Since it’s only a few winters removed, we won’t call it the golden age just yet.
But in a four-year span starting right after the millennium, more high school players from our neck of the state made their way into major men’s college basketball than in any other previous decade.
It was, by Spokane and eastern Washington standards, a remarkable run of talent. Seven of the Greater Spokane League’s top 10 all-time scorers played their basketball this decade. Nine area players who graduated between 2001 and 2004 signed NCAA Division I letters of intent – 12 if you want to expand the coverage area a few counties to the west. One became the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. A few more are also making a pretty good wage at the game now. Others still have some unfinished college business – March Madness and that sort of thing.
And then there is Cedric Jackson, the one who got away.
Interesting to consider what might have occurred if he hadn’t.
Your memory and attention to detail have to be especially good to even recall his name. Jackson played only one season of high school basketball here, at Medical Lake in 2001 – a freshman who steered the Cardinals to within a point of a trip to the state tournament.
He found his way into the headlines a couple of weeks ago when Cleveland State upset 12th-ranked Butler 58-54, with Jackson’s 14 points and five steals leading the way.
The Vikings are 14-7 and a half game behind Butler in the Horizon League standings. Barring some dizzying February surge by somebody, the Horizon figures to be a one-bid conference for NCAA selection purposes – meaning Jackson and his teammates will have to pull off that upset again at the league tournament to make the bracket.
“We’re not getting too excited yet,” he said.
Spoken like a man who knows all about journeys and destinations.
Cedric Jackson has been around. Before the Air Force stationed his father, Bobby, at Fairchild in 1996, the Jacksons had lived in Utah, New Mexico, Florida and North Carolina. Jackson landed at Medical Lake as a fifth-grader and stayed through that freshman year, when the team included his brother, Bobby Jr., and another future Division I player in Paul Butorac, who would play at Eastern Washington.
“I had a feeling that was my last time playing with them because my dad had let me know he might be getting orders (to transfer),” Jackson said. “I was crushed when we didn’t make it to state. That was the only time I got to play with my brother on an organized team.”
Former Medical Lake coach Dave Olzendam knew he had a special player.
“You could tell he was a gifted athlete,” said Olzendam, now the coach at Newport of Bellevue. “He had great court awareness, could really get his hands in the passing lanes and he wasn’t selfish. I was just hoping he’d stay there.”
He didn’t. Jackson’s father enrolled him at Ferris, looking for a better level of competition. But before Cedric could suit up for the Saxons, his father was transferred to Fort Dix, N.J., and Jackson wound up at North Burlington High School. There he averaged 21 points a game as a sophomore in 2002, growing that to 26.0 as a senior when he was all-state.
Ferris, of course, did all right without him that year – the Saxons finished second at state, losing the title game 50-47 to Lincoln. But it’s no stretch to imagine they might have done better with another 20-point-a-game guy.
“There were a lot of good players around (Spokane) then – Sean Mallon, Adam Morrison,” Jackson said. “It would have been nice to play with them.”
He did, of course, at basketball camps at Gonzaga (“I went year after year”) and elsewhere. Whether he would have been part of the pipeline of GSL players – Mallon, Morrison, Josh Heytvelt – who became Zags is impossible to know. Surely his physical skill set might have intrigued Dick Bennett, who was just launching his reconstruction of Washington State basketball by the time Jackson was a high school senior.
In any event, Jackson didn’t lack for recruiting interest. He signed with St. John’s out of high school, though his heart had been set on staying in Jersey and going to Rutgers to play for coach Gary Waters until he took his SATs too late. He was a full-time starter as a freshman, a spot starter as a sophomore and decided to follow Waters when he took the Cleveland State job “because it was a better situation for me.
“Life at St. John’s was good – to look up in the rafters at Madison Square Garden and see the legends that played on that floor was something that always got you excited,” he said. “But I had a relationship with Coach Waters, and every time we played Rutgers it was kind of an emotional game for me.”
Now a junior, he’s a point guard for the first time since high school, averaging 15 points and five assists a game. He had 27 points in an early-season win over Florida State, and has a chance to lead the Horizon in both assists and steals.
“Sometimes I think about if things might have been different if we’d stayed out there,” he said. “I know I have a lot of great memories of Medical Lake – I remember going undefeated my seventh-grade year there. In a lot of ways, that’s where I had the most fun.”
The basketball fun in Spokane went on without him – but it could have been even more fun had he stayed.
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