Duquesne basketball coach Ron Everhart encountered a heartbreaking sight Saturday, shortly after his team’s 69-64 loss to Temple in the Atlantic 10 title game.
It had been 28 years since the Dukes played a game of such significance. They had chances to win it, too, but fell a few baskets short of reaching the NCAA Tournament (which would have been akin to the Pirates reaching the World Series).
Afterward, emotions were pouring all over the team’s locker room at ancient Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Nobody was feeling the moment more than Aaron Jackson, the team’s lone senior.
“He was bawling his eyes out,” Everhart said.
It wasn’t that Jackson was broken up over the loss. Rather, he was thinking about how far Duquesne had come during his four years there. How much it had endured.
“A lot of thoughts were going through my head,” he recalled Monday.
Know this much: If the Dukes continue their rise, or merely maintain their current state, people may well look back on Jackson as the Brandin Knight of the Duquesne program.
Jackson would gladly accept such a compliment. He was a high school freshman in West Hartford, Conn., when he first took note of Knight.
“I was a big UConn fan, and he used to torch them,” Jackson said.
Knight lit the path for Pitt’s re-emergence at the turn of the millennium. Jackson helped dig the Dukes out of a much deeper hole. They were 3-24 his freshman year. The following September, the team was wracked by a campus shooting, one in which Jackson and four of his teammates were wounded.
On Sunday, after learning that his team was selected to play at Virginia Tech on Wednesday in the National Invitation Tournament, Everhart reflected on Jackson’s career.
“I’ve been thinking about him from the time we walked off the floor (Saturday),” Everhart said. “I was thinking it’s a shame if he couldn’t play one more time. Just one time. He’s meant the world to this program. He’s going to be talked about 15 years down the road.”
Like Knight, Jackson struggled early in his college career. Both experienced rough moments with their coaches — Ben Howland for Knight; Everhart for Jackson — and wondered if they might be better off elsewhere.
Instead of bolting, they re-invented themselves. They became inspirational leaders — extensions of their coaches — and shocked people by transforming themselves into star players. Everhart says he would sometimes return from recruiting trips to find Jackson and backcourt mate Jason Duty shooting midnight jump shots at Palumbo Center. They’d beat their coach to work the next morning, too, arriving before 7.
Jackson met Knight, a Pitt assistant, during warm-ups before last year’s Pitt-Duquesne game.
“He told me he likes the way I play,” Jackson said. “I wanted to tell him I liked the way he played, too, but I was a little star struck. I was like, ‘Wow,’ and I just said, ‘Thanks.’ ”
A cat-quick, 6-foot-4 shooting guard-turned-point guard, Jackson must have opened some NBA eyes with his phenomenal A-10 tournament. He scored 79 points and dished out 22 assists in four games.
Duquesne has posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 28 years and is headed to a postseason tournament for the first time since 1994.
Will Jackson’s work habits rub off on his talented young teammates?
“If not,” Everhart said, “they’ll be playing college basketball somewhere else.”
As he watches Everhart continue to reel in quality talent, Jackson knows the key to Duquesne’s future.
“The No. 1 priority is to make sure Coach stays around,” he said. “He’s the head of a whole new era.”
And Jackson is the heart of it.