Pierre Jackson fidgets with his left wrist, the two wristbands adorning it serving as an everyday reminder of the past and present.
One is colored darker than the other and is inscribed with the phrase Matthew Man CAN in white letters. He takes more pride in that one. He takes it off and holds it up for the curtained-off room to see, a look of satisfied remembrance on his face. The name on the wristband belongs to a five-year-old boy, Matthew, whom he met at the UNM Childrens Hospital during the teams postseason stop in Albuquerque, N.M.
I wear it every day, Jackson says.
The other is larger and louder, a vibrant purple with large block letters. This one was a gift from a student on the close-knit Baylor campus. It reads "SWAG OR DIE." Throughout the course of his fidgeting, the larger wristband often covers up the other, but its more of an overlap, the combination symbolizing something inside.
I wear it all the time, Jackson says.
Pierre Jackson is the driving force behind the Baylor Bears one Kentucky coach John Calipari called their waterbug and will find himself in the limelight, with the world watching, on Sunday afternoon. But for Baylors diminutive point guard, personal interview sessions before an Elite Eight game were never supposed to happen. His answer to every question portrays a mixture of pride and incredulity, of confidence and gratitude.
Theres a sense hes lost in a dream, still catching up to the reality of what his basketball career has become.
Only the favorites remain in this NCAA tournament, but Jackson was not one of them just a few short years ago. Now, hes one of the few underdogs still standing.
Nobody knew who I was. They were like, What school do you go to?"
When Jackson made his appearance at the 2011 adidas Nations basketball camp in Los Angeles one of the more prestigious basketball camps in the country nobody knew who the 5-foot-10 point guard was. The camp annually features up-and-coming stars of college basketball and the top high school players in the country, not junior college transfers. He must have been lost.
But though he was a stranger, Jackson knew them all. He recognized them from watching SportsCenter. Ohio States Jared Sullinger was there. Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson of Kansas attended.
New Baylor teammate Perry Jones III, an all-everything recruit and well-versed superstar in high school, introduced him to all of the primetime names before the camp started, but not much changed. Nerves kicked in.
I was just trying to get a feel for it, Jackson says. I really didnt shoot the ball well. I didnt really shoot at all.
A player who constantly wears a SWAG OR DIE wristband ever lacking confidence sounds contradicting, but it is all a part of the maturation of Pierre Jackson. The player he was in high school did not show up in junior college. The player he was in junior college did not translate at the adidas Nations camps. And the nervous player in Los Angeles is not the same one taking the court for Baylor in the Elite Eight.
The junior played against Xaviers star guard Tu Holloway in Los Angeles, too, and then again in the Sweet Sixteen. Holloway was a preseason All-American. Jackson advanced to the Elite Eight. He hit clutch shots in huge moments for the up-and-down Bears, finishing with 16 points and 10 assists to hold off the feisty Musketeers and earn a date with Kentucky.
Hes averaged 16.3 points per game in the tournament to go along with his average of 7.3 assists a far cry from the jittery, undersized guard Jones was introducing to his old high school buddies in Los Angeles.
Makes me feel like a proud father, Jones says.
Kentucky point guard Marquis Teague, a top-rated recruit last year, was another player at adidas Nations that Jackson recognized from TV. Teague, along with everyone else, knew nothing about Pierre Jackson before the camp. He should now. The two dynamic floor generals are set to square off in Atlanta with a Final Four berth on the line.
It is the biggest game of either players career. Kentucky is the overwhelming favorite, but thats an old script for Baylors surprise star by now.
Out of high school, there was minimal Division I interest in Jackson despite earning First-Team All-State honors his senior season. The Las Vegas native did not have the academic record to qualify at the top level. He chose to attend junior college Southern Idaho. It was a disappointment, but the lows got lower.
During preseason practice his freshman year, he came down on a teammates knee cap and shattered his right elbow. Seven screws and a metal plate were needed to repair the joint, and his primary weapon was rendered useless.
I couldnt shoot, I couldnt extend my elbow all the way, Jackson says.
And that could easily have been the conclusion, a Well, at least he tried storyline told amongst friends and family members.
But Jackson, with the help of coach Steve Gosar, reinvented his game. He learned to find open teammates and see the floor better. Without the use of his shooting elbow, he became a true point guard and learned how to operate an offense. The shot eventually returned after countless summer hours spent in the gym, and suddenly Southern Idaho had an all-around star and a Division I prospect.
Now I think I got the best of both worlds, I guess, Jackson says. Its just a blessing in disguise.
Jackson led the Golden Eagles to a NJCAA national championship and became one of the most sought after JUCO players in the country, ultimately committing to Scott Drew and the family environment" at Baylor. But even in a world of modern technology and Internet sensations, junior college transfers no matter how celebrated rarely are accompanied by fanfare. The transfer was quiet, but Jackson brought promises.
When he came to the school, he said he was going to do his best to run our offense for us and do his best, Jones said. He didnt start his first couple of games, but in practice you could see the fire and the hunger.
The junior guard led the Bears in scoring this season, became an All-Big 12 Second-Team member and now is on the doorstep of leading his school to its first Final Four appearance in more than 60 years.
Jackson is quick to point out that the seven screws are still in his shooting elbow, once again playing show-and-tell by revealing the scar. The screws are an afterthought now, not affecting him in everyday life or while passing through metal detectors.
My grandma was the first to ask about that, he says. I just walk through the airport. It dont beep.
Its yet another source of pride for him, another reminder of hard times come and gone.
But Grandma has more stressful issues to worry about these days.
Most of the time, when the close games happen, she said she cant watch because her blood pressure rises or whatever. She has to leave the room.
Pierre Jacksons grandmother was physically unable to watch him play for most of his playing career. She came to just two games in high school, the last coming on his final game of his senior year. While he toiled away in relative obscurity at Southern Idaho, there was no way to visit and no way to watch.
Baylor basketball and the NCAA tournament, in particular, changed all of that. Now, his grandmother might be more emotionally unable to watch him play rather than physically. Jackson smirks as he envisions her watching his games, good-naturedly wondering if it is in her best interests.
My mom texts me what she says during the games, he says. When I get back to the locker room, I have like 20 messages from my mom.
While the early-game texts read of nervous banter, the final ones have all been joyously similar as the remaining fields most overlooked point guard continues his winning ways.
All of his remaining March Madness counterparts were blue-chip prospects point guards Peyton Siva, Kendall Marshall (though injured), Tyshawn Taylor and Aaron Craft all entered with considerable accolades who took the traditional route to Division I fame. Kentuckys Teague was listed as the countrys top point guard out of high school last season.
So, naturally, the more talented Wildcats will take to the Georgia Dome floor with a boisterous crowd behind them and all the odds in Jacksons hometown riding heavily in their favor. But does being overlooked or counted out ever weigh on Pierre Jacksons 5-foot-10 frame?
Hes fidgeting again, tracing his fingers over those wristbands and formulating the type of answers public relations folks approve of. His eyes shift from the rooms audience to the dark wristband, the one he never takes off, the one that takes him 1,300 miles away to another underdog, Matthew, in Albuquerque.
Jacksons eyes glance over the SWAG OR DIE slogan once more before answering one last question about his confidence level.
I can play with these guys.