Gauntlet thrown down, he rises to new heights

High schools: Urged to assert himself, Aberdeen junior center Robbie Jackson is using all of his 7 feet, 260 pounds to alter games and expectations.

March 01, 2004|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

It was only a dunk - by a 7-footer, in fact - but it may well be the play that accelerated Aberdeen junior center Robbie Jackson's transformation into a confident high school basketball player.

In his first season, Jackson had never dunked, never even attempted to. He was worried he would miss and lacked the confidence in his 7-foot, 260-pound frame to get close enough to the rim.

But in the waning moments of the Eagles' 92-58 victory over Fallston in early January, Aberdeen point guard Erin Henderson gave Jackson an ultimatum.

"Erin was like, `I'm not going to give you the ball unless you dunk,'" said Jackson, 18, who is in only his second year of organized basketball.

Jackson pulled down a rebound, set his feet and rose to the rim, finishing with a violent, two-handed slam that rattled the backboard for several moments.

"He knew I was serious," Henderson said. "That's why he threw it down like that."

Teammates say Jackson, believed to be Harford County's first 7-foot player, has been a completely different player - more confident and aggressive - since that game.

Dunks are nightly occurrences, and so are numbers like these: 27 points, 15 rebounds, eight blocks against No. 15 Bel Air; 14 points, 17 rebounds at No. 12 Douglass; and 36 points, 17 rebounds, seven blocks against Harford Tech in last week's Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference championship game.

Jackson has become a dominant force much sooner than anyone expected.

"The way he's improving, you can tell he's going to give you something every night," said Aberdeen senior guard Phillip Brown. "If he keeps improving like this, I wouldn't put a cap on anything he could do."

Rapid ascent

In his past nine games, Jackson, whose rebounding (11.3) and blocked-shot (3.5) numbers have remained consistent all season, is averaging 18 points, up nearly seven from his season average. The 15th-ranked Eagles (16-6) have won eight of those games going into tonight's Class 2A East quarterfinal at Kent Island.

"Our game plans have never been to count on Robbie for scoring," Eagles coach Richard Hart said. "Now, he is a legitimate threat. Teams are forced to deal with him."

Still, the questions about Jackson linger. How can't he dominate at his height? Where are his low-post moves? Is he quick enough?

Jackson said: "I still have a long way to go."

He rattles off the areas where he needs to improve: footwork, keeping the ball higher so guards can't reach in and get it, developing a drop-step move, staying out of foul trouble.

However, those are minor details considering where Jackson was about 14 months ago, when he decided to try out for the team as a sophomore without ever having played basketball or any other sport.

"I never really had any interest in playing," said Jackson, who was 6-6 in eighth grade. "The only thing that was on my mind was video games."

Robert Jackson, his father, said his family never even had a basketball in their home.

About two years ago, Jackson started to play in some pickup games at a neighborhood court. But as a freshman, he declined Hart's request to come out for the Eagles.

Jackson, whose father is 6-2 and mother 5-9, said his feelings were hurt by comments from his peers during pickup games and that was one of the reasons he didn't want to play.

"I would be made fun of because I really didn't know what I was doing," Jackson said. "People would say, `Look at him; he can't play. He's tall for nothing.' "

Jackson got over his embarrassment, but his first season at Aberdeen was a struggle, as he shuttled between the JV and varsity, making little impact on either. He was out of shape, unsure of some of the rules and unskilled in fundamentals.

Recalled Brown: "It seemed he was always doing something wrong."

"As an athlete, you know that you have to keep going when you feel tired," Henderson said, "but nobody had taught Robbie that. Until this year, he really didn't have the will to compete."

Things started changing this past summer, when Jackson played about 30 games for the Maryland Elite, an Amateur Athletic Union team. The Elite's coach, Adolfo Negron, remembered Jackson fouling out in the first five minutes of his first game, but, by season's end, he was rounding into better condition and his confidence was growing.

That carried over to Aberdeen, where teammates noticed a drastic change in Jackson's demeanor this year. The shy, sensitive kid who used to walk the halls by himself and with his head down was all of a sudden surrounded by groups of people. Hart said until this year, he had never seen Jackson laugh or smile.

"I am confident now," said Jackson, whose grades have also improved since starting basketball. "I can talk, meet new people."

Jackson, who used to zone out when some of the Eagles approached him with advice, absorbs every word. Henderson said Jackson is now one of the guys, and that's lofty company with the Eagles, a team featuring several football players who share a bond after their state championship season in the fall.

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