Imagine the feeling you’d have if you were sitting at Buffalo Wild Wings watching a No. 16 seed (UMBC) upset a No. 1 seed (Virginia) for the first time in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and knew you were nearly a part of that historic team. Now imagine you had recently signed a national letter of intent with that program and are sitting in the restaurant decked out in Retrievers gear.
“You can imagine how sick I was in March watching [UMBC] beat Virginia and just knowing I could’ve been a part of that team,” former Retrievers guard K.J. Jackson said. “By the time that happened I was already signed and everything. I’m sitting in a Buffalo Wild Wings with my UMBC gear on and stuff and people are looking at me like, ‘You know this team?’ And I’m just like, ‘Yeah, I know a little bit about them.'”
UMBC explored bringing Jackson in following his freshman season at Temple College, a junior college in Temple, Texas. Jackson met the requirements to enroll at UMBC, but the Retrievers didn’t have a scholarship open at the time. Instead of moving on to another Division I program, Jackson padded his resume with a second year at Temple.
The gamble paid off and then some. Jackson left Temple as the school’s all-time scoring leader (1,404 points) and was No. 5 in the nation in scoring (25.8 points per game) at the junior college level in 2017-18. After two years at Temple, Jackson transferred to UMBC and spent the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons as a starting guard for the Retrievers.
Jackson transformed into a two-way force at UMBC. He left the program as a two-time second-team All-American East selection, averaging 13.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in 63 contests as a Retriever. The next step is Romania, where Jackson is now playing professionally. Jackson’s new team, BC CSU Sibiu, plays in the top basketball league in Romania, the Ligă Națională. The team began playing games in September.
His journey to pro ball was made possible partly through his experiences at Temple, particularly considering the lessons he learned there. Jackson recalled the humility that came with being snubbed by a coach he thought had come to see him. He realized his peers in the Texas JuCo circuit were arguably just as talented, if not more, than he was. That only gave Jackson more reason to stay and improve his stock despite his family, friends and teammates worrying that Division I offers could disappear by the time his sophomore season came to a close.
“I felt like I could do better,” Jackson said. “I felt like I could do more and I did end up doing more. For myself, I felt an explosion of confidence and I understood that as long as I continue to work, I’ll continue to get better and there’s no reason why I won’t be able to go Division I.”
Back to Jackson being recruited ahead of that historic 2017-18 season. Head coach Ryan Odom and assistant Nate Dixon attended a JuCo showcase after Jackson’s first season and came away impressed. Jackson said Odom didn’t promise him a starting spot as part of his recruiting pitch. Instead, he told Jackson and his parents that he’d eventually take over for guards Jairus Lyles, K.J. Maura and Jourdan Grant, who were rising seniors at the time.
Jackson stayed put, but Odom still kept in contact and the relationship grew. Odom was one of few coaches to consistently check in after games and show support. That left a good impression on Jackson and his family. When the time came to make a decision, Jackson decided to have a little fun with his coach.
“I messed with him a little bit and I joked with him and made him think I wasn’t going to come at first,” Jackson laughed, reminiscing at the moment. “Even in that split moment where he thought I wasn’t going to come he still was like, ‘I respect your decision and I’m glad I got the chance to at least speak with you.'”
“And I was like, ‘Wow, other coaches that I told I wasn’t going to come, all right cool, click.’ And they was outta there. And it just kind of showed me the overall kind of character he was.”
“[Jackson’s] a jokester now,” Odom said, chuckling at the memory. “That’s one thing about him. He’s definitely the jokester in a fun way, which kept it light around our program. You knew he was serious, but you knew he wanted to have fun, too. It was easy to tell he was going to be one of the comedians of the team.”
Jackson’s first season in Catonsville, Md. (2018-19) came with high expectations following the Retrievers’ stunning upset of Virginia. The energy was positive, and the team expected to repeat as American East champions and make a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Through the leadership of Jackson and senior Joe Sherburne, UMBC reached another conference championship game but fell to Vermont, 66-49.
“We try not to talk about the run itself from the previous year, [and] we try not to talk about the tournament all year,” Jackson said. “Our focus was the next game, and we had so much fun as a team that year. The team was really just a goofy bunch of guys, but on the court every game we could lock in and go hard and we knew exactly what was going to happen no matter what.”
“He’s very coachable. He was a guy that always wanted more, which is what you want as a coach,” Odom said. “You want your players to want to be coached, to want to be corrected. It’s not an easy thing for young people.”
On the other hand, Jackson’s final season at UMBC was an injury-ridden mess. It started with Jackson missing summer workouts rehabbing from knee surgery for a torn meniscus. He fought through knee pain for the entire season.
Injuries to Jackson, Darnell Rogers, Arkel Lamar and R.J. Eytle-Rock contributed to the Retrievers finishing the season 16-17 overall and 8-8 in the league. Thanks to the team’s depth and next-man-up mentality, UMBC made it to the conference semifinals but lost to Vermont for a second consecutive season.
Jackson suffered another debilitating injury in practice just before the start of the America East conference tournament, this time to his quadriceps. Through a lot of physical therapy and rehab, Jackson again gritted his way through the pain to be on the court with his teammates for the final two games of the season, including the season-ending 81-74 loss to Vermont.
Downtime during the pandemic gave Jackson time to heal from his quadriceps injury. Jackson flew back home and allowed himself to relax and heal and didn’t do anything basketball-related for two months. Now that his college days are over, Jackson is grateful that he can just play basketball and not worry about injuries anymore.
“He just always found a way to be on the court,” Odom said. “He’s just a special guy.”
Since reporting to Romania in August to begin his pro career, Jackson has embraced a new culture and experienced plenty of new things. He’s just trying to enjoy the time, Jackson said, and is not focusing on being perfect this coming season. He just wants to win. After gaining perspective from the events of 2020, Jackson said he is “taking the chance every day to enjoy life.”
What makes the UMBC product excited about playing in Romania is getting a chance to watch and learn from the older guys as a rookie. Jackson said his new coach, Dan Fleseriu, liked his quick playmaking style. Not only was Fleseriu impressed with the way Jackson got to the rim, but more importantly his defense.
“That’s something that I can thank Coach O for,” Jackson said. “At the same time it’s something I engrained myself so that’s going to be a focus for sure. But he was just like, ‘You need a guy that’s going to be able to hound the ball, play [defense], get out in transition. You’ll be able to lead our break with a lot of speed.’
Jackson also said the way Fleseriu wants his team to play was a perfect match for him. Fleseriu also reminded Jackson of Odom, and Jackson sensed he couldn’t go wrong picking to play for a coach similar to the guy who gave him the opportunity to play Division I basketball.
“I couldn’t go wrong if I was fortunate enough to get somebody similar to [Odom] in any shape or form,” Jackson said. “So just took a chance, and out of everybody I spoke with, no bad things were said. So I felt like it was just a great thing to do and the next right step for me.”
Photo Credit: Brian Gonzalez/UMBC Athletics