Q+A: Jim Jackson
by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam
Over the past 25 years, Jim Jackson has achieved basketball greatness everywhere he’s been. A 6-foot-6 smooth-scoring small forward from Toledo, Ohio, Jackson was selected as a 1989 McDonald’s High School All-American before moving on to Ohio State. As a Buckeye, he was twice named Big Ten Player of the Year and consensus First-Team All-American. After a stellar college run, Jackson had a successful 14-year NBA career, scoring almost 13,000 points.
Jackson retired in 2006, and he is now a college basketball analyst for the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports. He is still engulfed in the game and undoubtedly becoming one of the strongest basketball voices on television.
I recently caught up with Jackson to discuss Big Ten basketball, his NBA career, transitioning from the court to the broadcast booth and much more. Excerpts from our conversation are below.
You recently called the Marquette-Ohio State game on Fox Sports 1, the first college basketball game ever broadcasted on the network. How was that experience?
Jim Jackson: I did the first Big Ten Network basketball broadcast six years ago, and now staying within the Fox family and doing the first broadcast on Fox Sports 1, it was really a milestone day for me. I respect Brian [Anderson] and we’ve done a lot of work together at the Big Ten Network, so we already had chemistry. It was a great joy to be a part of history, so to speak, for Fox Sports.
This is one of the most anticipated college basketball seasons in a long time. However, with all the hoopla surrounding the freshman class, it seems like people are looking past the Big Ten.
JJ: I guess it depends on whom you talk to. The conference doesn’t have the same superstar power as last year, but I still think we’re going to have really good teams that will make it competitive. You have Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana—six teams that are Top-25 in the country. Now, I think across the board there’s not a lot of what I consider great teams in any conference. I think in today’s game, we have some outstanding players—freshman like Jabari Parker and the like—but not many elite teams.
There’s been a transition in college basketball over the last six to eight years, where the freshmen and young guys leave early, which takes away the great teams, but you still have a lot of really good teams because there are good players across the nation.
Gotcha. One Big Ten team I’m always fascinated by is Michigan State. The Spartans are the best team in the country right now, but are kind of an outlier in terms of how they operate — they play with upperclassmen but still produce NBA players every year. In the “one-and-done” era, how has Michigan State been able to sustain such a high level of success every year?
JJ: It’s a different mindset, and I think it’s genius for college basketball. Michigan State will get five-star or four-star players, but not at the same rate that a Kentucky, a Duke, a Kansas will get every year. So the talent is allowed to grow, while still being competitive. Michigan State has been able to have juniors and seniors mold the incoming freshman, and then there’s a progression of guys stepping up.
You know, you lose Draymond Green, but then Adreian Payne kind of finds his own way. Keith Appling now becomes more of a leader, once Draymond left. So you have a passing of the torch within that Michigan State program. The key has been player development, not just from the coaching perspective, but you have some very good team leaders who’ve kind of taken over the player-coach role, to help in that aspect as well. That’s why I think they’re so consistent — the makeup of the coaching staff, and also the mindset of the players they recruit.
You were an All-American during your playing days at Ohio State, and now you cover its basketball program for a living. Is there ever a conflict of interest—maybe not even outwardly, but just within yourself?
JJ: Not at all. See, the way I look at it, the game pretty much dictates what you talk about. So if Ohio State is playing well, I will give them credit. And if they’re struggling or playing poorly, I’ll point that out as well. It’s just like when people ask how can I possibly objectively cover my son [Traveon Jackson, starting point guard for Wisconsin]…
I was about to ask you that…
JJ: Like I said, the game is going to give you all the material you need to talk about. Now you may add in little things you know—from a personal perspective, I know the players and coaches little bit more, so I can add some more value and information that the general public may not know. But I’m always critical of the mistakes Ohio State makes, that my son makes, and I give credit when credit is due. But this all goes back to how the game ultimately dictates what you talk about. And if you stick to that script, I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be able to call an unbiased game.
You played on 12 different teams over the course of a 14-year NBA career. Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates? I see Sam Cassell—a former teammate of yours—is working towards being a head coach in the NBA.
JJ: It’s funny you mention Sam, because he and I are like brothers. We’ve been best friends for years, so I’m real happy for him. There are a few guys I stay in touch with—Sam, Brian Grant, Alonzo Morning. But it’s weird, because you would think that as much time as we spend around people, especially on different teams, you’d stay close with everyone. But guys have different lives. They have families, they move on. You have two or three guys that you stay in touch with, and those are the ones I’m still close with.
Would you ever consider getting into coaching?
JJ: No, no, no. Nope. Too much stress, man. In college basketball, you’re dealing with family members who think their son is going to be the next Michael Jordan or LeBron James [laughs]. Then you have to deal with the AAU Coach and the kid’s handler. Then the program, the alumni—and that’s before you even step on the court. There’s just too much stress in college basketball. You know, I love the game, but I don’t love it enough to where I’m in the office at 5 a.m. and leave at 8 p.m., and do it again every day.
Just looking at your resume, you played on so many different teams in the NBA, you have a wealth of experience and knowledge. How stressful was that grind, to play in all of those cities, and for all those teams? How did you manage that?
JJ: Here’s the thing: As a basketball player, you want to be in one environment, so you can grow and your game can grow. You don’t want to move from team to team. But at the same time, I always looked at it like life—those that can make adjustments and handle transition will survive. Those that can’t will not survive. A big part of my success is my mentality. To be able to play 14 years and play for 12 different teams, a lot of guys could never make the mental adjustment.
What do you mean by “mental adjustment”?
JJ: You have to be able to go from being the man in one situation, to being a complementary player — and not THE man — in another situation. It’s a 180-degree change in role and mindset, and most guys frankly can’t do it.
I knew I could play, so I had to ask myself, “How do you adapt your game and your mindset in the system, and still be effective?” And that to me that goes beyond basketball. That’s life.
Plus, it was a blessing because I was able to meet a lot of outstanding and great people, who were my teammates. From a business perspective, I met a lot of business people in a lot of different cities. My rolodex is extensive because of that. It may not have turned out from a basketball perspective the way that I envisioned it, but from a life perspective—from a growth perspective—my career path helped me more so for what I’m doing after my basketball career.
I guess the last question I’d ask you is, how has the transition been to broadcasting? Has it been seamless for you, or did it take time to develop the chemistry with the play-by-play guy, and really find yourself as a broadcaster?
JJ: Let me tell you something—it’s been challenging, and a growth process. When you start as a broadcaster, you don’t get taught. Fortunately for me, I had a broadcasting coach from the very beginning. But most networks, when you get hired, they don’t give you a blueprint on what you’re supposed to do, or give you the technical terms of what you’re supposed to know.
A lot of people think it’s easy for former athletes to step off the court and right into the broadcast booth, but it’s certainly not. You have to learn on the fly, and it’s just like playing the game. I studied tape of broadcasters I enjoy—baseball, basketball, tennis, hockey, swimming…everything. I’m trying to continuously improve myself. So it’s growth. You can never be satisfied with where you’re at, you’re always trying to get better.
To me, I’m still learning, I have a long way to go, but I love what I do. I don’t view it as a job; I view it an as opportunity to do something I love, which is talk about basketball. And I’m just getting started.