Welcome to the first entry of a two-part series investigating a young basketball journey with ups, downs, struggles and successes that is still unfolding. The second installment on Delavontae will be released Tuesday, June 4.
In November 2018, Delavontae Jackson’s basketball career was on life support.
The guard from Columbus, Ohio, was two years removed from his last high school game, and the senior was team-less a few games into the 2018-19 season. The home-schooled student had bounced between open gyms, shook hands and accepted promises but still found himself formulating his basketball eulogy.
“Maybe basketball wasn’t meant for me,” Jackson remembered thinking as the final door seemingly slammed shut.
But there was one last opening he had yet to explore, and it would breathe new belief into the former flatline.
When it came time to enroll Delavontae in kindergarten, his school district informed his parents that their son’s birthday wasn’t in time, forcing him to start school the following year. That wasn’t good enough for his mother, Karina Jackson, who explored other options before settling on homeschooling.
She has been his teacher since, and the situation worked so well for the family, all 11 of the Jackson children are or will learn under Karina’s tutelage.
Delavontae grew up in the makeshift Jackson elementary, but it made organized sports difficult. Although he has enough siblings to field a full basketball roster, high school athletics don’t have provisions for an all-family team, so he had to look elsewhere. At the time, his “home” school was Groveport Madison High School in Groveport, Ohio, and Delavontae joined the program.
He played an unspectacular first season with Groveport Madison on the school’s freshman team for the 2015-16 campaign. When he came back expecting to do it again his sophomore year, Delavontae was met with a slap.
“We already had our team set before tryouts,” Delavontae said the coach told him. “We just didn’t have another spot for you.”
Whether Delavontae’s exclusion was based on his status as a home-schooled student or not, his release meant the sophomore was without a squad. He did not play organized basketball at all during the 2016-17 season.
“All I had was a basketball court outside my house,” he said, “so I was there, outside, every day.”
His father, Doc Jackson, agreed and said that sometimes, a neighbor would call the police on his son for playing basketball in the street too late after the sun set. But the cops were always understanding, and Delavontae continued using his blacktop as a gym.
Doc said he watched his son grow during that year of streetball.
“It was hard for him, but I think actually it started shaping and molding him,” he said. “I think it made his passion even more because he felt that he had to work harder, which I told him, you’re a home-schooled kid, you’re going to have to work harder than everyone else. But I think it made him a lot better. I think it made him a lot more confident.”
Karina agreed, explaining how she watched her son’s timidity and uncertainty transform to poise and boldness. But the purgatory would still weigh on him.
“There would be times where he would ask me, ‘Mom, do you think I should give up on playing basketball? Should I give up and focus on something else?’” she explained. “We encouraged him to hang in there, and he hung in there, and he didn’t give up even though multiple times we would have those giving up conversations.”
When his junior season rolled around, Groveport Madison was still his home school, and after the divorce the year before, the Jacksons decided trying out again wasn’t worth Delavontae’s time. Again, he sat out the high school season, although he did try AAU, playing for Hidden Gems. That didn’t last long, though, as the cost to play and for his entire family to attend his games was too much to bear.
Delavontae kept with it, though, literally pounding the pavement in front of his house in constant search of improvement. But he was now two seasons removed from putting on a uniform, and the hourglass on his high school career was draining to its final grains.
But it got much worse.
Between Delavontae’s junior and senior years, his family moved to a different part of Columbus, with an opportunity for a new high school to accept him onto their team a beautiful byproduct. Delavontae signed up for a local showcase – The All-American Basketball Showcase – and proceeded to score 35 points. His play caught some attention, and the head coach of Horizon Science Academy, within range of the rising senior’s new home, approached him.
Per the coach’s instruction, Delavontae went to tryouts. Beforehand, Delavontae said the coach told him the tryout was a formality for him, and that after seeing what he could do, there would be a varsity spot for him with reassurance that he would be eligible for the team without attending the school. Two years of searching over.
“I finally found a team I can play for this year,” Delavontae said.
The coach called Doc asking for various forms and other information, which he collected and sent. Delavontae was going to practices, and all appeared well.
Soon before the first scrimmage, the coach told Doc that the athletic director said Delavontae will probably have to take an online class to be on the team. That quickly changed to an in-person class, then the revelation that said class was full, the final damnation of the downward spiral.
Doc called the coach and asked what was happening. He said he would talk to the athletic director, but after a couple days of silence, Doc went to the school to get answers. The athletic director explained that his son had to take that class, but it was full, and nothing could be done.
“I said, ‘So, we basically wasted our time?’” Doc remembered. “He said, ‘I’m sorry you feel like that.’”
And so died Delavontae’s Horizon Science career. On the day of the scrimmage, Karina came to the school and grabbed her grieving free agent.
“He went back to that disappointment mode,” Doc said of his son. “It really hit him hard.”
With his senior season nearing, finding a team became even more desperate. Without any connections or leads, Delavontae felt stuck and helpless, relegated back his family basket and the end of his high-level hoops hopes.
But Doc found a lifeline: Mifflin High School was only a few minutes from the family’s new location. This was already roughly one week after Mifflin’s tryouts, but Delavontae was desperate.
Doc went to the school and found the coach, who told him tryouts were over and there wasn’t room on his team, but if Delavontae wanted, he could come to practice the next day, but no promises were made.
“I’m going to give him one shot,” Doc remembered the coach telling him.
That was enough for Delavontae.
He showed up to the practice, and the coach was straight with him from the beginning, explaining that his team was set and Delavontae didn’t factor into his plans. The guard nodded but stayed, then played out the session.
Afterward, the coach told Delavontae he could come to the team’s next practice in two days, but again made it known that nothing was guaranteed. Again, Delavontae came, and again, the coach commended him on his perseverance but reiterated there wasn’t much room remaining.
Delavontae did well enough to gain some attention from other Mifflin players, and the coach began to take notice. Following another practice, the coach brought him into his office and continued to make it clear to Delavontae where he stood.
“He showed me his roster and where I would be listed when it comes to minutes,” Delavontae said. “I would be behind a senior and a junior he knows very well. I understood that.”
The coach invited the player to another practice, but gave him an out, offering understanding if Delavontae wanted to call it quits now. After spending two seasons without a team and nowhere else to turn, that wasn’t an option.
Then a break: one of Mifflin’s guards suffered an injury, and in the next practice, the coach ran through some plays with Delavontae. The team had a scrimmage the next day, and the coach told his newest player he needed him.
Delavontae sat the bench most of the game but played a few minutes toward the end. When the team returned to Mifflin, Delavontae and the coach met in his office again. He told the player he liked what he has seen, but when his regular guard returns, the status quo will reinstate. But for a few weeks, Delavontae provided much-needed depth.
After nearly two months with Mifflin, the start of the season crept around the corner. Delavontae thrived in the hole left by injuries, and with the first game that week, he felt like he had a team for his senior season.
Then the bomb dropped.
Doc received a call from the athletic director, who told him the Jacksons lived mere feet outside Mifflin’s reach. Delavontae was ineligible for its team.
“After I gave the athletic director all my information a long time ago, out of the blue, out of nowhere, you’re a street too far out of Mifflin’s district,” Delavontae said.
Had the family moved to the other side of the street, Delavontae would have been fine. But instead, Doc now had to break the news to his son, who was at work, excited to play in his first high school game in three years later that day.
“He was on his way to the game,” Doc said. “He worked hard to do what he had to do to be on the team, and then I had to call him and let him know that he couldn’t go to the game. He couldn’t just not go to the game, but he wasn’t on the team anymore. It was hard for me to do.”
It was devastating. For the second time in one summer, Delavontae had the rug pulled out from under him.
“Delavontae had a uniform. They gave him a tie, everything. He was on the team,” Doc said. “Like the enemy was coming after him shutting everything down. Every opportunity, every door was being closed.”
With the season about to begin and Delavontae yet again finding himself on the outside looking in, devious darkness devouring the end of the tunnel.
“That day, I left Mifflin for the last time,” Delavontae said in mourning. “I did not have any school to go to. I told my mom and my dad, the cards that life are dealing me when it comes to basketball, they have been terrible. Nothing has been working. This was my last year, and again, something comes up, and it was taken all away from me. At that point, I didn’t know what to do. That’s what was going through my mind: it might be over.”