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COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA TOURNAMENT

Overcoming the Mean Streets

Jackson Finds Calm and Stardom as the USC Women's Floor Leader

March 12, 1997|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC senior guard Erica Jackson, along with nearly 800 other players, begins the NCAA women's tournament this week. It's the competition she has dreamed of since she started playing basketball on the asphalt court at the Auer Avenue playground in Milwaukee.

But Jackson's story is a little different.

In a sense, she has already won a championship and she's wearing the net around her neck.

She has won because she knows these things will not happen Saturday at Gainesville, Fla., where the Trojans play San Francisco:

--there will be no automatic weapons fire during the game;

--there will be no drug deals going down at courtside;

--no one will try to knock her on the head on the way from the hotel to the game and steal her jacket or her sneakers; and

--she'll see no hit man shoot a guy in the back of the head from point-blank range.

She has seen all that in her journey to the 1997 NCAA tournament.

She survived largely because of a tough, yet loving mother.

Truth is, Bernice Jordan never cared much for basketball.

It was her daughter's recreation activity, period. Bernice, a single parent, at times on welfare but now a day care center worker, had more important things to worry about--like the rent and food.

Then one day Erica came home from high school and said girls like her could get college basketball scholarships.

Bernice Jordan's attitude toward basketball turned 180 degrees. Suddenly, she became a great basketball fan, screaming at officials, scolding her daughter for errant passes. . . .

"I never missed Erica's games in high school, once I learned this was a way Erica could have all that I wanted for her: an education, a future with a good life and maybe even some luxuries," Bernice said.

Abruptly, Erica became an outstanding student.

"Every time Erica brought home straight A's, I'd give her $100--even if I had to borrow it--and she'd run out and buy a new pair of basketball sneakers," Bernice said.

In May, Erica Dee Jackson will receive her degree in psychology. She wants to counsel athletes--and to buy her mother her own house.

"I don't care what I have to do to do it," she said. "Even if I have to work my fingers to the bone."

Jackson is in her third year as USC's starting point guard. She averages four assists and seven points. Her game is floor leadership, ball distribution and offensive cohesiveness.

"Where we are today, the fact we're a tournament team . . . Erica is a major reason for that," Coach Fred Williams said.

Said her high school coach, Pam Kruse: "Erica was not a great athlete, but she's intelligent and very hard-working.

"She made herself into a basketball player. She was headstrong and stubborn, in a good way--in the sense that she and her mother knew that hard work with basketball would take her somewhere."

But not right away.

In her freshman season at USC, her game was so wild she was looking at four years of sitting.

Jackson said she needed years to "gear down" her game from street ball to NCAA ball.

"One time when I was in the eighth grade, I was playing full-court at a two-court playground," she said.

"In the other game, two guys got into an argument, but in my game we didn't pay any attention. Then one guy goes to his car, takes out some kind of automatic gun and starts shooting at everybody.

"I remember that sound, 'pop-pop-pop-pop-pop,' and everyone screaming 'Run! run!' I ran down an alley and went home. That night, I was back on the court, playing. It had lights."

Did anyone called the police?

"Are you kidding? You give the police a statement in a case like that . . . that's your head.

"One time my foster brother, Derrick, and I were sitting on a porch at our apartment. We saw a guy across the street walk up behind another guy and shoot him in the back of the head. . . . Blew his brains out, from maybe two feet away. Later we heard it was a case of mistaken identity.

"My friend Reggie worked down the street at a candy store. One night he got robbed and was shot and killed.

"There was a girls' gang at my high school called the Sheiks. They would jump you on the street, steal your sneakers or your coat. I just heard their leader was shot and killed.

"I never got beat up or had my sneakers stolen, but that happened a lot to people I knew."

Jackson also credits her AAU coach, Keith Noll.

Noll forms teams from inner-city Milwaukee girls each summer and takes them as far away as Louisiana for tournaments.

Jackson is one of about 250 women from his program to have played Division I or II NCAA basketball in the last six years.

"I was telling college coaches when she was 16 that Erica could be a great college player," Noll said.

"Barbara Thaxton [a USC assistant at the time] told me she agreed with me, if you could 'get the junk out of her game.' "

"Junk" was no-look, behind-the-back passes or between-the-legs dribbling that often led to more turnovers than points. In her first two years at USC, Jackson was as likely to throw the ball into the bleachers on a fast break as she was to make a brilliant pass.

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