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Jackson stays close to home for college

Joe Jackson's latest transaction in tattoos best sums up the evolving worldview of the future University of Memphis point guard.

Gone: the one on his right shoulder that read, "Polished," because, well, he's not yet.

In its place, covering up the old one: new ink that reads, "Good Times and Sad Times."

That amounts to a self-status check that for Jackson is a regular exercise in remaining grounded enough to keep track of where he wants to go while reminding himself that if he doesn't tend to business he could end up back where he was -- near his parents.

Mom and dad, Lachaundra Jackson and Joseph Burns, have drifted in and out of society's margins, and Jackson did too before he moved in with his maternal grandmother, Lillie Cox.

"Man, I've been in and out all my life, but for the last five years I've been just staying with [Cox], stable," Jackson said. "I was going through hard times in all things. In seventh grade, I was not going to school for weeks at a time. My next grade, eighth [after he moved in with Cox], all this stuff just started happening like a surprise.

"At first, I didn't have a lot of things other kids had like nice clothes, but she had clean clothes. And before, I didn't eat every day, but she made sure we had meals."

Cox, a soon-to-be 60-year-old hospital secretary and office administrator whose sainthood is in the works, houses Jackson, his two younger sisters, his aunt and a nephew.

This is not a story about grandma stepping in and playing drill sergeant.

Joe Jackson already had basic instincts, many of them good, to go with a solid-gold knack for scoring a basketball (26.2 points per game last season while leading Memphis' White Station High to the state Class AAA title). But the No. 5 point guard in the ESPNU 100 lacked structure.

Then, grandma offered, "Little Joe," as she said family referred to him, a place not only to rest his bones, but to hang literal and figurative meat on them … to build himself up.

"He's always pretty much been a nice, good kid, and interested in getting his school work," Cox said. "He and his mom and brother and sister were in and they moved out. In the course of moving out, some decisions she made weren't good.

"I ended up just going back and getting him because he made a bad grade in a class, and that wasn't like him. I went to his mom's house and got him. From that day forward I did everything I could."

Secret skills

Some of the truths about Little Joe come out in come-to-Jesus talks.

White Station coach Jesus Patino said, "About twice a week he'll come in the office, sit down, and we'll look each other in the face. I do that with most of my players. I'll advise them, try to tell them what's coming in recruiting, ask about school, family, everything."

They talk about good times, like being recruited by Memphis, Duke, Ohio State, Kentucky, Tennessee and more.

But there are trappings, and bad things to talk about as well. Some come from afar, others are rooted in Jackson's Orange Mound neighborhood on Memphis' southeast side. Orange Mound, noted in one of Jackson's seven tattoos, was one of the first communities in the U.S. built by African-Americans for African-Americans in the late 1800s.

"Everybody wants a piece of a great player, and to make money rather than help a kid," Patino said. "And at times maybe he starts thinking about how because of his success … he said, 'My dad talks to me more than used to,' and he sees mom more and he may be a little confused about that."

The coach said Jackson is so "intent" on where he's going that it helps keep him from dwelling on some of the negatives.

"I've been in and out, all around, up and down. It's a tough neighborhood, but the neighborhood sticks together," Jackson said. "[His parents] they're not too far from me. Some of the decisions they made in their lives have affected them. In the long run, decisions hurt them.

"My dad kind of was in a predicament more than me, and he wants me to do it for my future. He'll always be on me to do the right thing. And your mom always wants you to do good no matter what."

Apparently, Little Joe doesn't tell all.

As he transitioned from, "playing all kinds of sports around the neighborhood," to excelling in basketball despite below-average size (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), grandma didn't know he was special.

"They had a goal in my backyard, and they would play and shoot all the time, and I knew he was playing at school," Cox said. "But he wouldn't let us know when his games were because he's always been a little shy. That was until the [middle school] coach called said, 'Why don't you come?' I said, 'He never lets us know.'

"Then, I had AAU coaches over at my house wanting him to play with them, so I knew something had to be going on."

And up. Scouts Inc. ranks Jackson as the No. 21 high school player in the nation.

There are reports of a 36-inch vertical leap, and he's undeniably quick, fearless and gifted in many ways with a basketball in his hands.

Just one thing; he said he's not 5-11.

"I must have grown," said Jackson, who is listed 6-1 on the White Station Web site. "Three weeks ago I was talking to Allen Iverson [of the Memphis Grizzlies]. I was at the Memphis Madness [the Tigers' first practice], and he was in the locker room. He said, 'Your height never matters.' I was surprised. I'm taller than Allen Iverson.

"I think I grew an inch and a half. Being a small guard, there's things on the court that people say you can't do, and that makes you want to go prove them wrong."

Iverson, listed as 6-foot on the Grizzlies' Web site, went to the Memphis practice because of his relationship with first-year Tigers assistant Jack Murphy. He was an assistant last season with the NBA's Nuggets when Iverson was there.

Family matters

Jackson signed with Memphis because John Calipari's successor, Josh Pastner, was involved all along in recruiting him as a Memphis assistant, and because home is where his heart is.

Orange Mound is roughly one mile from the University of Memphis. Coincidentally, Iverson and Calipari teamed up a few years ago to raise funds to renovate outdoor basketball courts in the area.

With some decisions yet to come, the come-to-Jesus talks may have helped Jackson -- a B student by multiple accounts -- make the biggest one yet.

He aspires to the NBA, but also said he may study business, "or something that might help me coach," or communications, "so I can be the next Kenny Smith [a former NBA point guard and announcer]."

The idea of joining fellow incoming freshman Will Barton, ESPNU's No. 5-ranked player and No. 1 shooting guard, in the same Memphis backcourt did not dissuade him in choosing a college, to be sure, but grandma clearly loomed large.

"His biggest question was, 'Should I stay in Memphis or look what's out there?'" Patino said. "'If I go there, can I play in the NBA? Can I be a starter as a freshman?' I would bring him back to reality and say, 'First, you can't do anything without academics.' I think he was tempted to go to Tennessee, and Calipari went to Kentucky and kept recruiting.

"Ohio State said, 'You're the difference in our team.' A Duke assistant said, 'We really need you.' Another big thing was one of life's questions. I told him I live my life pretty simple: do things for other people, then take care of yourself and everything works out. I said, 'Are you ready to go to a big school rather than staying around for your grandmother to see you?'

"I think he made the right decision … stayed close to his grandmother. She is his family."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.