As the plane began to descend over Texas, Jimmy King stirred from his sleep. Maybe he heard his hometown calling. Maybe he sensed that his parents might greet him at the airport, with some of those Mexican desserts he likes. He stretched and looked out the window.
“Yo, Money, look!” he yelled suddenly to Ray Jackson, sitting a few seats forward. “Look, Money. Texas Stadium.”
Jackson gave the high sign.
“We’re almost home,” he said.
“Drop us off right here.”
“Drop us off. We’re home!”
And they burst out laughing.
This was last week, and the Lone Star landing was just a layover. No matter. They say Texas is not a state, but a state of mind. And if Jimmy King and Ray Jackson are any indication, this is how you define that state of mind: Be true to your home, be true to yourself, love the heat, laugh a lot, trust Mom and Dad, never sit up straight if you can lie down, and play ball.
Above all else, play ball.
This may explain why, on a team of more celebrated names — Chris Webber and Jalen Rose being two of them — the languid King and Jackson, two guys who will never be accused of rushing through life, have delivered Texas-sized performances in the NCAA tournament.
Jackson, you remember, was dared by Coastal Carolina to shoot the open jump shot in Round 1 last Friday. “No problem,” he said. He hit for 19 points, leading the way to victory.
King, meanwhile, came to the rescue in the miniseries that was the next game, Michigan-UCLA. The skies were falling, the earth shaking, but there was King, calm as the prairie, stealing a pass at the end of regulation, then sinking the winning basket in overtime.
“Were you surprised Jimmy made those plays?” Jackson is asked.
“Nope. That’s my boy.”
“Were you surprised Ray did all that scoring?” King is asked.
“Nope. That’s my boy.”
Hmm. Maybe it’s a Texas thing. They didn’t meet until U-M
Jimmy and Ray. Ray and Jimmy. If you hang around the Wolverines, you hear this pairing constantly. “Hey, where’s Jimmy and Ray? . . . ” “Let’s get Jimmy and Ray. . . . ”
No wonder they decided to share an apartment this season: Everyone lumps them together anyhow.
The funny thing is, they never even met each other in Texas. King played in Plano, a suburb of Dallas, and Jackson starred in Austin, a good 200 miles away. Sure, they heard of each other. And read about each other. But not until their first day at Michigan did they ever shake hands.
“I got here early to move into the dorm,” King recalls. “And by the time Ray showed up, there was this long line–“
“So he let me up in line with him,” adds Jackson.
He let you butt in line? That was your first meeting?
“We take care of each other.”
What was the first thing you said to one another?
Jackson smiles. “What up, Dog?”
King answers: “What up, Dawwwwg!”
Texas thing. Different on the floor
But OK. You can hardly blame them for similarities. Both miss the same things (“wearing shorts in warm weather”); both like the same NFL team
(“Cowboys!”); both have the same approach to each other’s food in the refrigerator (“if it’s there, eat it”).
And both found something lacking in the street manners of strangers up north.
“Back home, if you pass someone on the street, you just say, ‘What’s up? How you doing?’ ” King says.
“Yeah,” says Jackson, “you’re liable to get in a whole conversation that way.”
“First week we were up here we did that, and people just looked at us.”
“Yeah. They were cold, man.”
They have adjusted. They have made friends. And although both players have these relaxed, fluid bodies and this loose way of walking that makes you think their shorts may slip off at any time, the truth is, they are different in ways. King, on the court, is more of a sharpshooter, a three-point man and a dunking specialist who seems able to hang just as long as he needs. Jackson shows equal skill staying on earth, sticking to his defender, then leaping for rebounds or drop-in lay-ups. Both are great on the break. That may be a Texas thing, also.
But whereas King was a nearly instant college star, for Jackson, success is a return-on-investment in patience. Jackson was the last of the Fab Five to start at Michigan. And the first to get injured. He had an increasingly bad tournament last year, culminating in zero points and many minutes on the bench in the championship game against Duke. During the summer, he questioned whether he had made the right decision in picking Michigan.
“I thought maybe I should go someplace else where I could play more,” he said recently. “I thought about transferring. Everyone at home kept asking me,
‘How come you’re not playing more? How come they’re not using you like they used you in high school?’ “
During these times, Jackson often spoke to his father, Ray Jackson Sr., who told him to hang in, stick with it. They are immeasurably close. Young Ray calls old Ray “my Pops.” It is from Pops whom he gets the easygoing manner that everyone on the team seems to adore. Ask the reserve players which of the Fab Five they find easiest to get along with. “Everyone loves Ray,” they’ll say. He is, in a word, agreeable. He drags his feet sometimes when he walks, and is always singing some song, usually a rap. He gives the impression of being . . . approachable. Also, he’s an easy laugh. When someone thinks they have a good joke, they try it on Jackson and usually end up convinced.
“Am I like that?” Jackson asks, starting to smile already.
“Yeah, he’s like that,” King answers. “Ray is ready to laugh at anything. You can wake him up by telling him a joke and he’ll start laughing, right there in bed, before he even opens his eyes!”
‘Moves like Mike’
Well. That’s not a bad way to start the day. King, you imagine, begins his by throwing off the covers and leaping from the bed to the shower. A natural-born flier, he constantly surprises first-time watchers with his midair acrobatics and radar-like drives to the basket. He is a deft shooter from the outside and, as the UCLA game proved, he can get to rebounds when they really matter. Leaping is in his blood. The first time he dunked, he did it without any warm-up tries. Just went up and jammed, because someone dared him to.
“I went to see him twice in high school,” says Jay Smith, the assistant coach who helped recruit him. “He had 40 points both times.”
“All during high school, people told me about Jimmy,” Jackson adds. “They said he had moves like Mike.”
“Jordan, not Cooper.”
Gotcha. Of course, in non-basketball life, King more resembles Rip Van Winkle. Easygoing? He never met a slouch he didn’t like. He sits in a chair the way a snake would sit in a chair. You can’t find the bend in his body; he just uncoils.
“My mother always told me I wasn’t sitting up straight,” he admits. “But I’m not comfortable like that. I like to relax when I’m sitting down.”
“Yeah,” says Jackson, nodding.
I look at Ray. He is sitting on top of a table, with his feet up and his shoulders slumped against the wall.
Must be a Texas thing. Inroads into Texas
But if sinking pressure jumpers and making game-saving steals are part of that Texas thing, too, well, bring them on. Already, Michigan basketball, which before Jackson and King had only one other Texas recruit whom anyone can remember, has signed up one (Bobby Crawford, from Houston) and is in the running for three others.
“I think we’ve started a nice thing with Texas,” coach Steve Fisher says.
“I’ll be honest. Jimmy, we knew about. We kind of found Ray by accident. Someone told us that he was a great player who liked to wear a Michigan hat to school. We started from that.”
And have come to this: King and Jackson, Jimmy and Ray, the Michigan-Texas connection making highlight films out of NCAA tournament games.
“I call him Money,” says King. “Like Money in the bank.”
“I call him Jam,” says Jackson. “Jimmy Jam.”
You watch them walk off together, at the pace of an armadillo, but laughing, and slapping hands. And you realize a fundamental truth about life, be it on the basketball court or the college campus: There is something nice about wearing matching Texas caps and finding the same jokes funny and pointing out familiar landmarks through the airplane window. Something nice about finding a home boy so very far from home.