It was such a peculiar scene.
Something was up.
The game was in hand, La Salle was on its way to a victory on March 4, 1990, and there was Lionel Simmons, sitting on the bench, weeping.
They weren’t tears of joy.
This was only a MAAC tournament semifinal game against Siena at what was then called the Knickerbocker Arena, so naturally, we were all wondering why the L-Train, Doug Overton and Randy Woods were crying.
“Hank Gathers died,” somebody told me minutes after La Salle had polished off Siena, 106-90.
Loyola Marymount’s star forward, who had a heart disorder, collapsed during a West Coast Conference quarterfinal game in Los Angeles, and his death resonated as far away as the arena in Albany, and the Philadelphia household of Clarence Jackson Sr., where his son, Clarence, was a month shy of his first birthday.
On Sunday, Clarence Jackson Jr.’s face had its dazzling smile back, when he walked to center court with his emotional father, mother and brother, Maurice, for Senior Night ceremonies before Siena’s regular-season finale. His smile glowed during Siena’s 81-73 win over Marist, on the same floor where Simmons wept 21 years ago.
Having struggled to recover from injuries since the preseason, Jackson credits head coach Mitch Buonaguro for calling a chin-up sit-down the day before the Marist game, but also credits his father, who grew up playing ball with Simmons and Gathers, because “he’s always shown me the way. He’s always the one, when I’m in my lows, who keeps me up, and he knows the game, so I’ve definitely got to listen to somebody like that.”
Because the smile is back, Siena will be a dangerous team in the MAAC tournament on Friday.
In a better-late-than-never development for the Saints, their shooting guard was back to the effervescent style of play that provides the perfect counterbalance to Ryan Rossiter’s old-school, multifaceted inside game.
More often this season, Jackson has had a grim mask of frustration over his sub-par game, the grabbing and pushing opposing defenders have used to knock him off his axis and the laundry list of injuries that have robbed him of his explosive ability.
This was supposed to be the year he stepped out of the shadow of the all-star teammates who preceded him, but instead, it’s been one step forward, two steps back since last July, when he broke his foot. Back problems and sprains in both ankles followed.
To compound matters, his negative energy occasionally radiated over the rest of the team.
“His demeanor was noticeable on the court, that he was getting down,” Buonaguro said. “I said, ‘Look, you’re a good player, you don’t need to get down on the court.’ It changed. I thought his demeanor on the court was good [against Marist].
“It shows me that the other people on the court are getting to him. And he can’t do that. He’s a senior. He’s got to play through it, whether he’s playing well or not. Last night, we saw the Clarence Jackson of old, in the second half. I was calling his number a lot.”
Jackson scored 19 points, 14 in the second half, and not only were they visually appealing — dunks and deep threes — they were important, game-changing points.
Perhaps just as significantly, his misses didn’t drag him into a funk of self pity.
“When I’m struggling, I tend to get down a little bit,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to have that, especially these next couple of games. I have to carry myself a different way, and go out there and act like we’re going to win the game.”
“I think his mind is in a good spot, right now,” Buonaguro said. “I think he’s ready to have a breakout tournament.
“I spoke to him about his demeanor, because you see that the Fairfield game got to him. You could see it, he was venting his frustration on the court, and that’s not a good thing. You want to keep an even keel. I think it’s just time for him to play. Enjoy himself, and go out and try to have a great tournament.”
The Jackson family may have moved a few miles across the Delaware River to Marlton, N.J., but that’s still Philly country.
A product of the remarkable basketball incubator that is Philadelphia, Clarence Sr. was good enough to play for the University of Pittsburgh.
Simmons, meanwhile, won the Naismith and John R. Wooden awards in 1990. The La Salle PR department mailed faux train tickets inviting the media to vote for the L-Train, who went on to play seven seasons with the Sacramento Kings.
“My father played at South Philly High School with Lionel Simmons,” Clarence Jr. said. “They’re really close. He still keeps in touch with Lionel. I actually met Lionel a couple of years back down in Miami, and then coming here to Siena, also, I’ve been hearing what a great player he was in the MAAC.
“My dad tells me stories about Hank Gathers and Pooh Richardson and all those guys, he played with all those greats, and I think that kind of carries over to me. I just go out there and try to play hard, and give my family something to live for.”
Speedy Morris, then the head coach at La Salle, was told of Gathers’ death during the game against Siena, and he passed the information along to his team during a timeout.
On Sunday, Jackson left it to his father to be the candidate for a quivering lower lip.
“For him to get like that, our family’s been through a lot,” Clarence Jr. said. “It was a special night to have three people that I care about be out there on the floor with me. He’s the one that gave me the basketball, and told me to go out there and just play. He gave up his career to let me have one, so I owe it all to them.
“He stopped playing his sophomore year at Pittsburgh, and he had me, and didn’t graduate, and I’m going to be the first one in my family to graduate.”
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