Lesar: Michiana can be proud of NBA-bound Demetrius Jackson

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – During his darkest hours, the Michiana community stepped up for Demetrius Jackson.

Whether it was the Whitfield family of Mishawaka, who took him into their home almost a decade ago; Marian High School, where he spent his formative years; the University of Notre Dame, where he became a man; or any of the mentors and influences he had in the gym or outside; they all have had an impact.

Takes a village to raise a point guard.

Now it’s time for Michiana to roll the dice on the chiseled, 6-foot-1, 195-pound former Irish basketball player and bet on a guy who will make the area proud.

It’s his time to fly.

Tuesday night Jackson announced his decision to leave a year of eligibility at Notre Dame on the table and pursue his NBA dream. Wednesday, in a room crowded with teammates, friends, and the media that has chronicled his every move over the last seven years, it was his opportunity to say good-bye.

“(I’m) leaving the nest for the first time, so (it’s) a very difficult decision,” Jackson said. “But, ultimately, it's the best one for me.”

“It’s ‘the family,’” said Dave Whitfield, Jackson’s foster father. “So many people … The Marian community; everyone at Notre Dame; our family, friends and relatives. Everyone pulled together to help.”

Rescued from a difficult life in the foster care system, Jackson has embraced the structure and discipline at every level.

“As a foster kid going through different foster homes, trust is definitely something that's difficult, so coming into a home where I was able to just be myself, be comfortable, and be loved by a great family helped me gain trust,” Jackson said. “That allowed me to open up to them and to my teammates and to my coaches and be more open with everybody and be at ease with my situation.”

“The trust took a while,” Whitfield said. “There used to be a temper. If you watched him in the Elite Eight (last week), he was never panicked or angry. He has grown up; matured.”

Way back in 2010, Rod Creech, who was coaching Jackson’s AAU team, suspended him from a tournament.

"It was a respect issue," Creech said at the time. "We had to let him know that he's never bigger than anyone else. Part of being a great player is being a great teammate."

The team finished third. With Jackson, who knows?

"We treated Demetrius like an assistant coach," Creech said. "He saw the game from the other end. When it was over, he thanked us and said it was the best thing that could have happened."

Tough love didn’t end in his formative years. As a freshman at Notre Dame, coach Mike Brey grounded Jackson for several games because of academic issues.

“That was a great lesson for me, and it really helped me going forward, realizing my priorities and helped me dial back in,” Jackson said. “Also, it was a great moment for me (with Brey). We became closer. Down the road, that helped us form a better relationship and accomplish some of the things we were able to accomplish as a team.”

Two negatives. Two positive outcomes, thanks to the support system around Jackson, and his own desire to maintain a proper perspective.

Sounds like the stuff of which role models are made.

“Whether it's from my teammates, coaches, our priests; (I’ve been) watching, learning, observing, and trying to become a better person,” Jackson said. “I've just tried to better myself in my time here and always tried to ask questions, and always tried to reflect on things that I've done and things I didn't do, and use that to become better.”

While some young athletes find trouble along the way, Jackson has managed to keep his life on track – making his community proud.

“It means so much to represent the whole 5-7-4 (area code) and be able to be a role model for some of the young kids growing up in the area,” he said.

Jackson’s final punctuation on his legacy here needs to be securing his degree from Notre Dame. That could be tougher than threading a double team and posterizing Purdue big man Isaac Haas (remember that one a couple years ago?).

“I still have a long way to go,” he said of his academic pursuits.

“I guarantee you, 100 percent, he’ll get that degree,” Whitfield said. “It’s important to him.”

He’ll get it done. That’s what role models do.

Bet on it, Michiana.

Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson, right, signs autographs following practice for the NCAA tournament regionals on Thursday, March 24, 2016, inside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN