September 13, 2007

Jackson poised for more with Irish

The dream wasn't the same as those of other kids his age who were dribbling a basketball.

Tory Jackson had the requisite talent on the court. Eventually his game would lead to a scholarship to play at Notre Dame. But he didn't grow up yearning to be the next Jason Kidd or John Stockton.

His dream was wholly different.

"I could have been the next Bobby Fischer," Jackson said.

No one could have pictured it. His parents, James and Sarah Jackson, didn't even know until Sarah fielded a call from a teacher at Claytor Elementary in their hometown of Saginaw, Mich. No, Tory wasn't in any kind of trouble. Quite the contrary. The teacher wanted to know if the youth could attend the Friendship Games in Canada.

"She called and said, 'Tory plays chess, did you know that?' No, I didn't know," Sarah Jackson said. "She said, 'I would like to enter him in a competition in Canada,' and I'm like, 'What?' "

Much as he surprised his mother with his chess prowess, he surprised the Big East last season on the court. Thrust into the starting lineup after 12 games when Kyle McAlarney was suspended and subsequently kicked out of school after being arrested on charges of marijuana possession, Jackson responded by helping the Irish to a surprising fourth-place finish in the conference. He averaged 9.5 points and 5.8 assists after becoming a starter and made the Big East All-Rookie team.

Jackson's speed and ability to get in the lane were a perfect fit for Mike Brey's team. Jackson created plenty of open looks on the perimeter for the Irish, who led the Big East in scoring (81.0 ppg) and 3-point field-goal percentage (39 percent) while finishing second in 3-pointers made per game (9.0).

OK, not everyone was surprised by what Jackson accomplished. There was one guy who said he knew what Jackson was capable of last season.

"I was going up against him every day in practice," said McAlarney, who has re-enrolled at Notre Dame and is back on the team. "I was the one who had to guard him. I think more than anyone else I wasn't surprised. I knew he had that kind of talent; it was just a matter of him knowing it and understanding and believing."

Jackson's first start came one game before the start of the grueling Big East season, against Stony Brook. Looking back, he believes it made a huge difference. He wouldn't have to play perfectly for the Irish to beat Stony Brook. Jackson didn't, either. He was timid offensively, making only one of three shots. He made poor decisions with the ball, turning it over five times while managing just two assists. He finished with three points. Still, Notre Dame won 95-66.

"That one game did help me out a lot," Jackson said. "I got the first-game jitters off my chest. I learned from my mistakes in that game. If my first start had been in the first Big East game, I would have been too jacked up. That would have been too much pressure."

Instead, Jackson played the conference opener against Louisville as if that one start had been 100. He delivered 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting, with four assists and just three turnovers in 35 minutes. The Irish ripped the Cardinals, 78-62. Suddenly McAlarney's loss didn't look like the loss of a promising season.

Big East All-Rookie Team
Listed alphabetically by school
Deonta Vaughn, Cincinnati
Jerome Dyson*, Connecticut
Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut
DaJuan Summers, Georgetown
Edgar Sosa, Louisville
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame
Tory Jackson, Notre Dame
Eugene Harvey*, Seton Hall
Paul Harris, Syracuse
Scottie Reynolds*, Villanova
Da'Sean Butler, West Virginia
*—denotes unanimous selection
Jackson and McAlarney kept in touch all season. They had forged a bond going at each other in practice and had played together some in those first dozen games. In fact, they were both on the court down the stretch in consecutive December wins over Maryland and Alabama, two huge confidence-builders for Notre Dame.

"(Kyle) was teaching me before I even got to step on the floor," Jackson said. "He helped me out a lot - when to pass, when not to pass. College basketball and high school basketball are two different things. I needed his tutelage. I looked toward him and looked up to him because I felt like he knew what he was doing.

"It hurt not to have Kyle (after the suspension), but I couldn't stay down because it would hurt my team. We stayed in contact with text messages, but I had to move on and help the team the best way I could. We ended up having great success. I have to thank Kyle for that. If he hadn't taught me, I wouldn't have been ready."

Jackson long has made the most of educational opportunities. When Ms. Bearing opened her classroom at Claytor Elementary during lunch hour so kids could read and play games, he would hang out there. Soon, she had taught him to play chess.

"She entered him in that competition - he was not even in junior high - and he played against an 18-year-old and won," Sarah Jackson said. "I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, when this boy puts his mind to stuff, he does well.' Not knowing a lot about chess play, she told me that it was a brain game. She told me you had to use your mind. So I figured he had an awesome brain."

Not one of his 13 siblings (yes, James and Sarah Jackson have 14 children together, ages 15-40, and have been together for the past 41 years) played chess. There were track stars, football players, basketball players, a bookworm, a budding engineer. But a chess prodigy?

To Jackson, chess was intense one-on-one competition. Focus was key. Thinking ahead was required.

It wasn't so far from being a point guard.

"Chess, that was my heart," Jackson said. "It made me better on the court, too. It takes patience. You have to make the right moves to beat somebody. You've got to see the move before it comes. Me being a point guard, I've got to see ahead of the play, see the end result.

"In chess, you get your queen taken, you still have a chance to win. That's like in basketball, if we're down 15 or 20, we've still got a chance. You have to keep your composure, in chess and on the court."

Jackson has a glass chess set in his dorm room, though he hasn't played nearly as much recently as he did in his formative years - unless you count playing point guard for the Irish.

It's up to Brey to take the pieces and make the right moves, and it's likely he will start Jackson and McAlarney together.

"That looks like the plan," McAlarney said. "I can't tell you what's going to happen, but it's going to be real exciting."

Jackson can't wait.

"In open gym, it's crazy," Jackson said. "We feel like we could be one of best backcourts in college basketball. He's very unselfish, and he can knock down shots, too. We're having fun."

Two kings in one backcourt?

Checkmate.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.




 

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