Nine years ago, Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow was released to critical acclaim. The movie, about a drug-dealing pimp named D.J. who aspires to be a rapper, captured the essence of inner-city Memphis and her inhabitants’ battle to break free from life on the streets and live a life of purpose. Those streets are where Joe Jackson of the Memphis Tigers grew up, and they are where he learned to love Memphis.
Memphis isn’t easy to love. The inner city is poor and ridden with crime, and Memphis consistently ranks in the top five in murders per capita year after year. Memphis remains virtually segregated even 45 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in the very heart of that inner city. Of all the city’s murders, that one nearly buried hope of racial salvation along with the slain civil rights leader. Until 1973 — when a Tiger team led by Memphis legend Larry Finch, a Memphis native who turned down offers to play elsewhere, stormed through the NCAA tournament before losing to UCLA in the championship. That run unified a divided town, even if it could not forever cure the racial blight. Tiger basketball at least allowed it to begin to heal. Moreover, Finch set the precedent for inner-city Memphis kids to play for Memphis despite the city’s racial divisions, which remain intact.
In Jackson’s Memphis, the majority of the white population lives in the suburbs, and the majority of the black population lives in the inner city. Just this year, the city of Memphis relinquished control of their schools to the predominantly white citizens of the surrounding county. In return, they decided that rather than be a part of this new racially-mixed school district, they would create their own school districts based on the mostly white suburbs that surround Memphis. They did this even though it almost doubled their taxes, and their new school districts would have to buy their existing school buildings back from Memphis.
Half of the 18,000 fans who pack the Fed Ex Forum every game are among the same people who voted to distance themselves from the city and the Joe Jacksons of the world. Nine thousand of those fans claim to be from Memphis on game day, but, in reality, they choose to live in the suburbs of Germantown or Arlington or Collierville, safe from the streets where their hero, Jackson, grew up — and went to school.
In 2009, Memphis lost John Calipari to Kentucky. Then Memphis lost their 2008 national championship game appearance because of the Derrick Rose scandal. Tiger fans were panicking. To them, true or not, the elite program Calipari spent a decade building was crumbling while being looted by the former head coach and scavengers from Lexington while other programs circled about.
But Jackson would not be among Calipari’s carrion. Jackson chose Memphis. He chose Memphis even though the university, out of desperation, had hired an inexperienced assistant coach named Josh Pastner. Why? Jackson told Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal, “Honest to truth, I was coming here whether Billy Bob from Walmart was coach. I don’t know how to explain it, but I was coming here regardless.” Jackson never even took a recruiting visit to another school, including Kansas and Duke. Jackson, like Larry Finch, was always going to Memphis simply because he was from Memphis — and simply because it was his turn to represent.
Jackson graduated from nationally academically recognized White Station High School — one of those racially-mixed Memphis city schools — and finished as the second-leading scorer in Memphis high school history, a history that includes Penny Hardaway. Jackson earned his college degree in three years (he is the first in his family to graduate from college), and he’ll finish in the top 10 at Memphis in points, assists and steals. As a freshman, Jackson hit two free throws with two seconds left to give Pastner his first NCAA tournament appearance. As a junior, he was named C-USA Player of the Year, and he will be first team in the AAC as a senior. All those accomplishments make you a hero, but bringing a community together — street by street — by loving your city? Well, that makes you a legend.