placing fourth in the state in sixth grade and winning the title the following year.
“Everything that I challenged him to do, he did it without arguing and excelled in it,” Stephanie says. “He was always playing basketball, I just wanted him to know that you could also excel in other things.”
Jackson would always jump at any opportunity to put a ball in any kind of hoop. He’d jump at every chance to play ball in gym class or after church on Sundays even though he spent most of his time excelling in the orchestra.
Jackson’s height made him stick out like a sore thumb among his fellow violinists as he toured across North Florida participating in dozens of festivals until his parents finally allowed him to put on a uniform and step on to the hardwood when he was 14. Looking back, Jackson says the lessons he learned from the violin helped him transition to the court.
“It helped me be patient. Playing the violin is never really a hardcore, fast-paced type thing,” Jackson says. “It’s always extremely smooth and it makes you have to wait for everything to fall in place and never let anything get rushed. When I’m having a bad night or things aren’t going the way I thought they would before the game, I never try to force things. I just always try to stay in a smooth rhythm knowing that shots will start falling my way.”
When Jackson began playing with high schoolers while still in the eighth grade, he says his musical experience also helped him score in many ways.
“You used your right hand with the bow and your left hand always had your fingers moving to play the strings. That definitely helped me be able to use my left hand a bit more,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m ambidextrous, but I’ve always been able to finish around the basket with both hands ever since I started playing.”
Jackson only played two or three games for West Gadsden High School’s JV squad in eighth grade before moving up to varsity. And while that meteoric rise in such limited time playing organized ball is impressive, Jackson didn’t truly feel he had a future in the sport until his success with an AAU club called Team Breakdown in the 10th grade. On that team, Jackson teamed with future Florida Gator, Kenny Boynton, and future Miami Hurricane, Eddie Rios.
“Certain games I would play great and people would mention that it was against a guy who was like a four- or five-star player and I was like, OK, I for sure can play in college,” Jackson says. “Nobody knows who I am but that guy is expected to be a college star and I just had a really good game against him.”
By his senior season in high school, Jackson was ranked the No. 3 power forward in Florida behind AJ Stewart, a future Kentucky Wildcat, and Chandler Parsons, now with the Houston Rockets. Jackson was also ranked higher than Milwaukee Bucks center Larry Sanders.
Sure enough, Division I programs came calling. Jackson received offers from mid-majors in Southeastern Louisiana, Sam Houston State and Gardner Webb. He even was offered by Florida State, but opted for the local school in Florida A&M.
“My grandfather, who’s passed away now, got really sick my senior year and was always a huge Florida A&M fan,” Jackson says. “My mom told me that if I went to Florida A&M it would be close to home if I ever needed anything and I could be close to my grandfather. The coaching staff also told me I wouldn’t sit behind anyone and I could come in and play right away as a freshman.”
But the day before Jackson was set to move in to A&M’s campus in Tallahassee, the Rattlers’ coach who recruited him, Mike Gillespie, was fired after a scandal surfaced. Gillespie was reportedly stalking an ex-girlfriend. That opened the door for Eugene Harris to take over the reigns of the program and ultimately instill an offensive system that left Jackson out of the loop. As a four-year starter at A&M, Jackson never averaged more than 6.7 field-goal attempts per game and was mostly limited to a finishing lobs on offense. Jackson says he and Harris’ basketball ideologies clashed, ultimately leading to his poor stats and eventually a slow start to his professional career.
After Jackson graduated from Florida A&M in 2011, the NBA prepared for an ensuing lockout. With the work stoppage on the horizon and no agencies interested in representing a player who didn’t score in double-figures at a mid-major program, Jackson, a criminal justice major, didn’t enter his name in the NBA Draft and instead took up an internship at the Gadsden County Sheriff Department, following around investigators on ride-alongs and hoping his best days on the court were still to come.
“I stuck out a lot because that was my hometown, man. Every time somebody would see me around, they would say, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be in the NBA? Aren’t you supposed to be overseas somewhere?’” Jackson says. “It was a little awkward because everywhere I went I wasn’t viewed as the college graduate who got a nine-to-five job, I was criticized for not playing pro ball.”
But when the lockout ended in November, Jackson’s friends and family encouraged him to get back to practicing. As he worked with his father in the gym, Jackson began shopping his name to European teams and agencies. Jackson participated in a Eurobasket Summer League in Orlando in July 2012—along with several other prospect camps—and earned Tournament co-MVP. Still, no agents returned his calls or emails and the phone remained silent from teams, too.
“It was crazy. I was MVP of this camp, top-10 performer of that camp, All-Star team of another camp, four years Division I, three-year team captain and still had nobody wanting to sign me,” Jackson says. “It was just the luck of the draw, I guess.”
He was ready to give up hope when an email entered his inbox. Eduardo Hernandez, coach of Club Atletico Plaza of Liga Sur in Uraguay wanted Larry to play in his frontcourt. And though the level of competition in Uruguay is very low compared to the leagues Europe, Jackson and his family felt his dream was now beginning to become a reality.
“Faith will find a way. You just have to stay persistent and persevere and faith will find a way.” Stephanie says. “He was just going to be so far away and we’re a very, very close family. It was the saddest and happiest I could be at the same time, if that makes any sense.”
With his parents’ blessing, he boarded a plane to Urugauy and the next chapter of his life.
With two minutes left in the first quarter, Jackson caught his second wind. He found his legs underneath him. He settled down and began to find the bottom of the net.
“I was getting to the free-throw line a lot and shots started falling,” Jackson says. “I was getting into a rhythm and I started grabbing a lot of rebounds and getting easy shots around the baskets. At halftime, I had already had a double-double.”
Jackson finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, leading his team to a victory over then-top-ranked Lagomar, which Club Atletico Plaza previously lost to by 21.
“That’s when I was like, Yes! I’m finally over here and I’m finally doing it,” Jackson says.
Jackson finished the season averaging 23 points and 14 rebounds. But when he returned home, he still could not find an agency to represent him. Without other options, Jackson happily returned to Plaza this fall and now facing double and triple-teams every time he touches the ball, the big man is still averaging 16.2 points, 16.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in 35.5 minutes per game through six contests this season.
“Right now I feel like I am the most underrated player in the world,” Jackson says confidently. “Now that I have an agent and I have someone backing me that teams will actually listen to, I think I have what it takes to be a real contributor in a top league in Europe.”
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m just another asset in Larry’s toolkit,” Young says. “He’s got his story, his wants, his needs and his goals and I’m just trying to put it all together.”
Young thinks Jackson has the capability of playing in one of the top leagues in Europe, specifically Turkey. But the tandem’s goal is still crystal clear.
“We are looking at the next five years with a very clear mission, easily abbreviated: NBA,” Young says. “We anticipate that Larry will be available next season for a club that is looking for a strong scoring forward.”
If Jackson does one day return to America to play with the world’s best, he’ll have to enter the NBA Draft first. Usually that would be viewed negatively by a 25-year-old, but considering Jackson doesn’t actually have updated tape of his best capabilities, going through the draft process—where teams can closely look at him in individual workouts—and playing in either/or the Orlando and Vegas Summer Leagues could be monumental for Jackson to showcase his talents to top teams all over the world.
And while Jackson has only had representation for a matter of weeks, his name has already surfaced in NBA discussions, according to two Eastern Conference scouts.
“I have my eyes on Spain, China, Italy and Turkey. That’s where the best players are, that’s where I’d like to be and I think I have the game to make it,” Jackson says. “It’s just about getting the opportunity to be seen over there. Once I get my foot in the door, I know I will be fine. I just need to get the opportunity.”
One opportunity is all Jackson needs to string together the next step in his journey and continue making beautiful music on the court.