He came the long, hard way
Demetrius Jackson never considered his life more difficult or less structured than those of the young schoolmates around him because, for many years, uncertainty and instability were all he ever knew.
Though barely 22 years old now, Jackson’s journey already has been filled with as many ups and downs—triumph, hopelessness, heroics, fear and faith—than most folks will face in a lifetime.
See, the pride of the University of Notre Dame basketball program, turned NBA rookie, never had a reference point through most of his childhood to fully understand the long odds he faced while bouncing from foster home to foster home, until finally as a teenager he met a special friend and family that would brighten a future and redirect a life’s course.
“I love my foster family and they love me back. I love my biological family and they love me back. It’s part of who I am, two different families,” Jackson says. “I embrace it. It was this situation I was put into and I made the best of it.”
Private and introverted by nature, Jackson is understandably hesitant to detail circumstances that caused him to be separated from his biological mother and placed in foster care as a 12-year-old boy by the Indiana Department of Child Services. His father, a former Indiana state high school wrestling champion in South Bend, lives in Atlanta, but he has never been a major part of Jackson’s life.
Maybe no one understands what Jackson has experienced as well as his older brother Jeff.
“At first he was probably a little scared and didn’t know what to expect,” says Jeff. “There was a lot of bouncing around.”
What Jackson is more than willing to talk about is everything and everybody that went into helping this local young man go from playground baller, to AAU standout, to high school All-American, to Notre Dame superstar, to an NBA Draft pick.
“My surroundings and environment were normal for me because that’s what it always had been. With everything going on around me, basketball was an outlet,” Jackson says of a sport that kept him on track and out of trouble while confusion sometimes swirled around him. “I spent so many hours outside at the courts. It was always my resort for everything, whether I was happy, sad, it didn't matter. Basketball was always what I would do.”
Before being placed into foster care, Jackson grew up on the west side of South Bend and spent most of his elementary school years polishing the finer points of basketball at nearby parks and playgrounds, always dreaming of greatness, never knowing if it would ever come.
Jackson's first important mile-marker along his journey through sports and life came during middle school when he met Rod Creech, a local AAU basketball coach.
“I think that basketball was a way out for Demetrius,” says Creech, a man Jackson still considers more of a father figure and friend than a coach. “He could perform. He could work. He could stay late. He was in control of his own destiny with basketball.”
Looking back now, Jackson’s involvement at the time in AAU ball may have been the most important waypoint in mapping his unlikely course from foster care to the NBA.
Through nothing more than happenstance, Jackson and another young man named Michael Whitfield became fast friends in the summer after their seventh-grade school year when they met as teammates on the local Midwest Basketball Academy Select AAU team.
Whitfield and Jackson were as much alike as they were different—a yin-yang relationship that became the root of their friendship, brotherhood and oftentimes rivalry.
The boys were born only two weeks apart. They were fiery competitors, almost to a fault, and both were gifted athletes.
Yet, while Jackson faced the ongoing unrest of being raised in foster homes, Whitfield grew up in a stable and comfortable environment in Mishawaka, Indiana.
Off the court, Jackson was uptight and often stressed. Whitfield was laid back and typically poised. They complemented each other.
And as the boys’ basketball bond grew, so did the time they spent together away from the game.
Jackson routinely spent his weekends at the Whitfield home, checking in immediately after school on Fridays and reluctantly checking out and heading back to his foster home on Sunday evenings.
“In my first foster home I felt some instability. The second one was a larger foster home, so there were more kids cycling in and out,” Jackson says. “Someone would be there one week and gone the next.”
“I just knew that he wasn’t necessarily the happiest person at the old place,” Michael Whitfield says. “And I looked at him as a brother anyway, so I wanted to help him out.”
Help came in an unexpected way.
On an impassioned plea from Michael to his mother, Beth Whitfield and her family agreed after discussion to invite Jackson out of his foster home and welcome him into theirs, full time.
“We just talked about it and knew it was the right thing to do,” says Beth.
“It felt right.”
And for Jackson, an eighth-grader at the time, the act of kindness was silently stunning.
“When they asked me (to move in), I said I would love to, but I really didn't show any emotion, even though inside it flattered me,” he said. “They probably just sensed that I would be happy in their home. I was there all the time, so it was like I lived there anyway.”
The move to the Whitfields provided a sense of relief for Jeff.
“It was hard back then,” says Jeff. “Once I knew he was with them, I quit worrying so much.”
With two girls and three boys already under the Whitfield roof, adding a sixth child wasn’t necessarily a daunting challenge for Beth, a kindergarten teacher, and her husband, Dave, a financial adviser.
After working through the necessary logistics and legalities of transforming a family home into also a foster home, Jackson moved in with the Whitfields during the summer of 2009. And along with his best friend and new roomy, Michael Whitfield, the two “brothers” readied together for their freshman year at Marian High School, a Catholic school in neighboring Mishawaka.
“It was new,” says Jackson, admitting that this latest relocation was as gratifying as it was overwhelming. “I had never been to a Catholic school before. I was living in a new home. I was starting to play high school basketball and football. It was chaotic, but it was fun.”
“Demetrius had to adjust on how we did things, and we had to adjust, too” says Dave Whitfield, explaining that no special exemptions came along with Jackson’s new residency. All household rules and routines applied.
Expectedly, sacrifice and patience were required from everybody involved during this transplant and transition. Unlike Jackson’s often disjointed foster home experiences, the Whitfield home was structured and inclusive.
All four boys shared one big room. Full family dinners were the norm and if one child had an important sporting or school event, the other five children—Jackson included—would be there for support … non-negotiable.
“He didn’t get away with anything,” Dave Whitfield says. “It was just an adjustment.”
The steadiness and influence of the Whitfield family likely helps to explain Jackson becoming the all-time leading scorer in St. Joseph County (Indiana) high school history with 1,934 career points while at Marian and the first prep McDonald’s All-American from northern Indiana since future NBA all-star Shawn Kemp earned the honor in 1988 out of Concord High School in Elkhart.
Through camaraderie, commitment, success and talent, Jackson found himself with an educational opportunity and decision he could’ve only dreamed about barely five years earlier when he wasn’t even sure who he’d be bunking with every night and week to week at his previous foster home.
Elite college programs such as Michigan State, Louisville, Kansas and countless others all wanted his services, but similar to what South Bend native Skylar Diggins did in 2009, Jackson decided to stick around town, stay local—and try to become a hometown hero by playing his college ball at Notre Dame.
“The big reason I chose Notre Dame is because how close it is to my home,” Jackson says. “It was also really close to my high school and had a strong Catholic identity. I have always been told you are who you are surrounded by. If you are surrounded by great people, that is a great start.”
But Jackson’s first year at Notre Dame in 2013 served as anything but. Jackson became lax with his classwork during his freshman year, leading to a one-week, two-game suspension levied by Irish head coach Mike Brey.
Jackson was kept from all team activities that week, but Brey held his young point guard close nonetheless, with late-night one-on-one “workouts” after the rest of the team had cleared out of the gym.
“I have to admit, there weren’t many actual workouts being done," Brey says. “We would shoot around for a little bit and then we would kind of talk about a lot of things. I didn’t want him to think he was being abandoned, but he also needed to know there are certain things you have to do here.”
Brey called this mini-suspension and brief detour the turning point of Jackson’s career at Notre Dame, a snapshot teaching moment that put the player’s road to greatness back on track.
Instead of sulking and fleeing to another school when times got tough, Jackson stuck it out, listened to his coach, learned from his mistakes, worked and turned himself into one of the best college point guards in the country as a sophomore and junior.
“Every player in America should look at Demetrius Jackson,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory told reporters after a game at Notre Dame in January 2015. “There’s 400,000 guys transferring because their freshman year didn’t go the way they want it to.”
Always guarded and understandably resistant to unconditional trust, Jackson finally began to open up to his coaches and to his teammates after his week hiatus from team activities. He blossomed into a stronger leader and a better player afterward.
And by applying the difficult lessons from his childhood and freshman year in college, Jackson also transformed an entire program in 2015 and 2016, leading Notre Dame to consecutive Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA Championship (the only school in the country to do that) for the first time in school history.
“We couldn’t ask more out of a guy to be that kind of part of that run,” Brey said. “It was storybook, really, for a local kid to help us get to those heights.”
On the night of June 23, 2016, one journey for Jackson ended and another began when he was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft and rewarded with a four-year $5.5-million contract with the Boston Celtics.
“We’ve got a lot of examples of great Notre Dame men, and Demetrius is right up there with all of them,” Brey says. “I think at a young age he had to be a survivor. And I think it kind of developed a mental toughness and an edge about him that really helped him when he arrived at Notre Dame and when he left Notre Dame.”
Adds Creech, “He went through some peaks and valleys, but it’s about perseverance. You fight through, you battle and you don’t quit. And he did all that.”
When Demetrius was honored by Marian High School in February, maybe the only person in the gym as emotional as Notre Dame’s point guard was his brother.
“I felt like my mission was complete,” says Jeff. “He never gave up. He pushed through the worst. If you keep building what you love and stay focused, you can make anything happen.
“It makes you strong. It’s on you and how you handle it.
“Keep the faith and keep playing. Even with everything else, you can take it as far as you want it.
“That’s my message to him—stay focused, stay focused, stay focused.”
So the player simply known as “D” says a silent prayer courtside before each of his games, a thankful reflection that tributes all who helped make his journey as remarkable and rewarding as it was unlikely and difficult.
“What would I say to someone who is facing the same situation I had while growing up? Stay strong. It will be difficult and it will be tough. There are times when you will want to give up. Stay strong and fight through it.
“Don’t be afraid to open up and trust the people around you and have faith that you will make it through a tough time. Find an outlet. My outlet was basketball. For others, it may be different things—piano, the drums, drawing—whatever your passion is. Find it. It helps you release any pent-up frustrations so that you can have positive energy.
“I have a really big family with my teammates, my coaching staff, my biological and foster family and all those people who have been around me to help me. Thank you for supporting me and always having my back, through thick and thin. For always understanding me and who I am, having patience with me, especially through the troubled times. Just thank you.
“All the people who have been placed in my life have gone out of their way to be kind and genuine. The Whitfields didn’t have to go through the process of getting their foster care license. Michael didn’t have to do the things he did. There are so many times when they could have given up on me.
“For all those people who believe in me and ensured I have had the best opportunities in life,” Jackson vows, “I will go out and play as hard as I can for those people for the rest of my career.”
It’s a future for Demetrius Jackson that promises to be long, successful and strong of heart.