UTSA freshmen Jhivvan Jackson drives for two against Florida International
For nearly a week after Hurricane Maria pounded Jhivvan Jackson’s native Puerto Rico, he may have been one of the most stressed-out freshmen in the UTSA athletic department, if not on the entire campus.
The first month of the fall semester in September is hectic for anyone in college. But for Jackson, a basketball prodigy who grew up in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, it was nerve-wracking.
Back at home where he once spent carefree days shooting hoops on his grandfather’s backyard court, members of his family – including his mother and an older brother – did their best to hunker down and weather the Category 5 storm that hit the island on Sept. 20.
For five days after 150-mph wind and rain strafed the island, Jackson tried unsuccessfully to find out what had happened. Over and over again, he’d call and leave a message on voice mail.
“I couldn’t get through for about a week,” Jackson said, “because there was no (phone) service. I just believed. I just knew everything was going to be good.”
Finally, on the fifth day, his phone buzzed with the good news he was praying for. His mother was calling to tell him that everyone was OK.
“It just relieved all the stress I had,” Jackson said. “It was stressful.”
All of which makes Jackson’s ensuing rise in stature as one of the top freshmen in the nation this season all the more remarkable.
As UTSA prepares to play a 2 p.m. home game today against Florida Atlantic, Jackson has emerged as the seventh leading freshman scorer in NCAA Division I.
Only the likes of Trae Young at Oklahoma, Marvin Bagley III of Duke and Collin Sexton of Alabama rank ahead of Jackson, who leads the Roadrunners with 18.4 points per game.
A proud grandfather’s support
Veteran Puerto Rico basketball coach Flor Melendez, who is Jackson’s proud grandfather, said it isn’t a surprise to him that his grandson could set aside the family’s storm-related concerns to focus on school and basketball.
“It’s not a surprise for me,” Melendez said after a recent practice at the Convocation Center. “Jhivvan start to play at six years old. Practice. Practice. Six, seven, eight years old. Every day, working hard. Shot. Shot. Ball handling. Behind my house, on the court, I see him. Shot. Shot.”
Jackson’s grandfather has a long track record of success in the sport.
According to an online bio confirmed through the FIBA communications office, he played for the Puerto Rican national team in the 1968 Olympics.
Later, after a pro career, Melendez started coaching in the late 1970s and coached national teams for Puerto Rico, Argentina and Panama, along with pro teams in Spain and Venezuela.
In Spain, in the late 1980s, he said he coached former Spurs great George Gervin for TDK Manresa.
In 2004, Melendez served as an assistant coach for the Puerto Rican team that defeated the Tim Duncan-led U.S. squad at the Athens Olympics.
Jackson knows him more on a personal level, as the man who put up the basketball court behind his Bayamon home.
It became a haven where Jackson and his older brother, Jalen, would play for hours on end as kids.
Later, both brothers moved to the Dallas area to live with their father, Leroy Jackson, a Panamanian who played in the early 1990s at Oregon State.
Signing with UTSA
Jhivvan Jackson, a 6-foot combo guard, enjoyed a standout four-year career at Euless Trinity High School through 2017.
After a single recruiting visit, he signed with UTSA coach Steve Henson in early signing period at the start of his senior season.
“He just said he knew it’s where he wanted to be,” said his mother, Yanira Melendez.
By the next summer, Jackson reported to summer workouts at UTSA., ready to go to work.
Now, about halfway through his first season with the Roadrunners, he has notched two 30-point games and six others in the 20s, all while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 36.7 percent from three-point range.
Henson said he is surprised with his young combo-guard’s efficiency.
“Big scorers (from high school) usually come in and struggle with their percentages,” Henson said. “They find a way to get it in the hole. But it takes more shots to do it. With Jhivvan, he’s hanging in there at a very high level.”
Jackson, who plays off the bench, said he didn’t know he was the No. 7 freshman scorer in the NCAA.
“It really just comes down to how much my teammates and my coaches trust me with the ball and give me the right to make plays” he said. “They trust me to do that.
“That’s really what I’m doing. Trying to win as many games as possible for this team. Just, making the right play and making everyone better.”
UTSA has lost two in a row, including a 79-76 setback at home Thursday night against Florida International.
Jackson likely won’t let it get him down for too long.
Weathering the storm
After all, he comes from a basketball family that knows how to fight through adversity.
Last fall, his brother and his grandfather braved the hurricane in Bayamon by wading into thigh-deep water in front of the house to unclog debris from the sewer drains in the road.
“They both had to be tied together with ropes so that the current wouldn’t get ‘em,” Jackson said. “The current (in the water), the wind, it was bad.”
How did they know to take such action?
“Just years of experience,” Jackson said, matter of factly. “There’s a lot of hurricanes that come through Puerto Rico.”
Only recently has electrical power been restored at his grandfather’s home after one of the most intense storms in history.
“In the center of the island, they probably won’t get power for six months,” Jackson said. “Maybe a year. It’s crazy.”
Asked if the delay in service makes him mad, he said it does.
“Of course, but you always got to believe in the man on top,” the UTSA freshman said. “(God), he got us. He looking over us. All we can do is pray and hope things get better. That’s how things are now.
“Things are getting better in Puerto Rico, and I’m happy for that. People are starting to get power, most people.”
Jhivvan Jackson hits a step-back three against FIU