Feb. 28, 2014
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Desmar Jackson remembers his first week of classes at Southern Illinois University in the fall of 2011, when he discovered that school work was now solely his responsibility.
That initial week and in the months ahead, no one came to the Wyoming transfer's apartment to pick him up and transport him to class -- a luxury he enjoyed at his former school. In fact, in every aspect of his day-to-day life, Jackson faced a higher level of personal responsibility than he had ever experienced, and those were difficult adjustments for the basketball star to make.
Two-and-half years later, Jackson has emerged a new man. He brims with confidence not just about his basketball ability, but about common, every-day matters that were sometimes a challenge for him in the past -- getting to class on-time, managing his finances, staying organized.
"Southern Illinois made me grow up," Jackson acknowledged. "I had to change the way I did things when I got here. At Wyoming, they had guys who would pick you up to go to class, for example. When I came to Southern, everything was switched around and I had to do everything on my own."
Initially, he struggled with academics at SIU. Now if you ask him how classes are going, he's excited to tell you about the big test he just aced or the paper he wrote in which he received a good grade.
"There are plenty of people who didn't think I could make it this far, but when I put my mind to it, I can do the classwork," he beamed.
Final proof will come this spring when Jackson expects to become the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
To understand the Warren, Ohio-native, first you must know his roots. He comes from a family of limited means. His dad spent time in prison -- although Jackson remains close to his father. Basketball was Jackson's top priority at Warren G. Harding High School, where he was a finalist for Ohio Player of the Year his senior year.
"There are plenty of people who didn't think I could make it this far, but when I put my mind to it, I can do the classwork."
Jackson led the Cowboys in scoring in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, but after the coaching staff was fired, Stewart landed a job at Southern Illinois.
"Coach Stew and I were really close, and he told me if I wanted to come to Southern, I could, but if not, to stay there and keep doing what you're doing," Jackson explained. "I needed a change."
Per NCAA transfer regulations, he sat out the 2011-12 season, and then SIU's coaching staff was let go in the spring of 2012. Jackson didn't want to transfer yet again, so he stayed in Carbondale.
Although he played in every game his junior year and led the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game, there were bumps along the way. At one point, new head coach Barry Hinson told the media he had purchased a bus ticket to send Jackson home to Ohio if he didn't alter some old habits. The 6-foot-5 guard took the criticism in stride.
"He's the head coach and you have to follow his rules," he said. "Whatever he says, goes. It was kind of good for me because it made me mature a lot."
As a senior this season, Jackson has become one of the top players in the Missouri Valley Conference. He leads the team in scoring (564), rebounding (162), assists (63), steals (73) and free throws (149). No player in school history has ever led the team in all five of those categories. He's an odds-on favorite to become SIU's first All-Conference guard since Bryan Mullins in 2008.
Among two-year players at Southern Illinois, only Troy Hudson (1,164) and Freddie McSwain (1,083) have scored more points in their careers than Jackson (1,031), and he currently ranks No. 1 in steals per game at SIU, ahead of Mullins.
"This is my last go-around for college basketball and I wanted to leave everything out there on the court," he explained.
When the season ends, Jackson will continue training in the hopes of becoming SIU's first NBA Draft pick since Chris Carr was chosen by the Phoenix Suns in the second round in 1995. If his NBA dreams don't come true, he could earn a nice living playing professionally overseas.
Jackson's learned many lessons during his time at SIU.
"You can't worry about what people say about you -- you just have to focus on your team, your family and things like that," he advised. "Don't try to impress anybody. I'm here to get a degree, play ball and try to get paid after college. I'm a humble person. I don't brag on myself. I just play the game."