Road to Minnesota pain-filled Fractured trail marks Gopher Jackson's rise

March 25, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Bobby Jackson has made a career out of coming from nowhere to become a star. He did it at Salisbury High School in North Carolina. He did it at Western Nebraska Junior College. And now he is doing it at the University of Minnesota.

On the college level, it has taken five years and nearly as many injuries for Jackson to reach his current status as the player who has led the Gophers to the school's first Final Four. Minnesota will play defending champion Kentucky on Saturday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

But injuries have long played a part in Jackson's career.

"As a freshman, he didn't come out for the JV team because he broke a toe right before tryouts," Sam Gaely, Jackson's coach at Salisbury, recalled yesterday. "We didn't know how good he was. He just kind of showed up as a sophomore and he started three years."

The broken toe was followed by a stress fracture in his foot as a junior and some muscle problems in his leg as a senior. Along with poor grades that made him a Prop 48 player, it was a factor in Jackson's not being recruited by any Division I programs.

So through a connection with Western Nebraska coach Dave Campbell, who had played college ball in Salisbury and had done his student teaching there, Gaely sent Jackson off to Scotts Bluff, Neb. Shortly before the start of preseason workouts his freshman year, Jackson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

"I think the year off helped him," Campbell said yesterday. "It gave him a chance to work on his academics and in the weight room. That's a devastating injury to a young kid like that. But he's a fighter. Once he got here, Bobby was on a mission. He was a model citizen and a heck of a player."

Said Jackson: "I thought about leaving, but my mom and my [high school] coach told me to stay out there. It was a big adjustment being in Nebraska, with all the cornfields, but I don't know if I would be here if I didn't go."

Not that Jackson's transition to Minnesota was any easier than it had been to Western Nebraska. After growing up in a town of 28,000 midway between Greensboro and Charlotte, then adjusting to a small town three hours from Denver, Jackson had to get used to Minneapolis.

And, as usual, there was another injury. This time he broke the same foot in which he had suffered a stress fracture. He wound up missing the first seven games last year and, while he ended up averaging a team-high 13.3 points, he shot just 40.6 percent from the field and 29.5 percent on three-pointers.

"Having been injured before helped me, but I don't think I was ever 100 percent last year," Jackson said.

This year has been a lot different for Jackson. The quickness he showed in leading Western Nebraska to a third-place finish in the national junior college tournament two years ago has returned and, with it, Jackson has gone from being honorable mention all-Big Ten to the conference's Player of the Year.

After starting quietly in the opening two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Jackson broke out for a career-high 36 points and nine rebounds in a 90-84 double-overtime win over Clemson in the Midwest Regional semifinals in San Antonio, then followed with 18 points and nine rebounds in an 80-72 victory over UCLA.

As a result of his performance, Jackson was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player. He also saw his stock in the NBA draft go up, perhaps turning him from a second-round pick into a middle to late choice in the first round.

Jackson seems comfortable in the spotlight, but doesn't seek it out.

"I didn't get much national attention before the tournament, but I'm not the type of person that cares much about it," said Jackson, who is averaging a team-high 15.0 points. "I'm just out there to enjoy myself, improve my game and do whatever it takes to help my team win."

In the game against UCLA, it meant playing a great deal of point guard because starter Eric Harris was limited to 23 nonproductive minutes by a sprained shoulder. Depending on how Harris' injury heals this week, Jackson might be asked to do the same against a team known for the relentless pressure it puts on opponents, especially point guards.

"As I've said, I'll do whatever it takes," Jackson said.

For Jackson, that often translates into rebounding. Ever since he was in high school, Jackson has been a relentless rebounder, in particular on the offensive boards. Even at 6 feet, he is third among the Gophers in rebounding, with better than six a game. He also leads his team in assists.

Asked about his penchant for rebounding, Jackson said: "I've just got a knack for getting to the ball."

Said Minnesota coach Clem Haskins: "Jerry Sloan was the best rebounding guard I ever saw, but he was 6-5. Bobby's not nearly as tall, but he has some of the same instincts."

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