Over a decade after being selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 10th overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, many would have projected Luke Jackson to be in the midst of a career filled with numerous accolades and achievements. Rather than being a part of a Cavaliers team that is desperately trying to find a way to defeat the Golden State Warriors, Jackson finds himself competing for a championship on a different level.
Now the coach of Northwest Christian University, a school with an enrollment just shy of 700, in his college hometown Eugene, Oregon, Jackson has built the Beacons into a consistent NAIA National Championship contender in just three short seasons. The road to this point has taken many twists and turns for Jackson, but they’ve all helped him both as a coach and as a person. The game of basketball has caused him loads of pain and grief over the years, but his love for the game has kept him involved his entire life.
As Jackson tells RidiculousUpside.com, it was very early on that he discovered the thrill that the game gave him.
"Creswell is kind of one of those small towns that when the boys were playing basketball, everyone would show up. My dad would take me to games and I fell in love with the atmosphere of a packed gym," Jackson said.
Though he had a passion for basketball, he was also incredibly talented on the baseball field. He had numerous opportunities to pursue that route, which as a 6’7 left-hander may have been more lucrative, but he would always gravitate back towards basketball.
"I think my potential in baseball was my ceiling was actually much higher than in basketball. Until about three years ago, I’ve had pro scouts calling me since I’m 6’7, left-handed and could throw pretty hard," he said. "I just never got the same thrill and rush from the game of baseball that I did from basketball, though. If I had played baseball I might still be playing, but the passion for me just wasn’t there."
As the Oregon’s Class AAA Basketball Player of the Year in both his sophomore and senior years of high school, colleges were beating down his door constantly. With the University of Oregon just 15 minutes away, however, the choice became quite easy for Jackson to make.
With the Ducks coming off of a 22-win season that saw them make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Jackson was hoping to contribute right away. Despite a senior starting at his position, he was able to chip in with nearly 8 points per game, though the team limped to a 14-14 record. Going into the next year, however, expectations were high as Jackson entered the starting lineup, joining fellow future NBA’ers Luke Ridnour and Fred Jones. This time they lived up to the hype, jumping out to a 26-9 record and reaching the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.
"I remember watching the NCAA Tournament with Luke Ridnour just really feeling bad about sitting at home while all these other teams were playing. We just dedicated ourselves to spend as much time as it was going to take to improve ourselves to get there," Jackson discussed. "We realized we had some weaknesses that we needed to turn into strengths and we just lived in the gym. On Friday nights when everyone was out partying, we were at the gym."
It wasn’t only on the court in games that the presence of Ridnour and Jones helped Jackson, but it was during practice that they helped him grow as a player.
"As an incoming freshman playing against Freddie Jones every day in practice, my first year he could do whatever he wanted against me and I hated it. I could either choose to let that continue to happen, or I could improve myself. It really gave me two years of seasoning against a top-notch NBA caliber defender and when I got inducted into the Oregon Hall of Fame, I thanked him for making me a much better player," Jackson said.
He continued, "I benefited from it because I had seen guys like that in practice and it made me understand how hard you had to work to be at that level. You look at Ridnour and the reason he got to the NBA is how he hard he worked. If you saw him walking through the mall, you wouldn’t think he’s an NBA player so he really had to put in the work to make it. I saw that work ethic and tried to copy it as best I could. "
The time that each of the players spent in the gym certainly aided their efforts, but Jackson felt some of the thanks for their Elite Eight run had to go to the fans at Oregon.
"I would argue that Oregon rivaled Cameron Indoor as far as the atmosphere and it was really special; I thought we had the best home court fans in the country. It was incredible, it was a great opportunity for me and something I’m very thankful for."
After being selected to the All-Pac-10 team his junior and senior year and being named a Second-team All-American his senior year, Jackson firmly positioned himself on NBA teams’ radars.
"I had worked out for about 15 teams and early on I was projected late-first round early-second round and the workouts were something that I had been doing every day for three years, so it really kind of came as second nature and I excelled in those."
With guarantees in hand from both Seattle and Cleveland, the night of the draft came around and Jackson was ready to find out where he would be playing professionally.
Though the Cavaliers had drafted another small forward, LeBron James, just a year earlier, they decided to pull the trigger on Jackson at the #10 spot. He was excited about how they would mesh with one another on the court, but before his career could get off of the ground it was derailed.
"I was more of a shooting guard and LeBron is a small forward, so it wasn’t a bad fit at all, but during my first day of Summer League I herniated two discs in my back and it basically crippled my athleticism. I was better as a freshman in high school than I was as a rookie in the NBA," he said. "A lot of people have had back problems and back surgeries where they struggle to get back to work where they might work at a desk, but I had to try to get back to playing against the best basketball players in the world. You try to hide those injuries to avoid getting called a bust, but the bottom line was that I was unable to tie my shoes during my time in Cleveland."
He had just begun his career, but Jackson was faced with a decision that many don’t face until they’re nearing the end of their playing days.
"It was a huge injury and I had insurance on my body, so I had the option to cash in on that given that the doctors determined it to be career-ending. I could have walked away and never played again, which was more money than I made playing, or I could keep going," Jackson revealed. "That’s how bad it was, but I just decided to keep playing for the love of the game."
With his decision to continue playing in the league, Jackson was able to make his NBA debut and take the floor against the Milwaukee Bucks, a memory most look back on fondly.
"It was bittersweet because I had trouble tying my shoes before the game and I was looking like I had one foot out the door. I wanted to enjoy it and cherish it, but the competitor in me had to die a little bit and that was hard. I wanted to be something special, but it was like ‘I’m going to let you get there but you don’t have the ability anymore."
Though he was deprived on his athleticism, he still worked hard into making it work on the court. Much like at Oregon going against Ridnour and Jones, Jackson liked the challenge of going up against a player like LeBron during practices.
"I guarded Michael Jordan at his camp for two summers in a row when I was in college and he was playing for the Wizards. He’s the greatest of all-time, but saying that, LeBron is a whole different animal. I was playing against MJ when he was 37, but LeBron was the toughest I’ve ever gone up against," he revealed.
After just 46 games played with the team, the Cavaliers chose to ship Jackson off to the Celtics for Dwayne Jones. He knew the circumstances behind it, but he also felt as if he had let down the city of Cleveland.
A couple of weeks after the trade, the Celtics waived Jackson. With his injury history in mind, many teams were uneasy to offer him any type of contract so he chose to head down to the NBA D-League, which at the wasn’t nearly established as it is today.
"Up to that point, there weren’t any lottery picks that had played in the D-League and it was still a little bit of an unknown. Teams were sending NBA guys down, but there weren’t many direct affiliates," Jackson told RU. "I told my agent that I was as healthy as I was going to get, so I might as well just see how it goes."
The experience paid off quickly, as he parlayed his stint with the Idaho Stampede into a 10-day contract with the Los Angeles Clippers, followed by a pair of 10-day deals with the Toronto Raptors. After those two, the Raptors chose to keep him on board for the rest of the season.
"I felt comfortable in Toronto and that was the only opportunity I really got at the NBA level. Throughout my career I never got a sniff of my actual potential, but I scored 30 points in an NBA game where I couldn’t even feel my right leg. I just prayed for one game. I could have been injured before the draft and never had that experience, but that’s what God had planned for my life and it took time to accept it," Jackson pointed out.
He continued, "Playoffs in the NBA are as good as it gets in the basketball world, there’s nothing that compares to it. Maybe the NCAA Final Four, but it was awesome. The city of Toronto was really excited to be in the playoffs and I was playing against Jason Kidd and Vince Carter who were guys I looked up to, so it was special. When I got hurt, I understood my path was a lot different, so to be able to have played a little bit of time in the playoffs was special to me."
The Raptors wound up losing the series in six games and Jackson found himself back in the D-League. After about a month he signed with the Miami Heat, a decision that wound up benefitting him beyond his playing career.
"Playing with Shaq was incredible and I know he was on the downside of his career, but that’s one of the best players of all-time and one of the most dominant forces that basketball has ever seen and probably will ever see. Playing for Pat Riley and being able to explain the situation that I was in with him was great, because he had back problems and he was in a similar situation as a player that I was. Coaching now, there’s so many things you can pick up from those guys," he said.
With his stop in Miami, Jackson had the unique experience of playing with each of the eventual Miami Heat ‘Big Three’ (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) separately before they had linked up and been so successful together.
"I think something that isn’t talked about enough when guys are willing to move teams or be traded is where they’re at in their careers at that particular time. Having played with all three and seeing where they were at in their lives, I think it was just perfect timing. LeBron was in a special place where he just wanted to win and wanted to be considered as one of the best to ever play and Chris was in the same situation," Jackson outlined. "Dwyane had just gone from winning a championship to being on one of the worst teams in the league, so I wasn’t surprised at all. I think Chris is probably one of the best franchise player teammates that I had ever played with. He had a really good feel for the temperature of the team, not that LeBron and Wade don’t, but they’re mega-stars. It was kind of a natural fit where LeBron was obviously the best player and then Chris and Dwyane played different positions. I know they got a lot of bad publicity, but they did well."
Following two more stops in the D-League in which he won a championship and was named an All-Star, Jackson had torn his hamstring and was told that he was never going to play again. Once again it was a tough moment, but the events that transpired after were truly life changing.
"The doctor told me that I would never be able to run again since it was torn in half. I went to play one more time to prove the doctor wrong and to just get one last go around. Going over there was a little bit like giving up on a tough, tough comeback," Jackson explained. "I went over there and I think I was in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding in the league, but it was tough. I really enjoyed my time there, the basketball in Europe is really good and the fans are incredible, so it gave me a different basketball experience,"
With his playing days coming to a close, Jackson looked to what may have been next up on his path.
"My body was just completely shot, which led to me looking for an outlet to keep that passion that I had for the game alive and I ended up inquiring about the coaching position in Eugene at NCU. A week later, I was the head coach. From the second that I got hurt initially, I was just thinking about how I would stay attached to the game that I love," he said. "Every opportunity I had, I spent a lot of time thinking about coaching. I played for a lot of the best coaches ever and I just tried to take advantage of that. I think not walking away from basketball really made me a better coach."
Many would define success for a basketball player as having made multiple All-Star teams or having won an NBA Championship, but Luke Jackson has managed to succeed without any of those things. He has overcome every obstacle that has been put in his way and has been able to stick with the game that he loves despite so many forces working against him.