Lakeem Jackson wasn’t just bad that week. He stunk.
Two terrible practices had the first piece of Darrin Horn’s puzzle looking like the missing piece to Frank Martin’s.
Two terrible practices leading up the Morgan State game resulted in a lackluster performance in the team’s 87-71 win, where seemingly everyone except Jackson had stellar moments.
Martin could see what was happening with the Gamecocks. Such wins would lead to a false sense of security. Shots were falling for the Gamecocks, but take away the hot hands, and what did USC really have?
Martin knew someone needed to get in this team’s ear, and it had to be someone other than the coaches. That person needed to be a senior.
Preferably, that person needed to be Jackson. Martin found Jackson and got in his ear:
“Lakeem, you don’t get these back. There’s no next year for your, brother. Remember what I told you, Lakeem? Are you going to be a part of the change that, 10 years from now, people say Lakeem Jackson got this team going? Or are you going to accept what’s been going on here?”
Martin saw the effort improve from that day forward. Then, following USC’s first loss of the season against Elon in which everything Martin had feared had come to pass, the missing piece found his place.
“They play hard, but they kind of let their opponents get the best of them,” said Jackson, who had been the lone bright spot with 14 points and 10 rebounds. “I think I’m actually going to talk to them after I finish with you guys. Have a team meeting, just to regroup so we can get ready for Mexico.”
Shortly after Jackson spoke, Martin was ranting about all the team was doing wrong. Then he heard what Jackson had said. A weight lifted.
“He’s trying, he’s trying,” Martin said. “Lakeem Jackson wasn’t the problem. He hasn’t been the problem. Now what have I been preaching to him? Gotta help me now. I can’t play, so there’s only so much I can change as a coach.
“I can run guys into the ground in practice so they’ll get in great shape, but if their behaviors don’t change, then you’ve got bad behavior, just in real good shape,” Martin continued. “Pressure from your teammates? That speaks louder than any spring your coach makes you run. That’s what we need right now. Our leadership isn’t good. Lakeem has got a chance to take ownership of this basketball team and help others.”
Martin said he has no idea what will happen next. The team opens play in the Hoop for Hopes Classic on Saturday against Missouri State. It’s the team’s first game away from home, and it is taking place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
But it is this kind of situation that Martin lives for.
“I love difficult moments, because what you see when you get to that place is reality,” Martin said. “You find out what you’re made of. I’m dying.
“I’m trying to get them to understand that what they were doing was not right and was going to cost them a game. That’s the beauty of coaching, man,” Martin continued. “Coaching is not all about the glamour of winning games. Coaching is dealing with difficult moments. Dealing with these moments and figuring out your team and figuring out what guys are with you, so you know who to trust and who to lean on? That’s kind of the theory of life, don’t you think?”