Darnell Jackson helped lead the Kansas Jayhawks to a national championship before arriving in Cleveland for the 2008-09 campaign. Despite a wrist injury that forced him to miss time at the beginning of the season, Jackson appeared in 51 games for the Cavs as a rookie.
While earning minutes in support of a big man rotation that featured Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace and a young J.J. Hickson, Jackson provided heart, work ethic and toughness on a daily basis. He’d also play in 27 more games for the Cavs the following season before spending parts of the next two years with the Milwaukee Bucks and Sacramento Kings.
During the NBA lockout in 2011, Jackson signed his first contract overseas with BC Donetsk in Ukraine. His team won the Ukrainian SuperLeague championship that year. Over the last two seasons, he has moved on to the Chinese Basketball Association and continued to excel.
As a member of the Shanghai Sharks in 2013-14—a team owned by NBA legend Yao Ming—Jackson averaged 21.8 points and 11.2 rebounds in 37 games. He scored a season-high 36 on November 29 during a 102-93 win over the Guangsha Lions and also grabbed a season-best 19 rebounds in a 92-84 win over Shanxi Zhongyu.
Recently, I caught up with the big man they call D-Block to talk about his accomplishments overseas while also looking back at his time with the Cavs.
Brendan Bowers: You were in Shanghai, China playing for a team owned by Yao Ming this season. What was that experience like?
Darnell Jackson: It was a great experience in Shanghai. Yao had me set up real nice and he took care of me. Everything over there with Yao’s team, he took the things that he had in the NBA and he applied them to his team in Shanghai. So it was a real good experience. We had a great conditioning coach, great coaching staff. Everything was good, real professional. And Yao made sure the young guys and the Americans were all on the same page.
BB: What were your conversations like with Yao and the team when you first signed?
DJ: The first thing Yao told me, he said, I want you to come here and do your job. But I also want you to help our young guys. Help them understand the American way to play the game. The style that you’re used to playing, how you communicate when you’re on the floor. Things like that. And everything he told me, I just tried to do it on the court and off it. From a team standpoint, they also said when I got there that we need you to help us get into the playoffs. And we got that done.
BB: What was your relationship like with Yao during the season?
DJ: He was always real helpful. If I did something on the court he didn’t like, he would come to the locker room, pull me aside and talk with me about it—like, next time, try to do it this way. You need something like that as a player, too. But especially coming from Yao, he had done it all and he had seen it all. Whenever I was having ups and downs, he helped me get through those situations the whole time I was there.
BB: I didn’t realize he was that hands-on as an owner. So he’d come into the locker room and offer advice to guys, almost like a coach?
DJ: Yeah, he would definitely come in and talk with you. Yao understands the game. If you feel like you’re right about something as a player, you can’t argue with Yao. [laughs] He’s the boss and whatever he says goes.
BB: You played against some other former Cavaliers in China this season. Guys like Sebastian Telfair (Tianjin Ronggang) and Delonte West (Fujian Xunxing)—who were some other guys who’ve been in the League that you played against in China?
DJ: On my team, to start the year, first it was me and Von Wafer. But he suffered an injury in the sixth game and left. So then they brought in Quincy Douby and he was there for the rest of the year with me. It was just us, as far as Americans on our team. We played against Sebastian, Delonte like you said, Shelden Williams, Hakim Warrick, Chris Johnson, Donte Green, Dexter Pittman, Ivan Johnson. There were some guys putting up some numbers over there and playing pretty well.
BB: Looking back to your first trip overseas as a professional, on your way to Ukraine, what were you expecting that experience to be like?
DJ: Really, I didn’t know what to expect. Coming from the NBA, going across seas for the first time in your career, I thought it was going to be easy. But it definitely woke me up and it’s a humbling experience. In the NBA, guys get spoiled. But going overseas, you gotta have the right mindset to get through it. In Ukraine, for me, it was unbelievable. It was a good experience and it was a bad experience. But I just accepted everything as a challenge, and challenged myself to get through it for the full seven months. I was able to do that, and in the end we won the championship.
BB: How hard is it to develop that mindset necessary to succeed overseas? What was the adjustment period like?
DJ: I’m not going to lie, for me it was difficult. The first month and a half, you’re learning the game—learning the rules overseas, learning the style of play. And over in Ukraine, they’re real big in pick-and-roll. Which is like the NBA, except the only thing they do is pick-and-roll. There weren’t any down-screens, they didn’t fade any screens, nothing like that. Just pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll. So I had to get used to playing their way and not playing the way I had been taught.
BB: How about the day-to-day off the court. What was that adjustment like living in Ukraine?
DJ: When I first got there, it was a nightmare. I couldn’t sleep. I was up all night. I remember I didn’t sleep for like two days straight. That’s how stressful the adjustment was for me at first. It was hard not knowing what to expect, what was going to happen. I found myself worrying about things I couldn’t control. But, you know, when you put yourself to the task you can get through anything.
BB: Most guys I talk to who have played overseas are practicing twice day during the season. Was that the same for you in Ukraine?
DJ: Yeah, two practices a day, no days off. You’re practicing hard, too, for four-and-half hours every day. We have back-to-back games and we’re waking up at 9am the next day to run suicides. Guys in the NBA weren’t doing that. They weren’t going through that. That’s just grinding on your body. It sucks [laughs]. But you do what you gotta do to accomplish your goals and support your family.
BB: I know it’s a couple seasons removed at this point, but do you know anyone playing in Ukraine right now with everything that’s going on over there?
DJ: No, I don’t know anybody that’s playing over there right now. But I was Skyping with one of my best friends, Ollie Bailey, who is playing in Venezuela this year. We were Skyping and he was like, ‘man look at this’. He showed me on his screen and there was bombs and fire everywhere, it was crazy. I said man that’s going on right now? He said yeah, going on right now. So yeah, whether it’s in Venezuela or with what’s going on in Ukraine, I couldn’t imagine having to go through that right now.
BB: If you could offer advice to any younger guys going overseas based on what you learned through your experiences, what would you tell them?
DJ: What I tell a lot of young guys that I talk to is, don’t go overseas if you’re not ready for it. A lot of guys, they try to go through the D-League. They try to hope to get a call-up. But that’s like a one percent chance that someone’s going to get called up and then get a deal. So if you are going to go overseas, you have to be ready for it. Because you’re going to have teams—especially the higher-paying teams—they’ll pay you a little money but then they’ll cut you if you’re not performing. Then you have to go through the situation where you won’t get all your money. That happens when you go over there thinking it was going to be a different situation and it wasn’t. It’s hard. You have to really have the mindset and the strength and willingness to get through the things that those guys really go through over there. And you also have to have things to keep your mind off basketball at times—play video games, read books, call your friends everyday, Skype, you know? Just simple things to keep yourself busy. Because if you don’t, you’ll drive yourself crazy. You’ll get homesick, then you’ll start playing bad and the next thing you know they’re shipping you home because your performance is terrible.
BB: After making that adjustment successfully and winning a championship in Ukraine your first year, how was the experience different for you in China when you signed with Xingjan in 2012-13?
DJ: When I went to China it was cool. The living situation was comfortable. If I needed anything they made sure I had it. If I needed to go anywhere, they had a driver for me. This was going on when I played for Xingjan. Then went I went to Shanghai, they put me up in a two-bedroom condo. The only thing I had to do was catch a taxi from practice to home to the games and back. They treated us like we were in the States.
BB: Speaking of when you were in the States, what do you remember most about your time in Cleveland?
DJ: Oh man. Out of all the places I’ve been—I even tell guys that I know in the NBA, guys overseas, my family, friends—Cleveland, hands down, was the number one place. I loved it there. The fans, everything, it was unbelievable. And I know we had Bron, Shaq, Ben Wallace, Wally Sczerbiak, Big Z, but just like off the court, that fan support was real. You could see it around town. The fans supported everything the Cavs had going on. They were supportive of me and I only averaged like five seconds per game. [laughs] Honestly though man, I loved everything about being there.
BB: Yao brought you in this year to help with the younger guys. Back then, guys like Ilgauskas and Wallace were those vets who worked with you. What was it like coming in as a rookie with those guys?
DJ: The first day I got to Cleveland, the first time I had practice, Big Ben put me in a headlock. He grabbed me and put me in a headlock and said, ‘You always go before the vets. Every drill.’ I turned around and said, okay you got it. But they took care of me when I was there. Zydrunas Ilgauksas, Andy Varejao, Ben, and then when Lorenzen Wright got there—rest in peace to the big dog—having vets like that they had your back. They showed you what you had to do to be a professional. They told you what you had to do. I didn’t play one practice in a scrimmage, and when it ended, Wallace came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m about to go home.’ And he told me, ‘But you didn’t play. Go in the weight room and lift weights, then run.’ So I did it because they knew what it took to be a professional basketball player and I didn’t yet. All that really helped me throughout my career.
BB: Your season in China just ended, what’s up next for you right now?
DJ: Right now I’m going to the Philippines for a month. Going over there and playing, just to keep myself in shape and keep myself ready. There’s just a big difference between working out and not playing. When you actually play, there’s a big difference in your conditioning level. So I’m just trying to keep my conditioning up and stay ready to go.
BB: How long is that season in the Philippines? How long will you be down there?
DJ: It’s just for a month initially. There’s a series of games, then the top eight teams make it to the playoffs. I play this month and I think I have to win like seven games or so to advance to the playoffs. If I make it to the playoffs, I’ll be there for another month.
BB: Any plans for where you want to sign next season yet?
DJ: To tell you the truth, I don’t know. The type of player I am, the type of person I am, I’m down for anything. As long as it’s a good situation, I can go. I can fit into any system, any style of play, it’s just about getting the right opportunity. A lot guys don’t get that opportunity, so I’m just going to make sure that I take advantage of the opportunities I do get, just keep it moving from there.
Photo[s]: OSports.cn & Sarah Phipps, the Oklahoman