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Hero, Healer, Leader

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Twelve shots. Five wounded. One dead. The departed: Duquesne’s basketball program. After 12 years on life support, the Dukes flat-lined on September 17, 2006. Recovery was the school’s only option. Those roots started nearly a decade earlier.

Connecticut basketball was on the verge of greatness in the mid 1990’s. Ray Allen was an icon. Jim Calhoun had Hall of Fame in his future. For Aaron Jackson and many of the state’s youth, hoops was the sport of choice.

Seven-year old Jackson learned the game from his older brother. He was a star by his senior season at Northwest Catholic, averaging 18 points per game. The West Hartford school won consecutive state titles and Jackson was the hero of the ‘03 squad, his overtime put-back with less than a second remaining clinching the title.

All-state nominations and MVP honors followed his championship game heroics, but college did not. Prep school at Worcester Academy would precede the NCAA.

The versatile Jackson averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in his lone season with the Hilltoppers, after which he was faced with a decision – wait his turn at nearby Providence College, or play immediately at a smaller school. The 6’4” guard opted for the latter, turning down the bright lights of the Big East for the neighboring intimate stage of the Atlantic 10.

A once-proud Duquesne basketball program was in the midst of the school’s worst stretch ever when Jackson arrived in 2005. The Dukes eclipsed ten wins just twice in the previous 11 years, suggesting a fragile future for head coach Danny Nee.

Indeed, the Dukes trudged their way to a 3-24 season. No team in the school’s 92 year history had lost as many games. Nee was fired, five scholarship players transferred and Duquesne started over. But tragically, something far more catastrophic than a miserable record inaugurated that new era.

One thought raced through Jackson’s mind that fateful September morning. “Is this real life?”

Photo: wpxi.comA dozen shots rang out. When the firing stopped, Jackson and four of his teammates all lie wounded.

“It was a nightmare. I can’t think about how something like that happened,” Jackson said. “It shook the whole campus and city.”

The two triggermen were teenagers William B. Holmes III and Derek Scott Lee. Holmes, who smuggled a gun into the school dance the previous night, became aggravated when his girlfriend conversed with members of the basketball team. Hours later, he got his revenge by shooting nearly half of the Dukes scholarship players.

Sam Ashaolu and Stuard Baldonado were the most seriously wounded. Neither would ever see the court for Duquesne – a much less devastating outcome than what would have been if not for Jackson.

One bullet burrowed in Baldonado’s left arm while a second back-piercing slug narrowly missed his spinal column. Severely injured, the 21-year-old needed saved.

“I had a friend, not a teammate down. He needed help and I just reacted,” Jackson said, himself still scared from a bullet that caught his hand. “I helped him out. I’m not a hero.”

Jackson weighed nearly 70 pounds less than his teammate. It didn’t matter. He hoisted Baldonado on his shoulders and carried him to safety.

Never before had such violence been inflicted on a college basketball team. The program was decimated and the school heartbroken, but Jackson proved resilient.

“It was difficult for the coaches and players alike,” said Ron Everhart, who at the time was entering his first year as the Dukes coach. “One thing Aaron did was wrap himself in that adversity and take it to the gym.”

The thought process wasn’t complicated for Jackson.

“We knew we would never have a year as bad as that again,” Jackson said. “We had a great new coaching staff. The shooting was just another obstacle. Overcoming it would make the whole situation better.”

Desperation is born of despair. Duquesne faced both in 2006. It is those who handle the despondence with poise that emerge as leaders. For the University; for the city, it was Jackson.Photo: Duquesne University

Just as he had done with Baldonado the night of the shooting, Jackson put the Dukes program on his back and carried them from hopelessness to relevance.

“The coaching staff helped. I did it for the guys who couldn’t play,” said Jackson. “I saw how bad not playing affected them, and that I still had a chance to play.”

Duquesne jumped out to an early 10-11 record before dropping the final eight games of the 2006-07 season – a reminder that healing is a process. Still, the Dukes secured their second-highest win total in the last nine years. Jackson recorded the fifth best assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference, but his on the court success did not translate to off the court peace.

“I talked to him a lot about the shooting. It didn’t just affect those kids, it affected everyone,” Everhart said. “There were nights I was in there late because I couldn't sleep. All those kids had problems with it, so I talked to all of them about it.”

Duquesne’s first winning season since the early 90’s followed the next year. But it wasn’t until Jackson’s senior campaign that he truly became the face of the program. The only remaining player from the shooting, and the team’s lone senior, Jackson completed his conversion to hero. He led the Dukes to a 21-13 record in 2008-09 – the school’s best mark since 1971.

Jackson was the first Duke named to the All-A10 squad since Mike James in 1998. He also landed a spot on Sports Illustrated’s All-Underrated Team and finished his career number one on the school’s all time games played list. But for Jackson, leading Duquesne to the NIT was the sweetest accolade. What started with a trip to Everhart’s office demanding trust on the court, ended with the school’s first postseason appearance in 38 years.

Transformation successful. The shooting was no longer a gaping wound, but rather a faint scar.

“He’s always been about helping teammates and looking out for people,” Everhart gloats today about his former star. “He’s the ultimate team player, and he was a great leader because of that. It’s a trait you don't find with many guys.”

Despite his impressive senior season, Jackson was not drafted. Three years later NBA executives realized they missed on something special.

Three teams offered Jackson guaranteed NBA contracts if he played this year in the summer league. He turned them all down, instead opting for the contract of a lifetime with Europe’s number one team, CSKA Moscow.

Whenever Jackson is asked about the shooting, he doesn’t think about saving his friend, leading a program or healing a University. In fact, he doesn’t think about that night at all.Photo: M. Serbin, cskabaskt.com

“I don’t like to talk about it. I’m grateful to be alive, but I buried it. It got me to where I am today. It was just getting through another obstacle. Everyone got through it: the people, the university and the city. It’s over now.”

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