HAVANA -- This was 12 days ago, early in the second half of the first game the U.S. men's basketball team was playing at the Pan American Games. The players had arrived just hours earlier, flying in from Florida only that morning, and they looked very much like puzzled strangers wandering in a strange land.
A 50- by 20-foot portrait of Che Guevara looked down on them from on high, and all around them, filling every seat they could and spilling out into the aisles, were 12,000 Cubans screaming and whistling, hooting and waving their country's flag. "I was surprised by their enthusiasm," said Jim Jackson. But the real surprise was all that was unfolding in front of them.
For there, on the mahogany-colored court of Havana's Sport City Coliseum, Cuba had engaged the United States in a death struggle and was threatening to open the Games with a most stunning upset. It trailed by only two after a three-pointer by Leonor Borrell, and the fresh-faced collegians on the U.S. team resembled a fragile construction about to wilt and crumble under the weight of alien pressure.
But even here, in this singular environment, Jackson kept his considerable aplomb and steadied a ship tilting severely and dangerously close to capsizing. He rebounded his own miss, rose high in a thicket of arms and, while floating right, hit a banker and picked up a foul. Then came a no-look pass to Southern Mississippi's Clarence Weatherspoon for another three-point play, and a tip, and -- finally -- a reverse layup that gave the United States an 11-point cushion and dragged admiring cheers even from the Cuban fans.
"Having a young team and being in our first international competition, I just took it on myself," Jackson said.
But how does he stay so cool in a situation like that?
"That's just the type of person I am," he said. "When I'm in a game, I concentrate on the game and block the crowd out. I don't pay much attention to them. I can't even hear what's going on."
What has been going on down here in Havana is the final blossoming of Ohio State's Jackson, who has clearly been this little tourney's most impressive performer. He is averaging 18.2 points, shooting a supernatural 68 percent. He is playing more minutes than any of his teammates and guarding the opponent's top off-guard or small forward. He is operating at any of three positions and -- most important -- providing the stability this young U.S. team often needs as it tries to digest the quirky reality of a major international tourney.
He hit those big baskets against Cuba, and then, three nights later, encored against Argentina, which has been the only other true test the United States has faced. But now, tonight, Puerto Rico looms, and all of his considerable talents will be needed if the United States is to win in the semifinal and advance to Saturday's gold medal game against Mexico or Cuba.
"The United States has a lot of very good players, but that Jackson, he is their very best player," said Puerto Rican forward Edgar Leon.
Leon's teammate, Jerome Mincy, added: "An NBA player. A great talent. He's legit."
It would be out of character for Jackson to publicly claim a leadership role, yet that is just what he is a mere 12 months after being told he wasn't good enough. He wasn't good enough to be on the U.S. team at last year's Goodwill Games and World Championships -- that is what Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said when he cut him during tryouts. And for the first time in his young career, he was forced to deal with that harsh reality.
He had been high school Player of the Year in Ohio and had been the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year in the season just concluded. But then he was told he wasn't good enough to be on a team that included Krzyzewski's own Bobby Hurley and Arkansas' Lee Mayberry and Todd Day. "We didn't really talk about it, but I knew from the expression on his face that he was disappointed," said Randy Ayers, his coach at Ohio State and an assistant here.
"I still hurt from it," Jackson said. "I thought I played well enough to make the team. But it was something to learn from. I'm using it as something to motivate me."
It motivated him to attend Michael Jordan's camp in Chicago, where he trained and learned from numerous Bulls, and then through competitions at the Olympic Festival and in a Columbus summer league.
"I think he came in here a little bit more focused, and he's been very assertive here," Ayers said. "As a player, you can get into a groove. He's in that groove now."
Purdue's Gene Keady, the U.S. head coach, said: "He's grown up. He's really matured down here."