The Stephen Jackson Academy
The idea came from a hurricane, from wind and rain and a storm surge that displaced residents and shuffled students from shuttered schools in Port Arthur, Stephen Jackson’s hometown.
The Gulf Coast community (pop. 53,818) was reeling in 2005 and Jackson, then an Indiana Pacer, was feeling its pain. Why not, he wondered, build his own school, a place where kids could learn and his family could help? A school where everyone could play ball until parents picked them up after work?
Judyette Jackson, Stephen’s mother, shared the vision. Jack, as the Spurs’ swingman is known, plunked down $500,000. He says Port Arthur agreed to invest another $500,000. And that’s the story behind the building at 235 Proctor Street. Hurricane Rita gave birth to the Stephen Jackson Academy.
The additional $500,000 never arrived so the academy remains incomplete. Jack had wanted a school, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade at first, with another grade added each year through 12th. But financial challenges and more hurricanes forced Jack and Judyette to adjust.
So they opened an after-school center. The academy houses a gym, study rooms with computers, classrooms for tutoring, a kitchen and concession stand. For years, parents dropped off their children at the academy for learning, fun and an after-school snack. But then Judyette went back to college, and the after-school program went on hiatus.
She’s nearing completion of a bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences at Lamar University in nearby Beaumont. “I should have my degree by this summer,” she says, and then the after-school program will re-open.
The gym never closed. The computer classrooms remain available for those who wish to use them. Residents rent the facilities for class reunions and parties and volleyball leagues. Jack uses the place for pickup games and his annual Jack 1 Foundation banquet.
“I’m giving back,” Jack says, “but my goal is still the school.”
Port Arthur loves him. Jack returns home in the off-season, a couple of months every summer, and serves and plays and fishes and hangs out. He holds an annual basketball camp at his gym. One year he brought Shaquille O’Neal to town to help him distribute boxed lunches, personal care items and cosmetic products to 800 families. “He’s our hero,” Port Arthur mayor Deloris Prince once told ESPN.com.
Imagine how his family feels. When Rita hit Port Arthur in 2005, more than two dozen relatives tried to evacuate to Jack’s home in Atlanta. When they got snarled in traffic, Jack sent two private planes to fly them back to Indiana.
One year later, the Stephen Jackson academy started in a house of worship, and it wasn’t an after school program. “We operated a private school from 2006 to 2007 in the fellowship hall of our church,” Judyette says. “We had about 30 kids, pre-K through sixth grade. Then we built a gymnasium.”
Mother and son made some missteps. The school closed and the after-school program began.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Jack says. “We were just doing this out of our hearts. We wanted to give back and made a lot of mistakes along the way. I think it’s made us stronger. Our passion and drive to get it done is still the same.”
The after school program drew children and the academy, particularly the gym, became a popular gathering place. Today, the academy attracts young probationers who are sent to complete community service hours.
“The probation officers send kids there to do volunteer work and to stay out of trouble,” Jack says. “They come and clean up the place, work with the kids playing pickup games to make sure nobody is cheating and stuff. It’s a great environment because not only are we helping kids in school but we are helping kids on probation.”
Jack’s love for Port Arthur runs deep. He learned to ball there. He learned about family and loyalty and heartbreak. A brother was murdered when he was 16. Jack also learned a work ethic that carried him through four tough years in foreign and minor leagues before he broke into the NBA.
“I’m home all summer,” he says. “I take pride in that. A lot of NBA guys get successful and make all this money and don’t go home. My mom, my brothers, my sisters, my kids, my grandma -- my whole family is still in my hometown so I have to go back.”
Jack brags on his family -- the sister who coaches high school volleyball and volunteers at the academy, the aunt who serves as an academy counselor, his mother who runs the operation as CEO. He brags on the kids the academy has served. Which is why he keeps digging into his wallet. Jack sets aside money each year to fund the academy’s completion.
How long will it take to launch the school? “Realistically another five years,” he says. “And if it takes longer, so be it. I’m dedicated to it. My mom’s dedicated to it. And that’s one reason she’s going back to get her degree -- so we can put more into it and know more about it than when we first started.”