By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – A lot of Muskegon High School basketball parents made the drive to Kalamazoo on Thursday night.
But Willie Jackson might have been just a little more excited than the rest of the parents.
For one thing, his son, senior Markell Jackson, had another great game, leading the Big Reds in the big victory with 25 points and 13 rebounds.
But there’s more to it than that.
Both father and son know what it’s like to live without basketball when they should have been playing, and they didn’t care for that feeling at all.
Markell had to sit out his freshman and sophomore seasons while living in other cities, due to bad grades. He addressed that problem when he enrolled at Muskegon for his junior year, and emerged as a standout on a team full of stars this season.
Markell is averaging 13.9 points and 9 rebounds per game for the Big Reds, who hope to make a drive for a Class A state championship over the next few weeks. They open district tournament play by hosting Reeths-Puffer on Monday night.
Unlike his son, Willie Jackson never had a second chance to pursue the sport at an elite level. He was forced to the sidelines before his first season of college basketball when he was stabbed three times during a random fight.
After a long recovery, he learned he was going to be a father, so he chose to work instead of returning to college.
Just like that, his basketball dreams were gone.
Now, nearly three decades later, Willie Jackson is having a great time watching Markell blossom with the Big Reds. He lives in Flint with his wife, and has to travel a long way to see the games, but doesn’t mind at all.
“I love it,” said Jackson, 47. “We get off work on game days, drive to Muskegon and drive back home that same night. That’s at least a five-hour run on the highway, going back and forth to games, but Markell deserves it.
“My wife and I get tired, but we still want to see the games, and I want him to see me there, because I never had a mom and dad at my games, due to health reasons.
“His potential right now is through the roof. Physically he’s not there yet, but skill-wise he’s going to be better than I was.”
‘Your whole life can change’
Willie Jackson was a standout at Muskegon Heights High School in the late 1980s, earning All-Conference and All-Area honors.
He was about to begin his first season playing for Muskegon Community College, and had high hopes of playing at a university after two years, when a night out with friends turned into a nightmare.
“I remember my mom had told me not to go out that night, but of course I did,” said Jackson, who was already attending classes at MCC when the stabbing occurred.
“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was hanging out with a couple of friends, there was an altercation with an older guy, and he had three friends with him. A fight broke out and I was stabbed, twice in the back and once in the wrist.
“I had to have emergency surgery and I was out for a whole year. I couldn’t lift my arm for nine months. Around the one-year mark, I ended up having a baby and never went back to school.
“I should have gone back to college, but I had seen my dad taking care of us all of those years while I was growing up, and once I had a child I knew I had to become a father.”
Jackson went on to work for 14 years at Quality Tool in Muskegon Heights. He stayed connected to basketball by coaching youngsters – including Markell – at the elementary level in the Muskegon Heights school system for years.
“That mistake changed my life,” Jackson said about the ill-fated night when he was stabbed. “I ended up mentoring kids and telling them how, in just a few bad seconds, your whole life can change. I always tried to tell Markell, be careful when you go out, and don’t hang out with the wrong kids.”
Jackson later moved to Ypsilanti and lived there a few years, and today resides in Flint with his wife Brigitte. They both work at Eagles Nest Academy charter school, where she is the principal and Jackson works as the family community liaison.
While he’s doing well in life, Jackson has spent his share of time over the years thinking about the basketball career he may have had if things had turned out differently.
“It was very difficult,” Jackson said. “I had a lot of guys telling me ‘That could have been you.’”
Now Jackson is reliving his basketball dreams through his son.
He’s been excited about Markell’s potential for a long time. But he became concerned over the past few years when Markell ran into some teenage trouble, struggled in the classroom, and was ineligible for basketball for two full seasons.
Markell missed his freshman season while living with Jackson in Ypsilanti, then missed his sophomore season while living with his mother in Kalamazoo.
“I remember preaching to him that ninth grade was very important in high school basketball, but he really wasn’t working that hard,” Jackson said.
Jackson is thrilled to see Markell back at Muskegon, doing well in the classroom and on the court. He credits Muskegon basketball coach Keith Guy for his son’s turnaround.
“When Markell went back to Muskegon, Keith knew what he was capable of,” said Jackson, who added that he’s known Guy for years. “Keith has a way of bringing out the best in kids. I think that’s his best attribute as a coach.”
Jackson said Markell has made up for lost time by listening to coaches and following instructions.
“When kids are young you have to teach them how to be taught,” Jackson said. “A lot of kids have so much talent, but you can’t teach them anything because they were never taught to listen. That’s what’s going to get Markell over the hump. He learned how to listen.
“I always tried to teach him, when you think you know everything already, you can’t learn anything.”
A breakthrough season
Missing two years of basketball was difficult for Markell, who recently turned 18.
“It was tough,” said Markell a slim, athletic 6-6 forward. “I couldn’t focus on anything very well. I just loved basketball so much. I went to some games (at his school in Kalamazoo), but it was very hard, just seeing all those guys playing and having fun.”
Markell didn’t walk away from the game. He kept his skills sharp by playing on non-school teams and working out at the Kalamazoo YMCA.
“I paid eight dollars every Friday to work on my ball-handling and shooting,” he said.
Markell moved back to Muskegon for his junior year, got his grades up, and made the varsity basketball team.
He had to sit out the first month of the 2015-16 season, due to transfer rules, and spent most of his time on the bench when he became eligible, because the Big Reds were loaded with talent, as usual.
Despite his lack of court time, Markell said he went into the offseason planning to play a big role this year, and worked hard to prepare.
“I knew my time was coming,” Markell said. “I was talking to Coach Guy a lot over the summer, and I told him that I was working hard, and that I would play my hardest every game and do whatever he wanted me to do,” Markell said.
Jackson’s contributions have given the talented Big Reds an extra edge this season.
He showed what he could do early in the season in a game against Grand Haven, when he recorded a rare triple-double with 12 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocks.
He turned in 13 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and four assists against East Kentwood. He had a monster game against West Ottawa with 28 points and 17 rebounds. Then there was the game against Grand Rapids Union, when he had 18 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks.
Those types of numbers probably surprised a lot of Muskegon fans, but Guy said he started to understand Markell’s potential last season.
“I remember telling the other coaches last year that I think we might have something here (with Jackson), and they said they weren’t so sure,” Guy said. “I said ‘trust me,’ and now they admit I was right on.’”
Markell credits Guy for helping him remain focused on his studies and eligible for basketball.
‘He’s real hard on me,” Markell said. “He makes sure we take our grades seriously. He checks them every week, maybe every day.”
Jackson says it’s fun to play with a lot of great teammates who are all capable of producing big numbers in any particular game.
The Big Reds are blessed with a very deep roster, and lose little if any quality on the court when they make substitutions.
Other statistical leaders on the team are Jermayne Golidy (12.6 points, 5.1 rebounds per game), Sam Cornett Jr. (10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Anthony Bethea III (11.5 points, 6 rebounds).
“We can sub five in and five out,” Markell said. “If I’m having a bad night, Jermayne is always on. If he’s having a bad night, Sam will be on. If Sam is having a bad night, Anthony will be on. It goes on and on like that.
“If we’re all on, nothing is going to stop us.”