D-BLOCK WOULD always say he was all right and give his teammates a smile as wide as it was hollow, as if its charm could put all their worrying about him to rest. He got his nickname from his fellow Kansas Jayhawks as a freshman for exhibiting penitentiary-worthy bullishness in practice—acting like Deebo from the movie Friday, they said. That was an entire season before he put his insides on lockdown, posting a two-word sign at the gate: i'm fine. "You left the practice court in tears, D-Block." I'm fine. "You keep hanging your head, D-Block." I'm fine. "You want to talk about it, D-Block?" I'm fine.
But Darnell Jackson, who at 6'8" and 250 pounds was the Jayhawks' most imposing forward and most tortured soul, knew the truth. "I was falling apart," he says. He felt so down that on Jan. 5, 2007, halfway through his junior year, he left the KU campus in Lawrence in the middle of the night and drove home to Midwest City, Okla. It was there that he told his mother that he was quitting. In his depressed state, Jackson had rationalized that Kansas didn't need him (the Jayhawks had three post players, Julian Wright, Darrell Arthur and Sasha Kaun, higher on the depth chart) whereas his mother, Shawn—who was still partially immobilized from a horrific May 2005 car wreck and was struggling to support her two younger children, Ebony, now 18, and Evan, 16, while the family finances were locked up in insurance-company battles—needed him badly.
Darnell had been living in a world of ever-mounting sorrow. In his eighth-grade year his absentee father, James K. Howard, had been shot to death by Oklahoma City police after he attacked a jogger. As a high school senior Jackson had come upon the crime scene of a classmate's murder. When Jackson went away to college, the tragedies continued. His close friend Glen Davis was shot in the head and killed by gang members with a semiautomatic weapon while stopped at a traffic light in Oklahoma City. His paternal grandfather, Willie James Howard, died in July 2006, and one of his uncles was beaten to death with a hammer. Worst of all, his maternal grandmother, Evon Jackson, with whom he was so close that "it was like we lived in the same skin," he says, was in the car with Shawn that day in Las Vegas when a drunk and drugged 18-year-old celebrating his send-off to the Marines swerved into them and altered the course of their lives. Evon died a week later as a result of her injuries. "It seemed like everybody I knew was dying while I was at Kansas," says Jackson, "and I thought, Maybe if I gave it all up and CAME HOME, I could make it stop."
Shawn's brother, Edred, from whom Darnell had received his middle name, left work at his wood-finishing business to meet him at his mother's house. They took a drive, stopping at Evon's gravesite, which Jackson hadn't visited since the funeral, and Edred said to him, "Do you remember how proud she had been that you went to Kansas?" Later Shawn apologized to Darnell for having pushed him back to summer school at KU after the accident, perhaps stunting the grieving process. But, she told him, "you're not helping me if you leave Kansas—you're letting me down. Let me heal to the point where I can walk, and I'll be there for you during your senior year."
Jayhawks coach Bill Self and director of basketball operations Ronnie Chalmers took an evening flight to Oklahoma City, intent on meeting with Jackson after he failed to show for that day's practice. Jackson brought Self outside Shawn's house to talk, and it was then, while hugging his coach in the front yard, that D-Block finally cracked. He hadn't wanted to quit, he said. He was just trying to be the man of the family.
FIRST GAME, first half, first free throws of 2007--08, and before Jackson stepped to the line against Louisiana-Monroe in Allen Fieldhouse, he spotted his late-arriving mother wearing her right-leg boot, being helped to her seat. Shawn was in the middle of a multiweek stay at the on-campus apartment Jackson shares with teammate Brandon Rush, giving Darnell what she calls "his mama time" by hopping around on her one good leg and doing the cooking and cleaning.
She blew kisses to him from the stands; he shook his head in playful disapproval of her tardiness. Later in the half Jackson threw down a fast-break dunk so impressive that, Shawn says, "I had to stand up and make sure that was mine, number 32, and not double zero"—the digits worn by Arthur, a sophomore with a far more athletic reputation.
Jackson missed just one field goal attempt in the Jayhawks' opener, scoring 21 points in 18 minutes off the bench, from which he had been toiling in various degrees of frustration for his whole career. He scored in double figures two more times, and by the sixth game of the season he had supplanted Kaun in the starting lineup. There he has remained, becoming Kansas's leading rebounder (7.0 per game) and second-leading scorer (at 12.8 points per game) during its 22--1 start.
Wright's decision to enter the NBA Draft as a sophomore last spring (he was taken 13th overall by New Orleans) affected Jackson more than any other Jayhawk. His minutes have jumped from 15.3 per game last season to 24.8, and he evolved from KU's most enigmatic reserve into arguably its most valuable starter. On a balanced title contender stocked with NBA prospects, that breakthrough is no trivial achievement. After the Jayhawks beat Oklahoma on Jan. 14 to improve to 17--0, Jackson, who had 17 points and eight rebounds, called Shawn and said, "Can you really believe this is happening?"
Jackson's teammates have tried to push him past the awed phase: During a timeout late in Kansas's Jan. 23 win over Iowa State, Rush pointed Jackson toward the scoreboard, where there were 21 points and 11 rebounds listed next to his number. "Don't think you aren't good, D-Block," Rush said. "You're a star for us now."