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.

by Rus Bradburd

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.