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by | Feb 24, 2014

Jemal Horton
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Soft-spoken Jackson is making
noise in more ways than one for the Olympic High Trojans

By C. Jemal Horton

Published – 2/24/2014

Cleveland “C.J.” Jackson
is a young man who knows about change.

He entered the world 18
years ago with a medical condition that required him to spend his first two
weeks in the hospital and the next several months trying to recover.

Oh, he recovered all right.
So much so that he was walking at 7 months old, talking soon after that and
essentially was potty-trained by the time his first birthday arrived.

The toddler years got
interesting, though — at least for Jackson’s parents, Cleveland and Shawn. Not
that there were any health scares; little C.J. amazed doctors as he fought
through a severe esophagus problem and performed tasks many older kids older
couldn’t accomplishment. But behavior was another thing. There simply were
times his parents had trouble controlling their eldest child.

“We used to go out and
eat as a family, but we got to a point where we had to stop going because he
wouldn’t keep still, he wouldn’t sit down,” Mr. Jackson recalled. “It got to be
too much.”

But fast-forward 14
years, and most people who know C.J. Jackson actually use the term
“soft-spoken” to describe the Olympic High School senior.

“He’s a very quiet,
reserved kid who comes from a great family,” said Ty Baumgardner, who coaches
Jackson on the Olympic boys basketball team. “He does pick and choose his
moments to come out of that shell, so to speak – usually around his teammates
and around his coaches – but he’s just a great, soft-spoken kid.”

That track record for
changing, even during the toughest of times, has made Jackson who he is today:
an honor-roll student, one of Mecklenburg County’s brightest high school
basketball stars, a highly pursued college prospect.

So last summer, when
Baumgardner summoned Jackson into his office and told the teen he needed to
shed his low-key demeanor and become the vocal leader of this season’s squad,
Jackson knew he could make the switch. And he HAS become more outspoken. But
there’s no overzealous yelling, no getting in teammates’ faces. He doesn’t
deliver fire-and-brimstone, Ray Lewis-style speeches in the locker room.

Instead, Jackson’s
lifting the Trojans, the defending Class 4A state champions, with his own spin
on demonstrative leadership: a mixture of perfectly timed words of advice
tinged with respect and supported by nightly on-the-court performances that
inspire his teammates to be better.

“I’m the only starter
back from last year’s team, so I knew I had to do what Coach needed me to do to
help the team,” Jackson said. “But I also have to stay true to myself, go about
things the best way I know how.

“I probably don’t seem
like it, but I can be very demanding on my teammates. I get onto them more than
you would think. If I see them screwing around in the hallway, I might try to
straighten them up a little bit. On the court, I pull them aside and try to
give them one or two pointers that might help them. I don’t try to embarrass

“They’re usually very
receptive to it. I have great teammates, and they respect me very much.”

He is the unquestioned
leader of the Trojans, who lost what Baumgardner said was 87 percent of their
offense to graduation last year. Jackson opened the season by averaging 31
points in his first three games, and in January was nominated as a McDonalds
All-American, serving notice that Olympic’s high standard of success hadn’t
disappeared with all those seniors back in June.

And while the Trojans
certainly have their share of team-wide talent – such as 6-foot-6 senior Kenny
Lemon, 6-5 junior Malik Constantine and versatile Maryland sophomore transfer
Damari Parris – everything runs through Jackson, who has assumed point-guard
duties this season after being the shooting guard a year ago.

“He can really shoot the
basketball,” Baumgardner said of Jackson. “He’s got a great feel and pace to
his game. He’s got a really high IQ, and he knows the ball’s got to be in his
hands a lot for us to be successful.”


Jackson’s basketball
exploits impress many people, including his parents, who both are former
players. But nothing about their son today comes close to impressing them more
than the way he battled through the medical issue he was stricken with at

“He was really sick when
he was born,” Shawn recalled. “He had an underdeveloped esophagus. Doctors said
that it happened to about 30 percent of young black boys who were born at that
time. He could not process food and digest it at all. He would throw up all the
time. When he was 2 weeks old, he had to be hospitalized. Tubes were
everywhere. It was terrible.”

The family had to make
some decisions. At the time, the Jacksons were living in Athens, Ga., where
Cleveland had finished up his career at the University of Georgia. But the
Jacksons felt doctors in Los Angeles, Calif., Cleveland and Shawn’s hometown,
were better equipped to treat their son’s condition. So when C.J. was just 5
weeks old, he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he began receiving
treatment at UCLA.

“We were new parents, and
we really didn’t know what to do at first,” recalled Mr. Jackson.

“We just went into parent
mode. We’re Christian, so we prayed a lot and just had faith and believed.
Because of those things, we didn’t worry a whole lot. We just made sure that we
did everything that we were supposed to do, as far as making sure he made his
doctor’s appointments on time and took his medicine properly.”

Cleveland and Shawn
didn’t share their son’s health problems with anyone, other than their parents.
But C.J. made it easy to hide things.

“We’ve always called him
an ‘old soul,’” Shawn said. “He really was walking at 7 months. Everything he
did was early. It was amazing. Many of the things that other kids his age
didn’t normally do, he just grabbed on and did them very well.

And “He got better after
about 12 months.”

It wasn’t long after that
when C.J. began revealing a penchant to excel on the hardwood.

Basketball certainly was
in his bloodlines. After his standout career at Georgia, Mr. Jackson played in
Venezuela and then returned to Los Angeles to begin his coaching career at
Campbell Hall High School. One day, after his team had played poorly in a loss,
Big Cleveland was lecturing his players as 2-year-old C.J. waited in the

“I had sat all the
players down, and I was yelling at them — I was going off,” Cleveland said.
“After a while, I noticed that they were looking through me, like they weren’t
paying attention. I remember saying, ‘What are you guys looking at? See, this
is the problem! You can’t pay attention!’

“Then one of the kids
said, ‘Coach, look at your son!’”

Sixteen years after the
fact, Cleveland still sounds amazed as he recalls what he saw that day.

“I turned around,” he
said, “and my son had two basketballs, dribbling around his body. I mean, two
regular-sized balls, and he was pounding them!.”


But like many children,
C.J. didn’t always use his energy in positive ways.

“How can I put this?”
Shawn said, pausing. “He was rambunctious.”

When the family decided
that going out to dinner with C.J. was too much of a task, the Jacksons decided
they had to do something to help their son maintain control. They found a
surprising answer: karate.

When C.J. was 4 years
old, he enrolled in his first class. His parents immediately noticed a change.

“After being in karate
for a while, he just kind of calmed down,” Cleveland said. “It really helped
him gain control of his emotions and center himself, which I think some of
those traits that he picked up back then still help him now. If you watch him,
he’s very poised, he’s very even-keeled.

“We often talk about not
being controlled by emotion and not getting too high and not getting too low.
He understands that if your emotions are controlling you, then you can’t be
rational under adverse conditions. He really began to absorb that as a
youngster. And because of that, I think it really helps him out on the
(basketball) floor AND in the classroom. When the pressure’s on, that’s when it
seems he really shines the most.”

After finding that inner
peace, C.J.’s basketball talents grew exponentially. When his family moved back
to Georgia after his father became the associate head coach at Mercer
University, he began tearing up the AAU circuit. He eventually became one of
the top high school players in the Peach State before moving to Charlotte in
2012 after Mr. Jackson accepted a job at Belmont Abbey.

Last year, on a team that
went 30-0, Jackson averaged 17 points per game as the Trojans earned a No. 5
national ranking while marching to the state crown.

“The guys really embraced
me last year,” he said. “I haven’t had any issues moving here. At first, I was
kind of hesitant, but now I’m glad we made the move. I love it here.”

Last July, he played for
Aim High, an AAU team sponsored by former NBA player Kenny Smith, and things
got even better. Jackson entered the Best of the South tournament in Suwanee,
Ga., without any scholarship offers in hand. But according to,
after leading his team to the tourney title over the weekend, Jackson received
offers from Winthrop, Campbell, Pfeiffer, Wofford, High Point, The Citadel,
Middle Tennessee State, Jacksonville, Georgia Southern and Youngstown
State.   And after Jackson’s hot start to the 2013-14 season, a
number of high-Division I programs began calling, including the University of
Tennessee of the Southeastern Conference.


Many people believe
Jackson can be even better, and Baumgardner believes much of that development
starts with his star guard dedicating himself to making another drastic change
in his life: being more outspoken.

The coach made that
abundantly clear to him last summer.

“We said, ‘Look, this
team is going to be full of a bunch of inexperienced guys, a bunch of young
guys, a bunch of guys that are going to need a leader outside the coaching
staff, and you’re the logical choice,’” Baumgardner said. “I said, ‘I know
there are different kinds of leaders: vocal leaders, guys who lead by their
actions and things like that. But we need you to come out of your shell a
little bit and be more of a vocal leader and lead these kids, because that’s
going to be crucial to our success.’

“He understood it,”
Baumgardner continued. “He knew it. He comes from a basketball family, so he
knows what’s necessary.”

Jackson has already gone
through one enormous change since last season: He’s gotten bigger. A lot

Last season he stood
about 5 feet 11 inches. Now, he’s nearly 6-2.

“The height, it just
helps, and I love it,” Jackson said with a grin. “It gives me an upside to
shoot over smaller guards that I play against, considering I play point guard.”

Doctors believe Jackson
has a chance to be even taller, largely because of his size-13 ½ feet and the
fact that Mr. Jackson stands 6-5 and Shawn is nearly 5-11.

His mom, in fact, points
out that she deserves some credit for C.J.’s basketball talents, as she was a
star player at Van Nuys High School. During her senior season, she averaged 17
points and 17 rebounds.

“You can absolutely say
(C.J.) gets his skills from me!” Shawn said with a laugh. “Big Cleveland and I
have this debate all the time.

“I had some opportunities
to go play in college, but I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to sweat. I wanted
to be cute.”

Despite his rich
basketball gene pool, C.J. makes it clear who his basketball role model is.

“Kobe – always,” he said.
“It’s just his energy. His passion for the game is just something you can’t
really compare to other players.”

And much like the Los
Angeles Lakers star, Jackson will have to alter the way he goes about things –
whether that’s scoring less, focusing on defense or, yes, speaking up more.

“I think I’m doing fine,”
he said with a nod. “Sometimes it’s hard to handle, but I try to look at the
positive side of it. I have to remember it’s just a game. That’s all it is.”


This story first appeared
in US Prep Athletes – The Magazine February 2014 Issue


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