It’s a long way from Saginaw to South Bend
Tory Jackson was never an All-American.
He never made all-BIG EAST Conference.
His most noteworthy recognition? He became a member of the BIG EAST all-rookie team as a freshman in 2007, then as a senior made the BIG EAST Championship all-tournament team.
Most impressive probably was the BIG EAST Sportsmanship Award he received following his senior season, an honor that in some ways contradicted his passionate and ultra-competitive approach to the game.
“I always admired his toughness,” says University of Notre Dame assistant basketball coach Martin Ingelsby, who was the operations director when Jackson arrived on campus.
“I remember seeing him play for the first time. It was very obvious that he and Luke (Harangody) were going to make us a much better team right away just because they were so tough.”
Yet, in many ways, Jackson’s journey from his hometown of Saginaw, Mich., to the Notre Dame campus—and then back—might have represented one of the more remarkable adjustments and transitions ever in Irish athletics.
It’s safe to say Jackson’s hometown haunts don’t draw comparisons with Madison Avenue.
Buena Vista High School students, assuming they make it through high school, aren’t heading for college on any regular basis, much less a place as demanding as Notre Dame.
But Jackson had learned how to survive and prosper long before he came to South Bend—in great part because of the unique challenges of growing up in a family with 13 brothers and sisters (he’s the third youngest).
Jackson’s father, James, worked for General Motors, mother Sarah was a teacher and grandmother Mary Jones played a critical role in his life until her death when he was eight. While the former Irish point guard smiles at the memory of the inevitable competition with his siblings for food at the dinner table, he also remembers the tragedy of the drive-by shooting that killed his high school girlfriend just weeks after he enrolled at Notre Dame.
“The home visit we made during the recruiting process was amazing,” says Irish head coach Mike Brey, who make the trek to Saginaw with former Irish assistant coach Lewis Preston.
“There must have been 40 people in the home. They were all waiting to see what I had to say about our program and what Tory’s mom had to say.”
Irish assistant coach Rod Balanis recalls how Jackson went home to Saginaw virtually every weekend of his first two months at Notre Dame—right up until practice began in October. From then on, however, it became more about the Jackson clan migrating to South Bend. Two of Jackson’s brothers, Ivan and Cory, actually moved to South Bend during his years with the Irish. It was never hard to spot the Jacksons behind the Notre Dame bench at games—they were loud and proud. They knew their basketball, too. Brothers Shawn and Cory played on Buena Vista state title teams and sister Lynette also played college basketball at Central State.
“It didn’t take too long before Tory didn’t want to leave here. This really became his home,” says Balanis.
“It wasn’t just Tory,” says Ingelsby. “I think his entire family realized that this new environment at Notre Dame was a good thing for all of them in some ways.
“You always knew Tory had a good head on his shoulders. He was smart enough to know how to adjust, and he knew how to get things done.”
Interestingly, some of Jackson’s initial tough adjustments actually did come on the basketball court. After averaging more than 30 points a game as a high school senior (only two players in Michigan high school history scored more career points)—and helping Buena Vista to the Michigan Class C title game as a senior while personally winning two Michigan Class C player-of-the-year honors—he found himself playing 14 or 16 minutes
a night while backing up veteran Irish point guard Kyle McAlarney.
Jackson’s basketball fortunes changed dramatically on a December night when McAlarney was arrested for possession of marijuana. McAlarney missed the remainder of the semester and season—and Jackson became the starting point guard. He started Notre Dame’s final non-league game against Stony Brook, then scored 14 points (with five rebounds, four assists and three steals) in an Irish home victory over Louisville in the BIG EAST opener, and he never looked back. He finished his career with 122 starting assignments, third on Notre Dame’s all-time list.
Jackson recalled attending Rose of Sharon Church of God in Christ three times a week while he was growing up in Saginaw—and it didn’t take long for the gospel according to Tory Jackson to spread inside the Notre Dame basketball locker room.
“Playing point guard is kind of like chess,” says Jackson, who also excelled at playing chess growing up. “You’re always anticipating, you’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to be thinking three moves ahead. And they’ve got to be the right moves.”
Says Ingelsby, “As good a player as [Luke] Harangody was in terms of production, Tory was really the heartbeat.
“His leadership skills were through the roof. He drove the bus. He had the voice. He was in there stirring it up every day, and I mean that in a good way.
“He started that first BIG EAST game and the rest was history. He always had a smile on his face, he worked hard and he was eager to please.”
Says Brey, “When Tory and Luke showed up in the locker room, everything changed. They were blue-collar guys who would battle you every second. That was contagious. They were tough, and they made everybody else tough. They believed and they made everybody else believe. They made all of us coaches believe and that says something about how they went about it.”
Brey would often suggest that Jackson knew his head coach so well he could finish the sentences that Brey would start. “And that’s a very powerful thing, to have your point guard represent like that in the locker room on a daily basis.”
Even at Notre Dame, Jackson’s family seldom stopped having an impact. While practices with his Irish teammates were regular events, Jackson at times would work out with his now-in-town brothers, trying to soften his jump shot. And never did a day go by without a phone conversation with his mother.
“They came in busloads from Saginaw to see Tory play,” says Brey.
“I called him the mayor of Saginaw. There were a lot of people from his hometown who called me to check in on him. I think they were really proud that he had come to Notre Dame.
“His brothers, I think, were a little protective of Tory. They felt like he had a chance to do something they never did.”
Jackson went on to lead the BIG EAST in assists in three of his four seasons (Sherman Douglas from Syracuse is the only other player who can say that). As a freshman, he threw 20 points at Georgetown in the BIG EAST Championships semifinals (to go with eight rebounds and five assists)—and that set the tone for the next three seasons.
As a senior he scored 25 points in one game at Seton Hall, then found another way to contribute with 15 assists in a game against Syracuse when he was none for seven shooting from the floor. He helped a home win over Connecticut with 22 points, then tied for the team scoring high in eliminating Pittsburgh from the BIG EAST Championships with 12 points and four three-pointers.
Jackson graduated from Notre Dame in 2010 with majors in sociology and computer applications. That wouldn’t exactly have been on his personal “bucket list” way back when he was a youngster in Saginaw. He hasn’t given up on basketball quite yet—the NBA Development League (the team in Fort Wayne, Ind., remains an option) could offer an opportunity.
But Jackson’s life came full circle, in a way, in September 2010 when his mother died of a heart attack. He knew something was wrong when that daily phone conversation didn’t happen. He’s been back in Saginaw ever since, holding up his father and the rest of the Jacksons.
Maybe there’s basketball ahead for Notre Dame’s ebullient former point guard. Maybe there’s a role somewhere in his hometown church. Maybe there’s another light bulb that has yet to flash for the 5-11 former Irish sparkplug.
Count on Tory Jackson to find a way.