Pre-Season Interview #12: Darnell Jackson

Most fans have no idea who Darnell Jackson is.  He played 12 minutes in the Kings season opener against Minnesota on Wednesday evening, but only one of the Kings’ seven pre-season games was televised, so unless you are watching the coach’s interviews or paying full price to go watch scrimmage level basketball, you should have no reason to really know him.  To make matters worse, Jackson is that guy the Kings got for fan favorite John Brockman. Jackson is a player who’s playing on a non-guaranteed contract and came into camp as a long shot to even make it past first cuts.  At least that’s what we thought a few weeks ago.

There is some business that needs to be attended to before we get to Darnell’s words.  Every player has a story and the current Kings roster is filled with them- Dalembert and his native Haiti, Tyreke and “the blue print,” DeMarcus Cousins and red flags.  Darnell Jackson is different.  You wouldn’t know it when you meet him, hell, Coach Westphal doesn’t even know the whole story, but it is tragic and it is the story of a fighter and when you see Darnell Jackson on the court, that is exactly what he is, a fighter.

Certainly the story starts before this – when Darnell was 14, his estranged father was shot and killed by police after he allegedly attacked a jogger.  Darnell and his two younger siblings were already being raised by their single mother, Shawn, with the help of their grandmother, Evonna. The death of his father was only the beginning of this tragic tale.  During high school, Darnell’s grandfather passed away and one of his uncles was beaten to death with a hammer.  Jackson also had the misfortune of being the one to find the slain body of a high school classmate.  Then, soon after he left for Kansas, one of his close friends was shot and killed by gang members.  In 2005, it got worse.  Darnell’s mother and grandmother were in a serious car accident where a 19-year-old, who was drunk and high on cocaine, ran into them.  Five days after the accident, his grandmother succumbed to her injuries and passed away. Darnell’s mother, Shawn, was badly injured and would spend the next five years of her life struggling to manage both the bills from the accident and the pain from a badly maimed arm and leg.

If all of this sounds like too much, it was. January 5, 2007, Darnell Jackson left the University of Kansas and headed home to Oklahoma to help care for his mother.  Kansas coach, Bill Self, caught an early flight the next day and after some much needed fatherly advice, he returned to Kansas with his prized forward.  Returning to school was the right answer.  Darnell matured on and off the court and the Miami Heat chose him with the 52nd pick of the 2008 NBA draft.

Darnell Jackson never played a minute for the Heat. He was traded to the Cavs, where he spent the better part of two seasons as a mop-up player behind guys like Shaq and Ilgauskas. On March 23rd of this year, the Cavs needed a roster spot to re-sign Ilgauskas after he was waived by Washington. Darnell Jackson was the obvious option to go and the Cavs waived him to make room for the former all-star. Two days later, on March 25th, the Milwaukee Bucks claimed Darnell off waivers and his mother, Shawn, took her own life, overdosing on pain medication that she was still being prescribed from her 2005 car accident. Here is Darnell Jackson with James Ham:

JH: You mentioned to me in the locker room a couple of days ago that your mother had committed suicide.  I did the research and you have had some real tragedy in your life.  Sacramento fans are a little different.  They really want to know the players, so how much of your story do you want being known?

D-Block: It’s already out there.  I don’t have a problem talking to people about my childhood and what happened to me growing up.  Everybody goes through it, but the situation I’m in, people tell me that they don’t see how I handled it. I just keep it all inside until I break down a little. I just use it, I use it to get me through those bad days.

JH: I read that you named your newborn daughter after your grandmother (Evonna Joie Jackson, born April 15, 2010.) We talked the other night and you told me that she isn’t here in Sacramento with you.  What’s it like being away from your daughter and can you tell me about naming her after your grandmother.

D-Block: It’s kind of hard. Sometimes you need to have that love around. Looking at my daughter, she looks just like my mom and I just want to be there.  They should be here soon. They’ll probably come out here for a game or something.  I changed my number to 41 because of my mother (she was 41 when she died).  My grandmother was a strong woman and it was just the right name to name my daughter because it happened so quick.

JH: How do you want the fans to know Darnell Jackson?

D-Block: I’m a fighter. I’ve been fighting my whole life. Just know that I’m going to give it my all, day in and day out.

JH: We just saw three guys get cut. That tells us that you are pretty close to making this roster.

D-Block: Nope, that’s not telling me I made this roster at all because I could get cut at anytime.  I just have to keep pushing and take little bits and pieces of Conner (Atchley), Joe (Crawford) and Marcus (Landry).  Those guys in training camp played their hearts out and just looking at those guys and hanging out with them – it made me feel good because we were pushing each other everyday, coming in here late at night, shooting, working out and talking about what we have to do to stay in this league. It’s hard seeing those guys go.  They’re going to be great and hopefully they’ll make it on another team.

JH: As a second round pick, how do you keep staying in the game. This is your third training camp and the third team you are going to make out of camp. How do you do that when so few have?

D-Block: It’s a little bit of everything.  Fighting. Wearing my heart on my sleeve. I’m not afraid to speak my mind and I’m not afraid to play against anybody. And knowing the game. Most guys can play the game, but most guys don’t know the game. You have to read, and know when to make a smart pass and if a guy’s cheating over, you have to know how to set a pick. It’s like reading a book. I understand how to play the game and I’ve been around some great coaches and players. As long as you pay attention and focus, the game will come easy to you.

JH: Speaking of great coaches, tell me about Bill Self and his role in your life and your relationship.

D-Block: Oh man. Coach Self. If it wasn’t for the men that were at Kansas, the coaches and academic counselors, I wouldn’t have made it through Kansas without them. They helped me get through that. Growing up, it was always mama, grandma, mama, grandma- that’s all I knew, so getting that love from them, it helped me build and mold my own character as a person.

JH: Earlier this year, you got waived, your mother passed away and you had a daughter in what must have been just a matter of weeks. How do you make it through that?

D-Block: It was in the span of just a few days. I try not to think about it so much. I try to think about positive things, so if I’m sitting in a room, and I start thinking about it, then it is hard for me to go to sleep. I sit there with the lights on and watch TV all night.

JH: Which of your teammates has kind of stood out as a confidant or someone you can talk to?

D-Block: All these guys.  You can count on any of these guys, even the young fellas come in when I’m sitting in there dozing off and they sit down to talk to me. The biggest thing here is, Garcia, he keeps these guys together. We’re always doing something together and we sit there and talk. I just get it off my chest.  Some of these guys don’t know what I’ve been through so we’ll talk. I’m here and as long as I’m here I’m going to fight with you guys.  I’ve got your back on and off the court, I’m here to protect you guys.

Greene, Cousins and Jackson stretching.

The longer I do this, the more I see that stories find you, you don’t even have to look for them.  There are people all over the country who have suffered like Darnell Jackson has.  NBA players are no different than you or I.  They have families, they have histories and their lives are not always so much better than the everyday Joe. Darnell is a fighter.  Somehow, he has made it through Kings training camp and hopefully he will continue to garner a roster spot.

There will be those who will always look at Darnell Jackson as the guy who the Kings got for John Brockman. No disrespect to the Brockness monster, but D-Block is a much more complete player. At 24 years old, Jackson is a player who knows his role and does so many of the little things. Off the court, he is thoughtful and complex and his story is incredibly compelling.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.