D-BLOCK WOULD always say he was all right and give his teammates a smile as wide as it was hollow, as if its charm could put all their worrying about him to rest. He got his nickname from his fellow Kansas Jayhawks as a freshman for exhibiting penitentiary-worthy bullishness in practice—acting like Deebo from the movie Friday, they said. That was an entire season before he put his insides on lockdown, posting a two-word sign at the gate: i'm fine. "You left the practice court in tears, D-Block." I'm fine. "You keep hanging your head, D-Block." I'm fine. "You want to talk about it, D-Block?" I'm fine.
But Darnell Jackson, who at 6'8" and 250 pounds was the Jayhawks' most imposing forward and most tortured soul, knew the truth. "I was falling apart," he says. He felt so down that on Jan. 5, 2007, halfway through his junior year, he left the KU campus in Lawrence in the middle of the night and drove home to Midwest City, Okla. It was there that he told his mother that he was quitting. In his depressed state, Jackson had rationalized that Kansas didn't need him (the Jayhawks had three post players, Julian Wright, Darrell Arthur and Sasha Kaun, higher on the depth chart) whereas his mother, Shawn—who was still partially immobilized from a horrific May 2005 car wreck and was struggling to support her two younger children, Ebony, now 18, and Evan, 16, while the family finances were locked up in insurance-company battles—needed him badly.
Darnell had been living in a world of ever-mounting sorrow. In his eighth-grade year his absentee father, James K. Howard, had been shot to death by Oklahoma City police after he attacked a jogger. As a high school senior Jackson had come upon the crime scene of a classmate's murder. When Jackson went away to college, the tragedies continued. His close friend Glen Davis was shot in the head and killed by gang members with a semiautomatic weapon while stopped at a traffic light in Oklahoma City. His paternal grandfather, Willie James Howard, died in July 2006, and one of his uncles was beaten to death with a hammer. Worst of all, his maternal grandmother, Evon Jackson, with whom he was so close that "it was like we lived in the same skin," he says, was in the car with Shawn that day in Las Vegas when a drunk and drugged 18-year-old celebrating his send-off to the Marines swerved into them and altered the course of their lives. Evon died a week later as a result of her injuries. "It seemed like everybody I knew was dying while I was at Kansas," says Jackson, "and I thought, Maybe if I gave it all up and CAME HOME, I could make it stop."
Shawn's brother, Edred, from whom Darnell had received his middle name, left work at his wood-finishing business to meet him at his mother's house. They took a drive, stopping at Evon's gravesite, which Jackson hadn't visited since the funeral, and Edred said to him, "Do you remember how proud she had been that you went to Kansas?" Later Shawn apologized to Darnell for having pushed him back to summer school at KU after the accident, perhaps stunting the grieving process. But, she told him, "you're not helping me if you leave Kansas—you're letting me down. Let me heal to the point where I can walk, and I'll be there for you during your senior year."
Jayhawks coach Bill Self and director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers took an evening flight to Oklahoma City, intent on meeting with Jackson after he failed to show for that day's practice. Jackson brought Self outside Shawn's house to talk, and it was then, while hugging his coach in the front yard, that D-Block finally cracked. He hadn't wanted to quit, he said. He was just trying to be the man of the family.
FIRST GAME, first half, first free throws of 2007--08, and before Jackson stepped to the line against Louisiana-Monroe in Allen Fieldhouse, he spotted his late-arriving mother wearing her right-leg boot, being helped to her seat. Shawn was in the middle of a multiweek stay at the on-campus apartment Jackson shares with teammate Brandon Rush, giving Darnell what she calls "his mama time" by hopping around on her one good leg and doing the cooking and cleaning.
She blew kisses to him from the stands; he shook his head in playful disapproval of her tardiness. Later in the half Jackson threw down a fast-break dunk so impressive that, Shawn says, "I had to stand up and make sure that was mine, number 32, and not double zero"—the digits worn by Arthur, a sophomore with a far more athletic reputation.
Jackson missed just one field goal attempt in the Jayhawks' opener, scoring 21 points in 18 minutes off the bench, from which he had been toiling in various degrees of frustration for his whole career. He scored in double figures two more times, and by the sixth game of the season he had supplanted Kaun in the starting lineup. There he has remained, becoming Kansas's leading rebounder (7.0 per game) and second-leading scorer (at 12.8 points per game) during its 22--1 start.
Wright's decision to enter the NBA Draft as a sophomore last spring (he was taken 13th overall by New Orleans) affected Jackson more than any other Jayhawk. His minutes have jumped from 15.3 per game last season to 24.8, and he evolved from KU's most enigmatic reserve into arguably its most valuable starter. On a balanced title contender stocked with NBA prospects, that breakthrough is no trivial achievement. After the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma on Jan. 14 to improve to 17--0, Jackson, who had 17 points and eight rebounds, called Shawn and said, "Can you really believe this is happening?"
Jackson's teammates have tried to push him past the awed phase: During a timeout late in Kansas's Jan. 23 win over Iowa State, Rush pointed Jackson toward the scoreboard, where there were 21 points and 11 rebounds listed next to his number. "Don't think you aren't good, D-Block," Rush said. "You're a star for us now."
Self knows what made Jackson's late bloom possible. "For the first time [since he's been] at Kansas," the coach says, "he's at peace with himself."
The nightmares that began haunting him as early as grade school all centered on the same chilling subject. "I always dreamed that I was going to die—that I would get shot in the head, or that a car I was in would crash into a gas station and I'd burn," says Jackson. He would awaken in a sweat, crying, and he'd go to his grandmother's bedroom.
"She'd say, Put your head on my stomach," Jackson wistfully recalls. "She'd pat it, and tell me I was going to be all right, that God would come and save us all, and my pain would go away."
Evon was the matriarch, Darnell the grandmama's boy; they were best friends. It would have been fitting for Jackson to have a glorious sophomore season—the first one after the accident—in her honor. Instead, that season began with a crisis: a nine-game suspension levied by the NCAA for accepting $5,000 in impermissible benefits from a Kansas booster.
Jackson was a spectator at one of future Jayhawk J.R. Giddens's high school games in Oklahoma City in 2002 when Don Davis, a KU-educated engineer, introduced himself, and their relationship began. Davis became a genuine friend to the Jackson family, but his well-meaning aid—ranging from rides to games to help in refinancing a car loan while Jackson was in high school—was in glaring violation of NCAA rules. In November 2005, Jackson was ordered to donate $5,000 to charity to regain his eligibility; every month since, $100 has been taken out of his KU stipend for that purpose. It's money that otherwise would have gone home to his mother. Shawn is still unable to work, with 10 surgeries behind her and more looming. Whenever Jackson heard reports of unpaid bills or a nearly empty fridge, he would wire Shawn cash either from his Pell Grant or his stipend—what was left of it, at least.
As a sophomore Jackson began performing an on-court tribute to his deceased grandmother, his injured mother and Davis, his disgraced friend: three thumps to his chest with a closed right fist after made free throws. He told his cousin Lee Tibbs, now a senior offensive lineman at Iowa State, about the gesture. Tibbs had become a long-distance confidant whom Jackson, increasingly withdrawn from his Kansas teammates, would call in his worst hours of sleepless depression. Better to talk—about anything—than reprise morbid nightmares that kept coming true for others in his life.
Tibbs visited Jackson last season, and they were at a Kansas City mall when something odd happened: Six strangers—from teenagers to a man in his 40s, Tibbs says—recognized Jackson and triple-tapped their chests. Local newspapers had carried stories of his tragedies, but Jackson hadn't realized how many people truly cared about him. Tibbs told him, "You've become a role model."
"Darnell doesn't understand the joy he's brought to Kansas fans," Self says. "They love him because they identify and sympathize with him. Everyone has gone through pain, but at 22, he's already been dealt enough for a lifetime."
JACKSON CAME to know suffering far too early, and basketball nearly too late: He played football from the ages of six to 15 and "thought I'd end up at [Oklahoma]—and then in the NFL—as a tight end," he says. In the summer of 2000 he was assigned 60 hours of community service at McKinley Park recreation center (now the Oklahoma County Boys and Girls Club) after he was with some friends who were caught smashing school windows with rocks. The sports director there, Corey Colbert, made the then 6'6" Jackson his project, drilling fundamentals before "throwing him to the wolves"—into pickup games with gang members and ex-cons at the gym. Colbert's persistence kept Jackson at the center long after his 60 hours were fulfilled; there he developed some of the toughness that helped earn him his nickname.
It was not until this season, though, that Jackson became a consistent, complete force. Thanks to a summer of grueling workouts at Oklahoma City University, and an education in footwork and positioning from new KU assistant (and '88 national-title-team star) Danny Manning, Jackson ranked fifth in the nation in field goal percentage at 65.9 through Sunday, after shooting 55.0 percent (and averaging 5.5 points) as a junior. He has flirted with so many double doubles—coming within a single point or rebound five times—that Manning calls him Trick. Regardless, Jackson has put himself in position to help his family; he is projected as a second-round pick in the next NBA draft.
His winsome smile is genuine now, as Kansas makes a run at Big 12 and national titles. The nightmares have dissipated, but those who know him best, like Shawn and Edred, still closely watch Darnell's body language. Even in good months, says Edred, "there can still be bad days."
Jackson broke down again, out of the blue, outside the tunnel at halftime in Boston College's Conte Forum on Jan. 5. He had scored 15 points in the first half, and the Jayhawks were leading 47--29. As the rest of the Kansas players took the floor, fans peering over the railing could see Jackson welling up, and Chalmers embracing him, asking, "What's wrong, D-Block?" Through tears, he answered, "We're having such a great year, and my grandma's not here to see it."
He scored 10 more points in the game, for a career-high 25. KU's first two points of the half came on Jackson free throws: two makes, both followed by a clenched fist, thumping his chest. Once, twice, three times, getting on but never letting go.
"It seemed like everyone I knew was dying," says Jackson. "I thought, Maybe if I gave it all up and came home, I could make it stop."
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Photograph by David E. Klutho
ART IMITATES LIFE Jackson, the Jayhawks' most imposing forward and most tortured soul, still wears his emotions under his sleeve.
Photograph by David E. Klutho
[See caption above]
COURTESY OF THE JACKSON FAMILY (EVON)
MATERNAL INFLUENCES Jackson pays tribute after free throws to Evon (with him at his high school graduation) and Shawn.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (SHAWN)
[See caption above]
Photograph by David E. Klutho
BACKUP POWER Since moving into the starting lineup Jackson has become KU's top rebounder and second-leading scorer.