At a nearby recreation center, Jackie took up track and field, while Al learned swimming and diving. If they went head-to-head at anything, Jackie won. It didn't matter that she was two years younger. "My dad teased me because Jackie was always so good," says Al. "She could jump farther, and she was fast. She was shy, but in basketball she led by her actions, without saying a word."
The parents had a double standard that couldn't be easily cast off: Daughters were constantly vulnerable; boys were incessantly cruising. "Both my folks were frightened of boys," says Jackie. "And even at 10 or 12 I was a hot, fast little cheerleader. But my mother said, with no chance for negotiation, that I was not going out with guys until I was [she pauses to express the crushing finality of it]...18! So I threw myself [she pauses to permit guesses. Under a train? Into the river?] into sports and school."
The essence of a place like East St. Louis is that its unsuccessful people at once embrace and despise those who do well. They love to see someone they know live out their longings, but they hate to be left behind. Peer pressure in a group of the lost is pressure to surrender. Therefore, you get remarks such as this from Jackie: "I was so good as a kid, a lot of people thought I had to fail." And from Al: "People always told me I wasn't going to succeed. That's what I thrive on. That's my fuel."
Al was the loquacious one, the charmer. He worked as a lifeguard at the local pool and one day saved the life of a seven-year-old girl, who then doted on him as "the sweet man by the water," which turned into Sweetwater, a nickname so apt he has carried it ever since. He brought in so much cash from tips as a shoeshine boy and from winning teenage dance contests that Mary charged him $25 a month rent (secretly saving the money for him), "and she kept me swimming night and day to keep me out of trouble."
It almost worked. Al got in fights (often by demanding that guys stay away from his sister) and put a few rocks through windshields. In East St. Louis there were plenty of opportunities for further decline. "We were in the midst of crime, drinking and drugs," says Al. "I always listened to my mother, but I was the rebellious type."
One night he went to a party. "My mother had this theory," he told SI's Craig Neff. "Be careful, and when the party is over, come home. But it was over at 10 o'clock, so I went to another, at a tavern. There was a raid. The police were looking for someone."
When the police came in, a drunk shouted obscenities at them. "They thought that was me." At once Al had three guns in his face and was being asked to repeat what he had said. He gently convinced the police that he had uttered nothing. "But that made me think," he says.
Mary encouraged their sports endeavors, and Jackie acted as her emissary, dragging Al out of bed in the mornings, nagging him to go to track practice. "I didn't have a big brother," says Al. "I had Jackie. She was my idol."
One can see why. She starred in volleyball, and her Lincoln High basketball team beat opponents by an average of 52.8 points a game. "When I played ball with my little sister, I had to be physically rough to beat her," says Al with pride. He kept a meticulous scrapbook about her through her teens. And when Jackie broke her arm in a Lincoln volleyball game and lay crying on the floor in front of all her friends and family, the one person she called for was Al.
In Jackie's junior spring she long-jumped a state high school record 20'7½". The next year, she jumped 20'9¾" at the Olympic Trials and graduated in the top 10% of her class's 350 students. It seemed to confirm the words of her grandmother who, in choosing Jacqueline, the name of the President's wife, at her granddaughter's birth in 1962, said, "Someday this girl will be the first lady of something."