Nine years ago, the 2011-12 Kentucky team began its march to the program’s eighth NCAA Championship, led by freak-of-nature freshman Anthony Davis. Watching from home in Waterford, Michigan, a nine-year-old Isaiah Jackson was hooked.
“That’s when I started, I just fell in love with it,” Jackson said of Kentucky Basketball. “I could tell [that] here, it was a winning culture. I just fell in love with them ever since. I forgot what grade I was in, but ever since then, I was just in love with Kentucky.”
Jackson’s love for the Cats was reflected in his childhood bedroom, which included a Kentucky Basketball mini-hoop on his door, a large collections of UK shirts, and a giant sticker of a player dunking on his wall, which he decorated to look like him in a Kentucky No. 22 jersey. Now 6’10” 208 lbs., Jackson sports the No. 23 for Kentucky, perhaps an homage to his favorite UK player.
“I watched a lot of Anthony Davis, just how he played because we’re built the same,” Jackson said. “We’re tall, long, can block shots and do everything. I mean, me growing up, to be honest, I was always a Kentucky fan so when Anthony Davis got here, I was always watching Kentucky. Seeing the stuff he did was crazy, and I feel like I can sort of mirror my game after him in a way. So, I try to look at him sometimes.”
Since arriving on campus, no Wildcat has been talked about more than Jackson. The five-star forward was expected to play behind veterans Olivier Sarr and Keion Brooks, but has been so dominant in early practices that John Calipari singled him out as a player who “can do more than I thought.” Last week, fellow freshman BJ Boston, the top-ranked member of Kentucky’s 2020 recruiting class, said Jackson “is a pro.” Like Davis, he’s known for his shot-blocking ability, but is excited to expand his game to the perimeter. In today’s interview, he sported a bandage above his left eye, a war wound from ruthlessly competitive practices, a major adjustment from high school.
“Here I feel like every day is a fight; it’s a battle in practice every day. Everybody here, you’re just not the–at Spire (Academy), I knew I had my position secured. There were people there, but they weren’t at the level that I was. I already knew I was starting and stuff like that, but here it’s like an everyday battle at practice. I mean, every day with Coach (John Calipari) is on you or the guy you’re guarding is busting your butt. You just gotta adjust. Competitive wise it’s different at practice. Everything here is full up-and-down speed. There it was—high school could take breaks. Here there’s no room for error or breaks.”
Unfortunately, like so many, Jackson’s dream has been marred by the pandemic. Normally, Kentucky’s freshmen would be initiated with camps and clinics full of adoring fans, hundreds of tents pitched around the lodge for Big Blue Madness campout, and 20,000+ people at Rupp Arena for Madness, the Blue-White Game, exhibitions, and games. Instead, their lives are confined to the lodge and the practice facility. Media opportunities take place via Zoom, and only 3,000 or so fans will be allowed into Rupp, a far cry from a nine-year-old’s fantasies.
“Yes, it’s different, to be honest,” Jackson admitted. “My expectations are a little low but it’s still high because the season hasn’t started yet, so I feel like once the season gets rolling, my expectations will start to pick back up and I’ll start feeling like, okay. But yeah, it’s different. With COVID, we’re really can’t — we’re restricted doing anything, going out, hanging out, things like that. Just being around the fans and things like that, it’s just weird. Now they’re talking about a limited number of fans at the games, things like that so I’m really not going to be able to feel the actual Kentucky feeling of playing in front of all those fans at Rupp. So, sort of in a way, I do feel a little cheated, but it’s life. You’ve gotta keep pushing and just move on.”
How’s that for perspective? Even though this season will look different than the one he dreamed of, Jackson is determined to enjoy it.
“It’s still — to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m here, but I’m here and it’s weird. It’s a good feeling but it’s just weird. It’s still surreal. I don’t feel like I’m here but I’m here. It was always a dream of mine; it’s just crazy that it came true and it came so fast.”