MADISON, Wis. — During the nights when everything hurt most, when basketball felt like a chore and the voices in his head dredged up old insecurities insisting he wasn’t good enough, Traevon Jackson sunk deeper into despair.
He had been so strong willed from a young age, able to pull himself out of these funks and quell his fears by staying in the gym hoisting jump shots and outworking anybody on his teams. But something was missing last year that he couldn’t quite explain. And so, he walked around campus angry at himself and the world, wondering if all the time and sacrifice was worth it to play basketball at the University of Wisconsin.
"The negativity would manifest itself to the point where honestly I didnât even want to play," Jackson says. "I questioned it a lot. I questioned it because I got to a point where I didnât love the game anymore. I felt like it was more of a job."
Teenage boys go to college hoping, in part, to learn something about who they are and grow into better men. To do so under the public microscope at a Big Ten school while facing scathing criticism affected Jackson in more ways than he recognized. He was suddenly thrust into the role as Wisconsin’s starting point guard because of a season-ending knee injury to teammate Josh Gasser, and he discovered the perils of learning on the fly.
On the court, he created self-doubt in his mind. When he missed a layup or turned the ball over, the pressure not to fail mounted and he thought back to days on his junior high AAU basketball team. He remembered when his father was in the stands watching him play poorly and wondered how upset he might be with his son for not living up to the family name.
"He’s a perfectionist," says Tammy Winston, Traevon’s mom. "I think some of that comes with being the son of Jim Jackson, All-American. He puts a lot of that pressure on himself. I think he does it subconsciously. He says he doesnât, but I honestly think he does.
"I think it bothered him. Some people are just ignorant. He was subjected to a lot of that. ‘You’re Jim Jackson’s son? Your dad was better.’"
Traevon had pushed those thoughts aside for years, but now they were drifting into the forefront. Jim Jackson was a two-time All-American at Ohio State and a 14-year NBA player. But who was Traevon Jackson, and how could he separate himself? How could he simply have fun playing on the basketball court and fill a void in his soul away from it? Traevon’s own anxiety led him down a path he acknowledges was not smart last year.
"I had a lot of off the court stuff," Jackson says. "In my mind I was a good guy. The typical good guy. I would do the right things. But I had a lot of flaws that personally I had to deal with. Whether it be going out, drinking or other things. It was a lot of stuff that I had that wasnât good. It was my outlook. Instead of it being like a casual thing, it was my outlet thing."
Faith had been a part of Jackson’s life from a young age, when he grew up in a single parent home with his mother. On Sundays, the two attended church together in Westerville, Ohio. In high school, when Tammy was too exhausted to attend church after working long nights as a UPS truck driver, Traevon went on his own.
But Jackson had tucked away much of that faith in college, returning to it when it was convenient for him. Only after he came home for the summer following his sophomore year did he realize how much an absence of daily spirituality was affecting him.
Jackson says he had a moment of clarity last summer that jolted him and offered to provide a different path — one with the potential to change his outlook on both basketball and life.
"You’re thanking God but then you’re going out here and getting drunk at night," Jackson says. "That doesn’t make sense. Where do you see that in His word? That doesnât make any sense at all. I would just represent Him so bad. He was like basically I’m sick of this. You need to make your mind up. I’m sick of giving you all this leeway."
The spiritual transformation began on, of all places, a basketball court for Traevon Jackson.
He spent his summers in Ohio participating in grueling workouts under the tutelage of mentor Anthony Rhodman, who founded In God’s Image Sports Training back in 2008. The workouts themselves have become highly respected, with a core croup of players including Jackson, Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke, Davidson’s Brian Sullivan and European pro Josh Bostic, among others.
Five days a week, over the course of six and seven hours, players worked on shooting, weight lifting, running hills and intense ball handling drills, many of which included a gauntlet of pads with dribblers getting hit like a football player.
The capstone to each day, however, was to study biblical scripture, with Rhodman focusing on topics he thought would apply to everyday life.
"Thatâs the biggest piece of the program," Rhodman says. "Thatâs what gets your mind and your spirit prepared for the task at hand. The hardest part in this sport is you have so many things attacking these guys’ minds: coaches, media, fans and fellow students. So you have to have a very strong mind. If your mind goes, you’re done."
Rhodman went one step further in June with Jackson, who was participating in his third summer of workouts. He pulled Jackson aside and talked to him about the importance of accepting the Lord into his life. Rhodman, a Columbus, Ohio, native, played basketball at a junior college and transferred to Louisiana Lafayette with visions of becoming an NBA player. He told Jackson his god had been basketball and his only focus was on needs for himself until an injury set his goals back and he eventually returned to Ohio.
"And everything he was saying, everything he was doing was exactly the same stuff I was doing," Jackson says. "I really felt the whole experience to be moving. Like you’ve got to make a decision. This is it. Everything just made sense at that moment."
Jackson returned home and remembers breaking down in tears in front of his mom. The emptiness he felt during the previous year at Wisconsin, he believed, was a direct result of not making faith a priority in his life.
He told his family about Rhodman’s story and pledged to change his behavior.
"They were looking at me like, ‘What is wrong with you?’" Jackson says. "’What has gotten into you?’ I was just like I have to get this message out. I have to. I just wanted to tell everybody and show everybody how it is. I knew people were thinking I was going to change back, like this is a little phase. But I’m not changing. There’s no going back. This is it."
Over the summer, Jackson became more deeply involved in Bible study. He says he looked forward to those sessions more than his basketball workouts. All the while, he began feeling more at ease both on and off the court. Nothing on the floor had changed, he says, because he was still working as hard as he always had.
"It was more the mental things," Jackson says.
When Jackson came back to campus to begin summer workouts, he felt happier, as though a considerable weight had been lifted. Though there is no quick fix for life’s problems, he vowed to work on being the best version of himself, to be a better teammate and friend to those close to him. He grew up a Christian Baptist but says he does not have a specific Christian denomination now. His goal instead is to treat himself and others with the understanding and love he’s gleaned from scriptures.
Jackson attends Athletes in Action meetings on campus, goes to Blackhawk Church in Middleton on Sundays and regularly reads scripture during his free time. His Twitter bio is a verse from the book of Matthew, chapter six, verse 33: "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
"He’s a different person compared to last year," Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker says. "It’s in a good way, I see it. He’s a very humble and gracious person. He feels very blessed to be in the situation he’s in. He’s a very strongly religious man. I respect him that he’s not afraid to show his true colors. He’s bold about it, and thatâs what I like. You need guys that are bold in the locker room to be leaders. â¦
"We’re talking all the time about our faith. He invites me to worship, and so to see him reaching out and caring for you like that as a true friend, it means a lot."
But what about the criticism of his basketball ability? That doesn’t suddenly vanish because you’ve decided to change who you are internally.
Traevon’s father, Jim Jackson, says he never pushed his son into basketball. But once Traevon chose the sport, his father told him about what may come. Traevon heard the taunts frequently growing up on the courts in Ohio, where his father had starred.
"It was difficult at first, I’ll be honest" says Jim Jackson, a college basketball analyst for the Big Ten Network. "But I think a lot of his determination was to be able to be the kind of basketball player he wants to be on his own. It’s rare that Traevon will ask me for advice for basketball. I think deep down inside he wants to prove not only to himself but to a lot of people that he’s doing it himself.
Jim Jackson told his son growing up that he couldn’t possibly please everybody. There would be those who would always compare Traevon, a 6-foot-2, 208-pound guard, to Jim, a 6-6, 220-pound forward, both of whom shared the same square jawline and facial structure, short-cropped hair and chiseled physique. Beyond the looks, however, Traevon was bound to absorb criticism anyway if he wanted to pursue basketball at the highest level.
"We’re all human," Jim Jackson says. "It affects you in different ways, but it can affect you where you donât do your job. No matter what you do, there’s always going to be somebody out there that’s going to be negative. But that’s part of the game. That comes with the territory. You can’t have the good without the bad. So you’ve got to figure out your own way to deal with it and still go do your job and not get caught up into it.
"I said the sooner you learn how to deal with that, the better off you’ll be because it’s always going to come. I donât care what level you’re at."
Last year represented a study in perseverance for Jackson on the court. He had never played as a true point guard while starring at Westerville South High School. But he was plunged into that role when Josh Gasser suffered an injury weeks before the regular season began. And though he has improved considerably, he still makes his share of mistakes, whether it be taking off-balance shots or turning the ball over in critical situations.
Jackson says he stopped logging on regularly to his Twitter account to avoid the shots directed his way. On Jan. 6, he tweeted: "Poor is the man whose future depends on the opinion and permission of others. If you’re afraid of criticism, you will die doing nothing!"
Jackson’s mom, Tammy, notes frustrations boiled over in the stands in early February. Tammy says she was nearly in tears after a Feb. 1 home game this season against Ohio State, in which the Buckeyes escaped with a 59-58 victory. Jackson had the ball in his hands in the final seconds but couldn’t create an angle on defender Aaron Craft at the top of the key and dished to Dekker, who misfired on a double-clutch 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
The name-calling she heard from fans appalled her.
"You’re talking about my child and it is so hard to sit there and listen to it without saying something," she says. "I’m not ignorant. I’m not going to say you shouldnât say that. If I react to the things that are being said, it’s going to be a reflection on Traevon. It’s going to come back on Traevon like your mom is crazy. So I just sit there and take it and let it go in one ear and out the other. But it kind of bothers me because these are adults."
Yet it was Traevon’s response to Tammy’s concern that showed her just how much he had changed. While she fought back tears in the bowels of the Kohl Center, Traevon consoled her.
"He was like, ‘Mom, how do you think Mary and Joseph felt?” Tammy says. "It put it in perspective. Like they’re just talking about you, so I guess I’ll survive. They’re not trying to kill you or anything. He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it. How do you think Mary and Joseph felt? They crucified their son.’ I’m like ‘OK, you’re right. I shouldnât let it bother me.’"
One week later, when faced with a similar in-game scenario, Jackson sank the winning jump shot from the left wing in the final two seconds to ssend Wisconsin to a 60-58 victory against Michigan State. The Badgers have not lost a game since then.
So, who exactly is Traevon Jackson?
He is the son of All-American Jim Jackson, yes. But he is also his own man, a 21-year-old who believes he is more comfortable in his skin than ever before. He has a greater balance and perspective on life. And he has found a way to block out many of the negative thoughts coming from outsiders and inside his own head that once threatened to ruin his love of basketball.
His high school coach, Ed Calo, tells a story about Jackson biking to summer workouts before his freshman season while his mom worked her job at UPS. Showing up was the only way for him to have a shot at making the varsity team, so he pedaled at 6 a.m., rain or shine, for 45 minutes four mornings a week to make the 7 a.m. session and biked home afterward. Jackson not only made the team; he quickly became a star. And that determination, Calo says, created someone as competitive as anybody he ever coached over 27 years, a rare player who hates to lose more than he loves to win.
Jackson says he thought spending time on faith would siphon off some of his competitive drive on the basketball court. Instead, he notes it has only increased his desire to succeed. Meanwhile, the frivolous forms of instant gratification he sought off the court last year no longer serve an importance in his life.
"I want people to understand I know there’s other people in my position that had to deal with the same thing," Jackson says. "I would do things to get away and try to get my mind off of things. But really, I was just kind of pushing it to the side. Going out, the drinking, the girls and all that. I felt empty. I felt like I needed something. Now if I need to get replenished and I need to get strengthened, then I’m in the word. I pray a whole lot."
The statistics reflect Jackson’s marked improvement on the court, which he says is the result of a renewed focus and toughness, as well as the hard work he has demonstrated for years.
Last year, Jackson averaged 6.9 points and shot 37.2 percent from the field. He also had a 1.35 assists-to-turnovers ratio, far from spectacular for a Big Ten starting point guard. Jackson’s competitive nature still allowed him to hit three game-tying or game-winning shots in the final seconds.
This year, Jackson is averaging 10.6 points and shooting 40.3 percent from the field. His assists-to-turnovers ratio is 1.81, and he ranks fifth in the Big Ten in assists per game (4.0).
"There’s a lot of things that aren’t going to go your way 100 percent of the time," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan says. "So you just have to be the kind of person that can not just pass it off but inside say, ‘OK, I can’t leave my feet again. I can’t make that decision. I have to be stronger.’ So he’s been able to catch himself and improve."
Those on-court developments have helped earn Wisconsin a XX-X record and a No. X national ranking with the Big Ten tournament beginning this week. It also has given the Badgers a realistic shot at the Final Four this season. As the starting point guard, Jackson is proud of those achievements. But he is equally proud of what he’s discovered away from the court.
Yes, teenage boys go to college hoping, in part, to learn something about who they are and grow into better men. And Jackson is realizing that growing never stops.
"The love is there more," Jackson says. "I walked around with so much bitterness and so much anger because of everything that was going on last year. I was like, ‘Man, F this. Forget the world. I donât want to deal with this.’ I had so much anger. I really forgave a lot. I forgave a lot of people. I forgave myself. Thatâs when I truly started walking in the love that God had placed in me.
"You can’t be out here with all this anger and live happy and have joy. That true joy is knowing no matter what it is you go through, nothing is too bad for you."
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter