Thank you for joining us for the second entry of a two-part series investigating a young basketball journey with ups, downs, struggles and successes that is still unfolding. Please read Part I of Delavontae Jackson’s story before moving on.
At the death, Delavontae Jackson’s basketball career received resuscitation.
The deadline to find a team for his senior high school season had seemingly passed. Games had been played, let alone tryouts completed. Delavontae’s father, Doc Jackson, thought of one last lifeline that could cure his son’s desperation.
One of Delavontae’s younger brothers, Diamauntae Jackson, also homeschooled, was playing his freshman year at Liberty Christian Academy in Pataskala, Ohio, a small private school on the outskirts of Columbus. Whether it would take his older son or not, Doc knew the school at least wouldn’t rip his son’s chest in two.
But Delavontae had to be ready to be vulnerable again.
“After he did mope around for a few days after Mifflin, he got up and said, ‘Okay, let’s try again,’” said Karina Jackson, Delavontae’s mother.
Months earlier, Delavontae had attended a Liberty Christian open gym with his brother. He never considered playing there as the school’s size, location and basketball prestige didn’t offer what he was looking for.
“My intention for playing basketball is I want to play at the next level,” Delavontae said. “I really believe I’m as good as any high school player, so to me, I thought that Liberty Christian, there’s no point of playing for them, because they’re a very small school.”
But any opportunity to play basketball in a gym was too good to pass up. That was when Delavontae first met Paul Hartje, Liberty Christian’s head coach.
“My initial impression was when I shook his hand, he had a really strong handshake, he and his brother both,” Hartje recalled. “I said, ‘Man, do you guys work out?’ He said, ‘My dad makes us do push-ups if we misbehave.’”
The way Delavontae carried himself, making eye contact and constantly responding with, “Yes, sir,” Hartje appreciated what he saw. Perhaps even more, he liked what he saw on the court.
But Delavontae was committed to Mifflin at the time, so Hartje was content with Diamauntae and having the older brother occasionally in his open gyms.
When that commitment disappeared, the Jacksons called Hartje hoping there was one extra spot for their second son even though Liberty Christian was two games into its season.
Hartje, who has coached basketball for 16 years but only spent the last two at Liberty Christian, didn’t have to think on it much.
“Coming to Liberty, we were dealing with some athletes who weren’t real versed in basketball, to be honest,” he said. “So, here comes a legitimate player, and as a coach I was not hesitant.”
Delavontae found a home away from homeschool, and the beat of his basketball heart could bounce on hardwood, not blacktop.
Delavontae quickly made his mark on the Liberty Christian program.
He became captain soon after joining, and his scoring ability was unrivaled not only among his teammates but within the city. Delavontae was scoring in double-digits every outing, breaking 20 points frequently, and helping in plenty of other areas, too. But there was an adjustment period as his teammates had to warm to the idea of a newcomer jumping in and commanding serious minutes.
“There is a certain acceptance that has to take place when a kid who comes in is very skilled,” Hartje explained. “They had to adjust to that, and they did a lot because of how Delavontae is. He’s an easy-going guy, he’s humble even though he’s not unaware of his abilities, but he’s a kid who always wants to get better, wants his team to get better. Through several losses in the early part of the year, he kept the team moving forward, and we ended up being competitive toward the end of the season. A lot of that had to do with him.”
It wasn’t only Delavontae who fit in. Liberty Christian welcomed the entire Jackson clan, and it reciprocated.
“Right away, the family was involved,” Hartje said. “They’d show up. They would work together as a family to help defray some of the cost of the sports fee. After the games, they’d help out around the facility. It was just a place where it fit. Everybody was happy with it. There wasn’t tension. There wasn’t anxiety.”
The Jacksons felt it, too.
“Coach Hartje received him with open arms,” Karina said. “Even the players on the team, they’re just so welcoming. There’s no difference between, I go to this school, you don’t go to this school, or anything. He had a great transition, and we’re just so thankful for Coach Hartje for receiving him and wanting to see him succeed as much as he wants other players to succeed.”
While Delavontae was putting up monster numbers in his resurrection, it was going unnoticed. He was originally weary to play for Liberty Christian months before because he wasn’t sure it would help him play college basketball, and for as thankful as he was to step onto a court with a uniform, his accomplishments were falling on deaf ears.
270 Hoops is an online outlet aimed at comprehensive coverage of Central Ohio high school basketball. It has become the premier place for stats, game updates and all other information you could want for high school hoops in the area.
But Liberty Christian, because of its size and location, wasn’t on its radar. That’s why it was so surprising to Delavontae when halfway through the season he happened to see his name listed as a top 10 scorer for the whole area for that week.
“I was just checking 270 Hoops, and I went through the scoring leaders,” Delavontae remembered. “Just a regular day, I had no intentions of anything, and I saw my name in the top 10. I was like, ‘Hold on, is that me? Is that Liberty Christian?’”
It was him, and it was Liberty Christian, but the following week, both had disappeared from the site, and the Jacksons had to get to the bottom of it. Delavontae told his dad about 270 Hoops, and Doc was soon emailing Zach Fleer, one of the site’s founders, about his son.
The inclusion had been a mistake: Liberty Christian had played against a team 270 Hoops covered, so Delavontae’s stats made the site for a week. When Doc brought it to Fleer’s attention, he told the father he would need information on the team and school to get Liberty Christian and his son back on the site.
Doc went to work, and days later, he collected everything needed to get the school counted. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted Fleer to come see his boy live and in person to add context to the crazy numbers.
Liberty Christian was set to play Bishop Ready, a much larger Catholic school in Columbus, on a Monday night, and Fleer said he would be there. It was a 55-minute drive for the reporter, and it was well worth it.
“Instantly, I was able to see who the kid was. He was the best player on the floor in that game,” Fleer said. “He had a slow start, and then made probably eight or nine mid-range pull-up jumpers that were just incredible. He had any defender on that team for Ready, he had guys from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-3 defending him, and he scored on all of them, and I was really blown away by that. He had a polished game, it was unlike any small school player I’d seen, especially a kid at a school that, one, I didn’t really know of before the season, and two, had never heard of and didn’t even figure they would have a prospect.”
Liberty Christian lost, 91-47, but Delavontae had 21 points and wowed Fleer. After the game, Fleer thanked Doc for hounding him to watch Delavontae. Since then, Fleer has taken an advisory role with Delavontae and is championing him through the recruiting process.
“He was more than points per game,” Fleer remarked. “He’s a real player who I think could play college basketball somewhere.”
Delavontae concluded his senior season as the ninth-highest scorer in Central Ohio, averaging 23 points per game. In nine of his 18 games, he scored more than 25 points. His performance has garnered attention locally, and he’s chosen to ride that momentum into next season, reclassifying for the Class of 2020 to give college coaches more opportunities to witness his bright play.
He made the decision with the help of his family and Fleer, who said the extra year of work will help the player. With his GED complete, Delavontae can focus the next year on his test scores, his job at Chick-Fil-A and basketball.
Delavontae doesn’t have any offers yet, but since meeting Fleer, he has introduced him to a handful of college coaches who have expressed interest. With an extra season to strut his stuff, that once pitch-black tunnel is allowing light through the cracks.
“There’s something inside me that says, ‘You have so much more to offer,’” Delavontae explained. “I have to do another year, because I feel like there’s so much basketball I have that I have not yet displayed and still have to show.”
It was only his first varsity season and the first time he had played high school basketball in years. It’s a different animal when you wear a uniform with the same teammates each night, with paid officials keeping games clean, compared to pick up on pavement, and Delavontae said he’s even more ready to make his mark now with that shift complete.
“I’ve learned this past year that I have to play the game very differently than when I’m playing with my friends, mainly because of my teammates,” he said. “I have teammates who I will be with the rest of the season. I have a coach. All of that is part of why I need to be playing this coming year.”
New hope surrounds Delavontae and his basketball dreams, but the outcome of another high school season will dictate its lifespan. And if college ball is in his future, it wouldn’t make for new chapters: a second book would begin.
But even finding a spot on a team was a relief, for Delavontae and his parents. There were times when Karina worried her decision to homeschool her son held him back from opportunities, and it weighed on her.
“I carried it, because I decided to homeschool him,” she explained. “So many times, I struggled with wondering if I should have homeschooled him, or should I send him to a public high school so he can have a better opportunity. Maybe I caused this and I limited his opportunities.”
She and her husband continued to encourage Delavontae through everything, though, egging him to keep working, stay motivated and remain focused.
He’s done that, and from the streetlight shadows that danced under the stars, he now plays in full illumination in gymnasiums, and his parents aren’t the only Jacksons to notice.
“He has eight brothers in back of him who look up to him,” Doc said. “They want to do exactly what he is doing, and it’s been a blessing to me as a father to see Delavontae working out with the kids, talking about getting better and stuff like that. It’s a turnaround right now in his life, and I just can’t wait to see this journey that he is on right now and where it’s going to go. It’s definitely making a difference in his brothers’ lives.”
The process has led Delavontae to discover aspects of himself he didn’t previously know, and the growth he’s shown outside of basketball is the greatest accomplishment of all.
“For someone to keep telling you, ‘No, no, no,’ gave him the capacity to keep working at something,” Karina explained. “He’s found more skills within himself, that he can be a leader, that he some influential qualities to him where he’s a good influence on others, and he’s becoming an encourager to others who are feeling disadvantaged or had a lack of opportunities.
“So, yeah, he’s good at basketball, but his whole process from his freshman year to now, he’s gained even more qualities that a young man needs to have: tact, stability, being stable in his emotions while being frustrated, disappointed and all this fluctuation of emotions, but still functioning properly, behaving properly, being respectable, still be honoring. He learned all of that through this whole process, through basketball, through his pursuit of playing basketball.”
There’s much more for Delavontae to do. He’s only 18, and his hoops experience is limited. The next level is attainable though not guaranteed. His basketball life is reborn, but the saga continues, and for that, he is grateful.
“It’s not over yet,” Delavontae said. “As long of a story as that is, the story’s really not over. Still a lot more to unfold, a lot more to learn, a lot more to see.”
Photos provided by Ellie Hogan, Faith in Focus Photography