There must be something about getting cut from a basketball team as a youth. Look what happened to Michael Jordan. He became arguably the greatest basketball player to live. Roswell’s Gary Jackson didn’t become the greatest player to ever play basketball, but he used getting cut from Mountain View as a seventh-grader to become the No. 2 scorer in Roswell’s basketball history with 1,641 points.
Not bad when you consider Jackson used the rough and tough games at Calhoun Park and New Mexico Military Institute to hone his skills. Those tough games turned a lump of coal into a diamond. Jackson used those games to get a basketball scholarship to New Mexico State and play professional basketball in Mexico. He also played for two Hall of Fame coaches in Roswell’s Britt Cooper and New Mexico State Aggies coach Lou Henson.
There were two incidents that stuck with Jackson. The first, Jackson remembers Cooper talking to him as a freshman in the parking lot at the high school. Cooper looked at his big frame and his size 14 shoes and told him, if he was any kind of a worker, he’d make him a player.
The second incident was during practice as a freshman, Jackson was going through the motions. Cooper called him over during a water break and told him he had the skills and game to go to college and play basketball while getting an education.
“After Cooper told me that,” Jackson said, “I flipped a switch and lived in the gym. All of my workouts had a purpose. When I was tired in practice, I would find my spot and practice how I would do it in a game. I prepared to play hard in games.”
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One of the highlights of Jackson’s high school career was when Roswell beat Hobbs. It was Hobbs coach Ralph Tasker’s last visit to the Coyote Den as a freshman. Jackson was one of a handful of players to start for Cooper as a freshman. In his freshman year, he led Roswell to the district semifinals.
Cooper used Jackson as a post player because Jackson was able to jump out of the building. Cooper remembers Jackson drop-stepping and dunking on players three times a game.
“Gary was a gym rat,” Cooper said. “He was a hard worker and used to be in the gym all of the time. He was an explosive jumper and really solid. He had a nice shooting touch. We had to play him on the blocks because we weren’t that big.”
Cooper still talks about a controversial call in 1998 after the buzzer sounded. Clovis made one of two free throws to knock the Coyotes out of the playoffs in the district semifinals. Back then, only two teams made the playoffs. In his junior season, Roswell went to the state and was beaten by Farmington in the quarterfinals. In his senior year, Roswell was beaten in the state semifinals in 4A by Carlsbad.
Jackson made all-district four consecutive years and was all-state as a sophomore, junior and senior.
“Gary Jackson was as good as anybody,” Cooper said. “If we would have been in a 4A classification in his junior and senior year, we would have won back-to-back state titles. Gary (Jackson) was a great kid. Pound for pound, he might have been the best kid I had, in my opinion. A.J. Peralta was proven and had two state titles under his belt. Larry Ayuso was a natural, probably the most natural kid I had. I wish Ayuso and Jackson were the same age, we would have been hard to handle.”
After his high school career was finished, Jackson enrolled at Cowley College in Arkansas City, Kansas. Jackson played well enough to be recruited by Division I schools. His dream was to come back home and play in New Mexico.
On his recruiting trip, Jackson felt a connection with Aggies nation and head coach Lou Henson. Jackson remembers the first two points he scored as an Aggie. He shot a jumper from the side and missed it. He followed his shot and got the rebound and scored on a layup. Jackson remembers saying to himself, now we can play.
One of Jackson’s best wins was during his first game as an Aggie when they beat their rival, the University of New Mexico. It was so loud in the Pan American Center that he could not hear the coaches give instructions. For him, that was one of the best feelings he has felt on the basketball court especially in the rivalry games against UNM and UTEP.
“It was my first time experiencing that as a player,” Jackson said. “To be on the court and not be able to hear the coach during the timeout, because the crowd was so loud and getting the victory and then hearing the crowd again, that’s a good victory.”
Jackson feels he learned a lot from Henson on and off the court. One of the things he learned during his senior year from Henson was to never give up. Henson was suffering from cancer and Jackson could tell his coach’s energy was not what it once was. But Henson kept fighting and did not give up. Henson showed up to every practice.
Jackson feels one of the biggest differences between high school and college is no one is going to babysit you. There won’t be a coach to make you work on your game or get extra shots up. While at State, Jackson would always hear Cooper’s voice in the back of his mind telling him to work on his game and that he could play at state. Jackson felt prepared to play at the Division I level because of how hard Cooper worked him. Jackson played in 27 games as a senior at New Mexico State and ended up averaging 6.33 points per game, up from 2.33.
One of Jackson’s biggest takeaways from Henson as a coach was, Henson stressed the fundamentals of the game. He wanted Jackson to be a smart player and move without the ball and take good shots. Jackson learned the little things that made him a better player by watching film before and after practice. Henson was big on Jackson and players taking care of their bodies and receiving treatment for their health.
“I can’t complain about basketball,” Jackson said. “When I played at New Mexico State I got to travel. I went to a lot of places that people would love to go to. I graduated with a degree in education and made some great friends. I played against NBA caliber players like Danny Granger, and I was coached by two Hall of Fame coaches.”
Jackson found out Henson had died on social media. For him, Henson’s death didn’t seem real. He was on a chat with former Aggies teammates and couldn’t believe it.
For a little while, Jackson worked as a fireman, and today, he is a sergeant at the detention center in Albuquerque. Jackson loves what he does and only has six years until he can retire.
“What I do now is a complete 180 from the whole basketball thing,” Jackson said. “In basketball, everything is strategic. I was always good at being a good leader and de-escalating situations. I like it. I try to change guys’ mindset. All the people that are locked up know is pain and to hurt somebody if things do not go their way. De-escalating a bad situation is better.”
Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or email@example.com.