Get an inside look at Darnell Jackson’s journey to Ukraine, and find out how the veteran forward has provided invaluable leadership and support for Thomas Robinson and his Summer League teammates.
While playing for BC Donetsk of the Ukrainian Basketball SuperLeague during the 2011-12 season came with its share of immense challenges and adversities, the experience gave forward Darnell Jackson the opportunity to discover more about himself, allowing him to return to the U.S. with an even greater passion for basketball and a clearer mindset.
“It helped me find myself again, as a person and as a player,” he says. “(With) all of the experiences I went through in my life, it finally fell down on my shoulders to help me realize that there are more important things in life than just worrying about material things.”
During last season’s NBA lockout, Jackson worked on his conditioning with a trainer, and was in prime shape when he decided to embark on a seven-month trip to Eastern Europe.
“I was at home in Sacramento, working out at Prime Time Boxing, and on October 29, my agent called and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to go to Ukraine?’ And I was like, ‘Come on, let’s go,’” he recalls. “I was just sitting at home, and I was tired of sitting there and I was ready to go play, so I just made a sacrifice and left. It was a great sacrifice for me.”
Yet, not only did Jackson face an immediate language barrier and a 10-hour time difference overseas, he encountered culture shock the moment he stepped into a supermarket in the unfamiliar country.
“I walked in the grocery store, and there was a full rabbit – a skin-full rabbit, with the fur still on it. I walked into the grocery store, I (saw) that, and walked out,” he says. “I didn’t eat for like two days – I had candy bars and croissants for two days straight. I couldn’t buy anything else.”
In addition to being on his own in “a totally different world,” over 6,000 miles away from his Sacramento home, provisions in Jackson’s contract prevented him from going out on the town before games and the training schedule was far more grueling than what he’d been accustomed to in the NBA.
“(We had) no days off, two-a-days every day, back-to-back games,” explains No. 41. “They called it regeneration, recovery. After back-to-back games, they made us run for 20 minutes with a heart monitor on – the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The transition to the Ukrainian playing style proved to be another hurdle for the rugged 6-foot-9 forward, who averaged 7.8 points on 50.2 percent shooting and 4.9 rebounds per game in 35 contests while facing tough competition in the post and playing more extensively in pick-and-roll situations.
Jackson, no stranger to defiantly pulling himself up and persevering in the face of difficult circumstances, says the hardest challenge came off the court, where he longed for the comfort of his family.
“The most difficult hardships that I faced in Ukraine were not being around my family, not having my mom and my grandma around to see everything that I’m seeing,” says Jackson, revealing that he left Europe with a better sense of direction in his life.
“Everything that I went through with my mom, I distanced myself from my family, and being out there helped me, especially when they took me to the Old City. I was able to see the tomb of Jesus Christ – I needed to see that. I didn’t know where I was headed, my mind was all over the place and it really helped me a lot.”
During his time abroad, Jackson remained in close contact with fellow Kansas Jayhawk and current Kings rookie Thomas Robinson, sending him text messages to check on him and his little sister, Jayla. In addition to sharing an alma matter, the pair also shares a tragically similar background story.
“T-Rob, that’s my little brother right there. I’m glad I’m here with him, I’ve got his back.
“When I was cross-seas and hearing all the stuff he was going through, I didn’t want to bug him,” says Jackson. “I sent him a text every now and then, just to let him know, ‘Hey, man, whenever you need to talk, I’m here. I know how it feels. I know what you’re thinking about.’”
Jackson credits Kansas’ Bill Self, Danny Manning and Ronnie Chalmers for serving as father figures for both him and Robinson, and providing guidance and inspiration in times of need.
“Those are the father figures in his life, same as (mine). Those are the guys I had to go to when I was feeling like I was ready to break down and had no one to turn to,” he says. “That organization at KU was unbelievable and it helped me succeed as a college student and as a husband.”
Jackson explains that basketball has served as an outlet for him, as well as Robinson, allowing them to temporarily put grief and anguish aside while partaking in the game they love.
“Basketball is the cure, for me and T-Rob, because of all the things we’re going through in our lives, because all you’re worried about is just playing,” he says. “The biggest thing that I think about when I’m on the court is playing for my mom and my grandma, and it’s the same for T-Rob – he’s (thinking) about his mom and his sister every time he steps out on the court.”
At 26, now with four years of professional basketball experience under his belt, Jackson is one of the elder statesmen and leaders on the Kings Summer League Team, and hopes to show Robinson and the rest of his young teammates the ropes while setting a positive example with his strong work ethic.
“The biggest thing to me is just trying to come in and show these young guys that you have to play hard on every possession, you have to bring it every day, whatever you’re good at,” he says. “Don’t take it easy in practice because, hey, this is not college anymore – you’re trying to fight for a job.”
With the multitude of life lessons he has learned across the globe, Jackson is aiming to help Sacramento’s talented up-and-comers showcase their respective skill-sets on the national stage in Las Vegas.
“Jimmer (Fredette) and T-Rob, those are young guys who are basically the future of this team,” he says. “I just try to stay on their side every day and tell them, ‘This is it – you have to go out here and show everybody what you’re made of. Don’t take any days off, just play hard and leave it all out on the court.’”