Inspired By "Brother" Isaiah Austin, Pierre Jackson Pushes Forward After Injury
Pierre Jackson never really wanted to go to Orlando, to the court where the Achilles tendon in his right leg would rupture and leave his future in doubt. He wanted to go home, to the bright lights of Las Vegas.
As much as the season of a lifetime that lay ahead, Summer League in Jackson’s backyard had been on his mind ever since the joyous 2014 NBA Draft night, when New Orleans traded him to Philadelphia. He envisioned himself taking the event by storm, backed by a legion of hometown fans, his grandmom -- given the rare chance to see her lil’ P play in person -- “screaming all her usual crazy things” from the stands.
He even mapped it out with Sixers Summer League coach Chad Iske. The rebuilding team and its fast-paced offense were perfect for the electric 5-foot-10 guard, they agreed.
It would be poetic justice: The kid who was too short for the NBA, too much of a long shot to make it out of Vegas’ mean streets, returning to begin his ascent. The kid who the Pelicans never brought up from the NBA D-League, despite averaging 29.1 points per game for the Idaho Stampede, stealing the spotlight from one of the most touted Draft classes in NBA history.
“‘As soon as I go home, I’m gonna try to turn some heads,’” Jackson said he told Iske. “He understood what my mission was.”
Orlando was supposed to be a pit stop. The Sixers opted for Jackson and their three second-round picks to tune up at the smaller of the two Summer Leagues, which began six days before the main event in Vegas.
Jackson scored seven points in his first 6 minutes, 55 seconds of action in their first game on the Amway Arena court. Then he sprinted toward new teammate Nerlens Noel at the top of the key, called for the ball and “heard a big pop.”
“I thought something was wrong with the court, so I looked back,” Jackson told NBADLeague.com last week. “And then I tried to take another step and it felt like somebody had stabbed me in my calf.”
He hobbled backward and collapsed to the hardwood. He grimaced, fearing he’d broken his ankle, but didn’t cry.
Teammates Ronald Roberts and Ed Daniel reached underneath him and lifted him off the floor and toward the locker room. Jackson heard a trainer say “Achilles.” He stuffed a towel over his face and the tears poured out.
Jackson watched last week's Las Vegas Summer League from a Philadelphia hotel, where he’s been confined since undergoing surgery on July 10.
He watched rookie Jordan McRae average 21.0 points per game for the Sixers, who went 2-4. He watched previously unknown point guards Will Cherry and Yuki Togashi -- 6-foot and 5-7, respectively -- become fan favorites. His mother cooked and cleaned while he recuperated.
A full year of rehabilitation lies ahead, and Jackson's contract is non-guaranteed. (UPDATE: On July 24, the Sixers reportedly signed Jackson to a partially guaranteed deal for the 2014-15 season.) The 22-year-old is well aware of how much his success stems from his extraordinary athleticism, of how little margin for error a 5-10 guard has in a game of giants.
For two days following the injury, Jackson didn’t return phone calls, answer text messages, or read Twitter mentions, he said. “I was just sitting in my hotel room."
“I didn’t think anybody could talk to me or say the right things to make me feel any type of way. I didn’t think anybody knew what I was going through.”
Then he saw who one of the messages was from: former Baylor teammate Isaiah Austin. “I’m praying for you,” it read. “Everybody’s behind you no matter what.”
The two had spoken on the phone two weeks earlier, when the 20-year-old Austin found out four days before the NBA Draft that he would never be able to play basketball again. He had been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that could cause his heart to rupture at any moment.
Jackson called him, already in tears and expecting Austin to feel the same way. Instead, he heard the usual, "What's up, P-Jack?" on the other end of the line.
Jackson broke into a smile. “Keep being who you are,” he told Austin that day. “Because this right here -- I don’t know how I would’ve taken it.”
So much changed in just two weeks' time, but when cruel reality struck down upon Jackson, he thought of his 7-foot-1 "little brother."
It’s not “the end of the world,” he realized.
Being unable to pick up a basketball and walk to a gym, let alone play in an NBA game, still eats away at him. He's concerned that he can't provide for his family, as he tried to do when the February 2014 trade deadline passed without good news and he signed with a Turkish team. (He left Turkey after receiving little playing time in his first six games.)
But the resilient Pierre Jackson has reemerged, ready to take on his latest obstacle. He's joked about throwing his unlucky shoes onto the cable lines back home. He's researched Dominique Wilkins’ and Kobe Bryant’s comebacks from the same injury, labeling himself #theJACKMAMBA.
He's turned to the other people in his corner, pumping him with optimism: Thousands upon thousands of social media followers; his mother, caring for him like when he was a baby; his grandmother, the inspiration behind his entire basketball career, down to his jersey number, 55 -- her age when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; his former AAU coach, Alex Bernal, who once welcomed a 13-year-old Jackson onto the 17-and-under Vegas Rebels.
“The doctors said since he’s young, it could possibly make him stronger and faster,” Bernal, watching the Vegas Summer League from the stands, said last Monday. “And just think of Pierre stronger, quicker, and maybe more explosive. I mean, I’m pretty sure he’s gonna start changing the light bulbs at NBA arenas -- without the ladder.”
“You can go two ways -- you can go positive or you can go negative,” Austin said from the Thomas & Mack Center's front row, during a rare moment when he wasn’t signing autographs or posing for photos.
“We’re choosing to go positive.”