Practice didn’t go well.
It’s Wednesday night, less than one week until the East boys play their first game at Southeast.
Afterward, no one is particularly happy.
For a team with its sights on defending the City League title and winning a Class 6A championship, this just isn’t going to cut it.
“That wasn’t great,” third-year East coach Joe Jackson said. “That’s just not what we need.”
“We know we have high expectations,” said senior Zach Jackson, a 6-foot-5 guard who signed to play for Nebraska-Omaha. “We won’t meet any of those expectations practicing like that.”
The last month has been a tempest for the Aces. Emotions, all around, are still pretty raw after the death three weeks ago of Sharon Haynes, the mother of senior guard and leading scorer Samajae Jones. Haynes died after a year-long battle with cancer.
Throw in the pressure of starting the season with the nucleus of Zach Jackson, Jones and junior forward Xavier Kelly all back after going 22-3 last season and finishing third in the state, and it’s a lot to deal with.
And it’s basketball that is still the one thing pushing everything and everyone forward. After all, it was Haynes who put Jones on a team with Zach Jackson when they were 7.
“She was near and dear to a lot of guys in our program,” Joe Jackson said. “For Samajae, it has been totally devastating. They were very close.”
About 15 minutes after practice, the players start to regroup in a hallway outside East’s gym. Like teenagers are prone to do, they stew for a bit and then they’re good.
They talk about Kelly, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound freak of an athlete who committed to play football at Kansas State earlier in the week and averaged 11.5 points last season.
A defensive end, last week he posted a photo to his Twitter account of himself, after practice, testing his jumping ability. In it, his face is almost touching the rim.
“He was one of the best shot blockers in the league last year,” Joe Jackson said. “We’re working on positioning with him, more than anything, and he’s been a sponge. Takes everything in. We tested his vertical his freshman year and it was 32 inches … not sure what it’s at right now. It starts to get into some pretty crazy numbers.”
“He’s the big little brother,” Jones said. “Not scared to get in your face, either.”
A few of them make jokes about Joe Jackson.
“Everybody thinks he looks like this nice, laid-back guy,” Kelly said, laughing. “But he’s more intense than people think. He gets after us, which is good, because then we get after each other.”
Zach Jackson, the first player to go Division I under Joe Jackson (they’re not related), is the serious one of the bunch, the Aces’ leader and hardest worker.
He’s also young – he turned 17 after school started. Last season he averaged 12.3 points, only behind Jones’ 13.3.
“I think we’re still going to have some growing pains. It’s not just the three of us, we’ve got a whole team that needs to come together,” Zach Jackson said. “We’re not ready to go undefeated like everybody thinks.”
And then there’s Jones. He’s the most intense player on the team, the most emotional — traits that have amplified the pain of his mother’s death.
“I can’t imagine losing my mother at my age, let alone being a kid of 17 or 18 years old,” Joe Jackson said.
“He’s been so strong,” Kelly said. “I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it like he has.”
“We’re making sure we’re there for him,” Zach Jackson said. “I’m glad it’s basketball season, so he has something to turn to, people to turn to.”
It’s true that basketball and school have been Jones’ refuge. Even that, though, isn’t enough sometimes.
“In class, sometimes, I can lose focus thinking about my mom,” Jones said. “I have people that bring me back to where I need to be. I talk to my teammates a lot. I talk to the school counselors a lot to get my feelings out.
“She was everything to me. I worshiped the ground she walked on. She was the one who pushed me into basketball and she was at every game she could be at until she started to get sick.”
The feeling is, among the players, that there are bigger things at play when East steps on the court this season.
There are titles to play for. Hearts and minds on the mend.
“It’s difficult, with teenage kids, to block out the outside expectations and focus,” Joe Jackson said. “But it’s the old cliché of one day at a time, one game at a time.
“One practice at a time.”