He calls himself the fifth wheel, or “Fab Four plus one,” and he sits most often on the edge of the spotlight, as the ESPN cameras zoom in on his more celebrated teammates. Few people know that Ray Jackson was every bit as famous back in Austin, Texas, as Chris Webber was in Michigan. Few people know that Ray used to light it up down there, night after night, in those humid high school gyms, the way Jalen Rose did in Detroit and Juwan Howard did in Chicago.
“You ought to be the man up there, Ray!” his friends complain when he goes home.
“Yeah, you’re not playing enough, Ray!”
“Tell Fisher you’re the man, Ray!”
He nods at all this, but Ray Jackson knows, or has come to know, that there is only so much room at the top of the mountain. They can’t all be The Man. He had trouble with this last year. It hurt his pride. He even thought about switching schools, leaving the Fab Five one digit short.
Which is what made Tuesday night so special, because Tuesday night, Ray Jackson, the fifth man on the totem pole, did the top-drawer job. He led the way. He gave the Wolverines more than what they wanted; he gave them what they needed. He gave them the ball off the glass. Fourteen rebounds? The guy with the lowest rebounding average of all five starters? Yep. They don’t have Ray Jackson, they don’t win this game.
“I thought Ray was terrific,” coach Steve Fisher said, after Jackson pulled down a career-high 14 boards — six of them offensive — along with 13 points to help pace Michigan past Iowa, 82-73. “We talked to him about rebounding before the game,” Fisher said. “We asked him, ‘What’s the most you’ve ever had?’ He said 10. I said, ‘You gotta get at least 10 tonight. You gotta beat your best.’ “
He beat his best. On one series, Michigan missed a shot and Jackson came flying in for the offensive rebound, snatching it away from two Iowa players. The ball worked outside, another Wolverine shot went up, it missed — and here came Jackson again, sliding like an envelope through a mail slot. Another rebound. New life for Michigan.
Whatever it takes
“Did Ray tell you Hammer was his favorite rapper?” Chris Webber yelled in the boisterous locker room after the game. “He knew Hammer was out there in the stands tonight. That’s why he got all those rebounds.”
“What are you telling him that for, man?” Jackson protested. “I’m not into Hammer. I’m Ghetto Boys.”
They laughed the infectious laugh of college students, and they slapped each other. Ray Jackson has done immeasurable good for this team by not rocking the boat, by not sulking or complaining about his role. They wanted him to be the defensive specialist? OK, he’d do that. They wanted him to look inside before shooting? OK, he’d do that.
Had he complained, had he whined that he was every bit the prospect that Webber and Rose were and he wanted equal minutes, this team might not be the unit it is now. Instead, Jackson talked things over with his best friend — his father, Ray Jackson — on many a long-distance call to Texas. And finally, he took the advice.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said now in the locker room. “They want me to rebound? OK, I can. Whatever it takes to win.”
“Did you hear that big ovation?”
“Yeah, the crowd always helps us.”
“But they were clapping for you, Ray.”
“Yeah,” he said, grinning. “That was good. That was all right.” Hammer time
He pulled on a jacket. Ray Jackson has a loose, slinky body that bends at the waist, so that he looks, at times, like he’s two pieces, upper half, lower half, glued together on an angle. He walks almost pigeon-toed, dragging his feet at times, and it almost seems like he is running out of gas. But when they blow the whistle, he explodes with a smoothness that rivals any of his teammates. Ray Jackson is meant for the air. He swims in it.
“People don’t know, Ray can do it all,” Jimmy King, his Texas buddy, insisted. “He can rebound, score, defend.”
“Ray,” added James Voskuil, “is a natural.”
On Tuesday night, when Webber had just four rebounds and fouled out early, Jackson, The Natural, did what more of the Wolverines should be doing: chasing the ball instead of watching it. He also drew fouls, made most of his free throws, had nice assists. And when it was over, Jackson, the fifth wheel, had played more minutes than all but one teammate — Rose.
“For real?” he said.
For real. Eventually, he and Webber exited the locker room, came slowly down the steps. There, against the wall, was Hammer, the famous rap artist, dressed in brown leather pants and a fancy white shirt. He was was talking on a portable phone. He saw Webber. He hung up.
“How you doing, Chris?” he asked enthusiastically. “Hey, you can’t carry it every night, big fella. Hang in. You did good.”
Webber smiled, moved on. Hammer looked after him. Then came Jackson, walking slowly. Hammer saw him, nodded, offered his hand.
“Good game,” he said, with a little smile.
I don’t know whether he knew to whom he was talking. I don’t know whether he even knew Jackson’s name. No matter. On Tuesday night, everyone else did. And that was enough.