CHAMPAIGN — Mannie Jackson came to Illinois in the late 1950s to play basketball when blacks weren’t treated as equals in America.
He and Govoner Vaughn were the first African-Americans to start and play prominent roles for the Illini. Wednesday, Illinois honored Jackson by raising his jersey to the rafters of the Assembly Hall with the other honored jerseys in the program’s history.
“I remember the day I was elected captain, and I thought nothing could top that,” Jackson said. “I feel good about this; it feels really good. Not because I’m doing it, but it’s so symbolic. It’s kind of like a metaphor for all that I’ve gone through and what the university’s gone through. Back in those times, to be here with Govoner, the first African-Americans, and to look at the fans, they still look the same, and I still love this place.”
Jackson went on to play professionally for the Harlem Globetrotters and later bought the team in 1993. He’s considered one of the nation’s top black businessmen.
“It feels good because it represents a period of time that, as an African-American, we didn’t have access to anything,” Jackson said. “Now it’s like a confirmation of all the hard work and all the stuff, the indignities you went through. It feels real good, and I’m proud of the university for doing it. It took a lot of courage to reach back that far.”
First-year Illinois coach John Groce has brought Jackson in a few times to speak to the current Illini about the things he went through and his life after graduation. Jackson spoke to the team prior to Wednesday’s game against Minnesota during the shootaround.
“He’s obviously meant a lot to Illinois and to our basketball program. His accomplishments, I think, speak for themselves. He came in a time and an era where you had to have some courage. I really respect him for that,” Groce said. “We had him around our team in the fall. He spoke to our team and was very inspirational, very bright. He’s a very proud representative of the university as well as of Illinois basketball.”
Jackson is excited about the program’s progress under Groce. He delivered a message he says hit home with the players.
“I think Illinois always got great players, but something slipped in the culture. What I see with him, I watch them every week, the culture’s coming back; this is going to be a winning program really fast. These kids are good, but they’re really good people,” Jackson said. “I think across the country, more and more kids want to come here, and we’ve got a good future.
“These four years go by really fast; don’t waste them. You’ll look back and say, ‘I wish I would have tried harder.’ Try hard now is what I tell them.”
Entering the season, one of the big question marks for the Illinois team concerned who would handle the bulk of the point-guard duties. Brandon Paul and Tracy Abrams have shared them, though Abrams plays almost exclusively at the point.
His development is a major reason the Illini entered the week ranked 12th in the country.
“The biggest thing with Tracy is he brings a competitive toughness to our team and to the table. I thought he did that on Saturday at a pretty high level. He had active hands, and I thought he did a great job of blocking out in situations when we needed him to do that,” Groce said. “He does a lot of those physical intangibles that help you win. I think he’s getting better at playing the point-guard position and understanding what we want and blending in scoring; he has a gift to score as well as making other guys better. He spends a lot of time watching film and wants to learn, and because of that and because of his attitude and disposition he seems to keep getting better every day, and we really love the progress that he’s making.”
Minnesota’s Rodney Williams has drawn considerable praise for his highlight-reel dunks, but the senior is more than a dunker.
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Illini, the 6-foot-7 forward was 39 rebounds and 32 assists shy of becoming the third Minnesota player to score 1,000 points, grab 500 boards and dish out 200 assists.
He went over the 1,000-point mark in Sunday’s win against Northwestern.
Williams is looking to join Sam Jacobson and Willie Burton as the other Minnesota players to reach those career milestones.
“It’s been about longevity, and he’s been able to stand the test of time,” Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. “With so many players leaving early, Rodney has been a player that’s had to overcome more from the standpoint to making the transition to center and small forward and back to power forward. It tells you a lot about his character, the type of person he is and the competitor he is. He wants to win. Your name will go in the record books; that’s a legacy. That’s part of the journey that every player hopes to aspire to. He’s been able to avoid injuries, and when you do that it means you’re going to be in the games consistently. He’s meant a lot to this program, and certainly he’s going to be needed to do more.
“It couldn’t happen to a better kid. He’s a great young man with a great attitude, and we’re real happy for him.”
Wednesday’s game against the Illini began a tough stretch for the Gophers, who will next travel to No. 5 Indiana and follow that up with a home game against No. 2 Michigan.
“I don’t like to look at it in stretches, I like to look one game at a time. We’ve gotten off to a good start; so far, so good. We’ve done the things we’re supposed to do, taking care of home court,” Smith said. “We know going on the road in the Big Ten is tough, no matter who you are and no matter what the situation is. We hope we can play well; we expect to play well. We’re playing well at this juncture.”