Remembering Jeep Jackson

One of our favorite writers, the great Rus Bradburd, whose Jerry Sloan profile appears in SLAM 158 and on the site today, just hit us with this thoughtful piece about the late UTEP star Jeep Jackson, who died 25 years ago tomorrow and we knew nothing about. Enjoy the history lesson from Rus.—Ed.

In the summer of 1983, before my first season coaching at UTEP, Don Haskins would moan about the basketball team’s desperate straits. We were already sunk, he said, due to our lack of a true point guard. But one of the other assistant coaches quietly predicted that a red-shirted freshman might provide leadership.

As it turned out, both Coach Haskins and then-assistant Tim Floyd were correct.

Although the Miners went 27-4 in the 1983-84 season—hardly the train wreck that Haskins foresaw—Jeep Jackson was not the true point guard we’d hoped for. He handled the ball a bit too high. He was excitable, erratic even. And he seemed to know only one speed: fast.

But Floyd, who’d discovered Jackson in Los Angeles, turned out to be correct as well: Jackson would be a leader. While he wasn’t the natural distributor that we needed—help was on the way, as Tim Hardaway would arrive soon—Jackson brought other qualities. For one thing, he never seemed to tire. Practice and games were an endless sprint. He’d stay in a defensive stance, and pester the other team’s ball-handlers and shooters without a break.

Jeep also had a wide smile and a mischievous charm. And the fans adored him, especially kids, partly because of his nickname. Nobody called Jeep Jackson by his real name, Hernell.

Jackson’s energy spilled over into his sense of humor. He’d tease Coach Haskins! The other players were afraid to even speak to the coach.

Nobody was safe. When I boarded a plane back from a win in Hawaii wearing a floral-print, he said, “Coach, you better water that shirt.” Once, an hour before a game, when church-like silence was the rule, he cracked up his teammates by pointing at my rumpled slacks—“Coach Rus lost a fight with an iron!”

Joyful and exuberant, he simply could not be discouraged. Even after losses, he remained irrepressibly optimistic.

All of this—especially the optimism and the eternal grin—nearly drove Coach Haskins crazy at first. Haskins was not so much a realist as a believer in the power of negative thinking. He planned for the worst, expected disaster, so he was always be prepared and never disappointed.

Jackson would irritate Haskins, but the coach could halfway-forgive him for a single reason.

Jackson had, in a word, heart. Tremendous heart.

Although Jeep would have been able to showcase his speed and flair in a run-and-gun program, he never bitched about the disciplined UTEP style. And Haskins stopped lamenting that Jeep would never be a decision maker. How could either complain? The Miners won four WAC titles in a row when Jeep Jackson played. Despite their difference in mindset and outlook, Haskins and Jeep understood and accepted each other.

Their connection was nearly telepathic. Once, Jeep ruined a simple two-on-one break by throwing a behind-the-back pass into row 3. He kept running, even after the whistle, circled behind the basket and plopped himself down on the UTEP bench. Haskins didn’t see his guard sub himself out—he was already standing, instructing Jackson’s replacement at the scorers’ table to yank his flamboyant guard.

By the time he was a junior, and despite Hardaway’s arrival, Jeep was getting all the action he could hope for. Two small guards? Haskins never worried about that. In 1987, after Jackson’s senior year, he was named first-team all-conference, making the WAC all-tournament team, too. This was at a time when the WAC consistently placed three teams in the NCAA playoffs.

The Miners got a terrible draw in the NCAAs that March. In the final year that it was permissible within brackets, UTEP had to play Arizona on their own court. And Arizona was loaded with future NBA players, as well as major-leaguer-to-be Kenny Lofton.

The game was close, but when Quentin Gates fouled out (after scoring over twenty points in the first half), the Miners began to slip. A win seemed out of reach. But Jeep led a frantic rally. With 50 seconds left, he pickpocketed an Arizona player and drilled a three-pointer. Moments later, Chris Blocker tied the game at the buzzer. Overtime.

Arizona should have simply walked off the court then.

Jeep Jackson hijacked that overtime with his sheer energy and determination, scoring seven points in the 5-minute period. In the end it wasn’t even that close: Miners 98, Arizona 91. Not exactly the scoring totals or defensive stops that Haskins revered, but it was the most dramatic win for UTEP since 1966.

Jeep finished with 23 points, and you could feel his confidence infecting his teammates in the next two days. Iowa was next—they too had a host of future NBA players—and their fastbreaking reputation made the Miner guards twitch with anticipation.

Most coaches would have been guardedly optimistic at halftime of the next game: the Miners were beating Iowa. But Haskins knew what nobody on the team seemed to understand: UTEP was playing Iowa’s game, a carefree, Atari-paced style. Sure, Jeep and Hardaway could run with anyone, but many of the Miners were ill suited to play that pace. So Haskins raised hell at the half.

An angry Don Haskins speech was not unusual. What was unusual, though, was that Jeep Jackson challenged him briefly, and even shook his head at Haskins’ warnings that we couldn’t keep up the tempo. Haskins believed Jackson was out of control, had lost sight of what had made the Miners so good.

Haskins had plenty of harsh words for his players, but rarely was he critical of his staff. But he jumped me, for the first and last time, as we went back out to face Iowa in the second half.

“Don’t ever pat a guy on the back,” he growled, “while I’m chewing on his ass.”

I hadn’t even realized I’d done it, an awkward attempt to bolster Jeep by pounding his shoulder from behind while the coach ripped him. I’d never seen Jeep shake off the coach, hadn’t heard Haskins really blister him in three years.

Jeep, I’m sure, figured Haskins was losing it—he was playing great again, and would finish with 17 points. And hadn’t the coach noticed that we’d almost scored a hundred points on Arizona?

Jeep must have been certain when, with seven minutes remaining, UTEP was up by seven points. By then, of course, there was no talking the Miners out of it: they knew they could run with Iowa, and that Haskins was simply too old school to understand.

Then the wheels came off.

The Miners began to miss the hurried shots that had fallen in the first three-quarters of the contest. We turned the ball over. Our front line looked like they were running in mud, to borrow a familiar phrase from the old coach. UTEP had fallen into a trap, and our boisterous senior had Pied-Pipered the team into the ambush. In the end, it was Iowa who advanced.

WAC Champs and second round of the NCAAs meant a great season for UTEP. Still, it left you with a sense that there could have been more, that somehow our potential hadn’t been fulfilled.

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.