James Jackson is back, if only for the Christmas holidays. The former All-State basketball player, who graduated from Crane in 1974, has been living in Australia since 1982. He has returned to visit family and renew acquaintances with old friends and rivals such as Rickey Green, Andre Wakefield, Sonny Parker and Dan Davis.
"People think I'm crazy when I say I appreciate snow," said Jackson, who is making his first trip to Chicago since 2006. "The normal temperature in Brisbane is 70. It's nine degrees right now. I never see snow there. Last night, I walked around the block in the snow and cold weather, like it used to be when I was growing up on the West Side. It's good to see a white Christmas once in a while."
Jackson has made a wonderful life for himself and his family, though it didn't start out that way.
After an outstanding career at Crane, he played at Minnesota for two years, then went to Canada to play for the Alberta Dusters of the CBA. Then fate intervened.
"I believe in fate. That's how I ended up in Australia," Jackson said. "Dick Rymer from Nebraska was looking for players to play professional basketball in Australia. He ran into one of my old coaches at Minnesota, Jesse Evans, who was then working for Lute Olson at Arizona, in an airport. Jesse threw my name out. Rymer called me and gave me a round-trip plane ticket to Australia.
"Where is that? I never heard of Australia. But how many times do you get a ticket to another country? I'm still there today. And if it wasn't for that incident, I never would have met my wife."
Like many high school athletes from the inner city who go away from home to compete, Jackson got homesick. But three weeks after he returned home, after leading his team to the Australian professional championship, he received a call asking him to come back. He couldn't turn it down.
"I love the laid-back lifestyle, the friendly people. Nobody is in a rush about anything. The atmosphere blew me away. It is totally different from the United States. And the climate is great. If you're looking for good weather and a good atmosphere, it's a nice place to bring up a family. It's the place to be."
Jackson played professionally for 10 years, then ran youth camps and coached. At 55, he is working for a traffic control company. His wife Romana is an Australian. They have one son, Jamel, 15, who is in grade 10.
But Jackson has learned that things change, on an off the basketball court, no matter whether you are living in Chicago or Brisbane.
"I'm always looking over my back when I come to Chicago, when I walk in the streets at night," he said. "In Australia, I had to adjust to not being on the alert, to not being so jumpy all the time. I didn't have to worry about those things then. But it isn't the same anymore. Crime has picked up so much in Australia.
"Generations have changed. Kids are different. They don't have respect for elders as they used to. That's one of the reasons why I got out of coaching. Kids weren't as dedicated as I wanted them to be. They wanted to train only twice a week. Parents complained that I worked them too hard, three hours a day, five or six days a week, hard all the time.
"Now parents pay as much as $600 just to have their kids be involved in a basketball organization, a private club. A lot of kids would love to come to the United States to play. Their dream is to play in the professional league in Australia or play in the NBA in the United States.
"But U.S. coaches don't come to Australia to scout kids. If you are good enough, you are sent to the Institute of Sports to develop. They'll find a college in the U.S. for you. Andrew Bogut, Luke Longley, Andrew Gage and Shane Hill went through the system and ended up in the U.S. and the NBA."
But Jackson admits the Australia brand of basketball isn't up to U.S. standards, college or professional. Some U.S. products come to play in Australia, as Jackson and Bloom's Audie Matthews did, but most who can't make it in the NBA opt for Europe, where players are better paid.
Jackson has no regrets, however. "Life has been pretty good for me. I have no regret that I didn't make it in the NBA," he said. He had a tryout with the Chicago Bulls in 1979 but was cut. He admits he wasn't prepared at the time. But he was ready physically and mentally when he tried out in Canada, landing one of nine spots from among 40 players who tried out. It helped to punch his ticket to Australia.