Fourteen years ago this month, he packed everything he owned in a car and headed 240 miles southwest to start a new chapter in his basketball life.
As he drove away that day, the city of Saginaw, Mich. — his city — grew more distant in the rear-view mirror. It was the only city that former Notre Dame guard Tory Jackson had known.
He grew up in Saginaw, raised in that house on Joy Road one of 14 children to James and Sarah Jackson. At any one time, there’d be as many as eight family members in the three-room structure. It was crowded. At times, it was suffocating, but it also was filled with love and hope and dreams.
Dreams that included Jackson making it out of Saginaw. Going to Notre Dame offered that opportunity. Basketball took Jackson all over the country — from big cities in the Big East to California and Hawaii.
He’d even see Ireland on a 2008 foreign tour with his Irish basketball brothers. After graduation, he’d play professionally in the NBA G League. He even spent a minute playing in Mongolia.
Yet Saginaw never strayed far from his heart.
He had basketball. He had his undergraduate degree in sociology and computer applications from one of the most respected universities in the world. He had everything that allowed him a ticket to go anywhere, to do anything, to see everything. Experience the world outside of the only one he’d known.
There remained only one place for him. With his pro dreams behind him, Jackson returned to his hometown to live on the same street of the one he grew up in to chase a different dream of coaching. With so many reasons to leave the city — his city — Jackson couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
Earlier this month, the 32-year-old was named head boys’ basketball coach at Saginaw Heritage High School. The same guy who scored 2,518 career points and led since-closed Saginaw Buena Vista High to two state championships was back in the place where he made his basketball name.
Jackson lives five houses down from the one he grew up in. One of his nine older brothers, Ivan, lives in his parents’ old home. Another brother, Randy, resides on the same street. Family, still, is everywhere.
“Man, just being back home is an amazing feeling,” said Jackson, who spent the three previous years coaching high school 17 miles away in Bay City. “I’ve always wanted to do something in Saginaw.”
Jackson applied for the Heritage job when it opened previously. He didn’t get it, and sees now that he wasn’t ready. Too green as a coach. Too inexperienced to deal with all the emotional swings of teenagers. He needed to go to Bay City and learn how to manage players and losses and even himself. Jackson didn’t need to be so hands-on. He had to delegate. Had to pull back from wanting to micro-manage every practice, every possession, every minute. Let the game and the coach breathe.
Jackson went 5-15 his first year at Bay City. He went 5-16 his second. Something clicked prior to last winter and Bay City won 11 games. Jackson could see a difference in the kids. In the program. In himself.
“We just took off,” he said. “It was a whole different vibe.”
Different after Jackson took to heart words from his college coach and mentor, Mike Brey.
“Just be good with the kids,” Brey said Friday of his advice. “Relax a little bit. The basketball will come.”
Jackson was ready to chase the job back home for reasons more than wins and losses and baskets and balls. He wanted to help the city. His city.
“I’ve always felt that he feels a responsibility to Saginaw,” Brey said. “Given the opportunity he has to be a role model of what can happen for others. He just really gets it. Man, do I respect that.”
Jackson had every reason to leave Saginaw behind five, 10 years ago. Get that college degree and go. He couldn’t. He sees how he can help as a coach and a father and a role model.
“This community’s divided, man, especially now more than ever,” Jackson said. “I want to be part of the change of this community. They talk about the crime. They talk about the poverty. But I love my city. I see the good in my city.”
Black Lives Matter
Jackson’s also seen the bad of his city. Sometimes too up close and too personal. Like times when he’d leave a basketball workout with a hoodie pulled up over his head or his trademark baseball cap on. Jackson looked a certain part. He’d be pulled over by police. Asked to step out of the car. Queried on who he was and what he was up to and where he was headed.
Jackson would be detained for looking a certain way. For dressing a certain way. For talking a little louder than others. Sometimes, just for being Black.
“I’ve had moments,” he said. “I’ve never told anybody, but there have been times when a police officer pulls me over because I look the part. I’ve been in those situations where it’s like, something’s going to happen.
Once officers ran Jackson’s license or learned who he was — he was elected to the Saginaw Sports Hall of Fame in 2018 — all would be well. Jackson could breathe a sigh of relief, but it also made him think. What if he wasn’t so known in the community? What if he didn’t play at Notre Dame? What if the call of the streets was too loud that he had to answer when he was younger? How many more situations would he have found himself in as a Black man in his hometown? How many of those situations wouldn’t end well?
“It’s scary,” he said.
Scary, but it also strengthened a resolve to help make life around Saginaw better for the Tory Jacksons of tomorrow. Help make the streets safe where Blacks didn’t have to wonder or worry. Didn’t have to look over their shoulders. Didn’t have to cast a wary eye toward law enforcement. How might the community and local officials work together to make the city — his city — better and safer and more tolerant tomorrow?
It’s one reason why Jackson works as a Diversity Inclusion Social Equity Coordinator in the Saginaw Intermediate School District. There, he works to help others understand what Blacks have dealt with for too long. He helps educate people who don’t look like him about his life. About what it’s like to be Black in 2020. It about more than just race; it’s about working together as one.
“People don’t understand the struggles that we’ve dealt with for so long,” Jackson said. “Once they understand what we go through, there’s less judgement.”
Jackson grew disheartened while watching video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, who later died. The incident sparked riots around the country. There was looting. There were arsons. There was violence.
There also was a question posed to Jackson by his 7-year-old daughter, Milani.
Will this happen to us?
Hearing that, Jackson felt like he’d run into a brick wall of a backscreen during his college playing days. It hammered him. Hurt, too.
“I try to keep it positive with her, like, ‘No, baby, it’s going to be OK,’” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but I have to let her know that her daddy’s good and that’s not going to happen.”
Hoops at Heritage
Saginaw district athletic director Justin Thorington knew Jackson’s name almost immediately while considering applications for the Heritage coaching job. He knew of Jackson’s prep credentials at Buena Vista and, though a Michigan fan, his career at Notre Dame. His first thought?
“This,” Thorington said Friday, “is a guy we’ve gotta go get.”
That feeling was reinforced when the two met.
“He was everything we hoped he’d be and more,” Thorington said. “The first word I think of is exciting. Tory brings so much passion and energy. That’s what coaching is today.”
Only now getting back into playing shape after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon last year during a pickup game, Jackson isn’t afraid to show his guys a move or two on the court. He’ll compete. He’ll scrimmage. And as was his ultra-competitive nature during his playing days and camp days in South Bend, he’ll still look to take the last shot if it’s a big shot and means his team will keep the court.
Some Heritage kids remember Jackson from his Notre Dame days. Others have cued up highlights on YouTube. There’s Jackson with the drive. With the dish. With his patented jab-and-step-back jumper. He scored 1,231 career points with 694 career assists. He played in a then-Notre Dame program record 136 games.
Once they see that, they’re all in.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, he’s got it,’” Jackson said. “A bunch of them slid into my (direct messages) and were like, ‘We’ve got to get in the gym.’”
Jackson’s helped build a buzz with the Heritage program. A recent outdoor workout was attended by 40 kids. An e-mail blast to parents earlier in the week produced 35 responses of “my kid’s coming” within the hour. Interest in Heritage hoops is as hot as the asphalt where the Hawks hold summer scrimmage sessions.
“That stuff’s contagious,” Thorington said.
That’s just Jackson, Brey said.
“He’s just kind of a Pied Piper for kids,” Brey said. “That energy, that smile, that juice he brings is so powerful. I’m so proud of him.”
Given a chance when he was that age, Jackson wants the same for his guys at Heritage. Get it going so some might be noticed by college recruiters. Maybe earn a scholarship and get a chance to see life outside of Saginaw.
And then, maybe, do what Jackson’s doing — giving back to the city. His city.