On a cold Tuesday night at Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning, an MPS school just west of downtown, students shuffle into the gym for a boys varsity basketball game versus Carmen Northwest. A DJ helps set the atmosphere, the cheer squads go through their paces and enthusiasm is high amid the squeak-squeak of sneakers hitting the gym floor during warmups. But within all that activity, all eyes seem to be fixated on the smallest player on the court who still manages to stand the tallest — Qwan Jackson.
BY THE NUMBERS
Any attempts to get the full measure of Qwan Jackson typically begin and end with numbers. Here’s a few:
16 - His age
5’5” - His height
3.2 - His GPA
44.6 - Average points per game this season.
70 - The highest amount of points Qwan has scored in a single game.
2 - The number of times he’s dropped 70 in a game this season.
8 - The amount of starters that have disappeared around Qwan this season due to disciplinary reasons.
53206 - The zip code Qwan lives in, the most violent in the city. More on that later.
QWAN’S GOT GAME
To watch Qwan play is to watch someone moving at a different speed than everyone else around him. The junior point guard zips around the court like a whirling dervish, double- and triple-teamed, a Porsche matched up against a team of Honda Civics. What he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in heart, swagger and determination. He says it’s a game mode he picked up as a kid who wasn’t always the first player selected for pickup games because of his height.
“It’s like speed. I'm faster than a taller defender, I can blow past them, it's so easy,” Jackson says.
Qwan’s skills are undeniable, but do they translate to the next level? His detractors, many on Twitter and prep message boards, argue that he’s playing against inferior competition and running up the score in an unsportsmanlike way against lesser opponents.
But head coach Billy Harris takes umbrage at that suggestion and credits his pick and roll motion system and his philosophy for the lopsided scores.
“I run what the college coaches run, that’s the style of ball that we play,” Harris says. “We’re going to practice hard and play hard in the game for 32 minutes. It’s the only way I know how to play.”
Billy Harris is a basketball lifer. The 54-year-old has spent 31 years in the Milwaukee Public Schools system as a player and a coach, the last three at Wisconsin Learning.
Harris is Exhibit A when it comes to unique coach-player relationships. He played ball at Rust College, a Division 3 school in Mississippi, despite offers to play at bigger programs like Memphis and Arkansas. It was a decision influenced by his own high school coach who also played at the smaller school and wanted to make sure he got into a program where he’d be taken care of and graduate. It provides an important lens to view Harris’ current relationship with Qwan. He’s worked with players like Dwight Buycks , a Bay View High School product who is currently playing professionally overseas and has logged time with the Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors and Los Angeles Lakers in recent years.
He also coached Darrell Riley , a 5-foot-8 North Division product who put up a whopping 37.9 points a game in high school and is currently playing college ball at Detroit Mercy.
That’s the kind of talent he sees in Qwan.
Harris has become more than Qwan’s coach — he’s a mentor who can get emotional when talking about a player that is focused on school and basketball, but also finds time to mentor kids with special needs and go to church on Sundays.
"He's been through tough times. It's just him and his mom battling every day. He's not big on excuses, he just comes to practice every day and says, 'I'm here coach, I'm ready to go to work. Somebody is going to give me chance, I just got to work harder,'" Harris said.
It’s possible that Qwan Jackson easily overcomes adversity on the court because of the challenges he faces every day growing up in one of the most troubled neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Facing down a defender that’s a full foot taller than you is a piece of cake when there’s a good chance someone walking toward you on the street could have a gun.
- GALLERY: Qwan Jackson in Action
Qwan lives in the 53206 zip code, the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods bounded by West Capitol Drive to the north, I-43 to the east, North Avenue to the south and 27th Street to the west. The area ranks near the bottom in a number of categories ranging from unemployment, poverty and crime rates.
It’s an area so infamous that it was depicted in a documentary released last year called Milwaukee 53206. The write-up describing the documentary says the neighborhood “incarcerates the highest percentage of black men in America, up to 62 percent."
Over the years, city leaders have talked about trying to revitalize the area, and there are many residents trying their best to dig out of that despair, but there remain numerous barriers that get in the way of a 16-year-old young man with lofty basketball dreams.
“It ain't easy out here. You don't even have to be the target out here to die. You can be at the wrong place and the wrong time and something can happen to you," Qwan says.
Qwan knows that story all too well and how street justice can backfire and shatter a family.
On Nov. 24, 2017, his older brother, Quintez Patrick, was gunned down while sitting in a car at North 38 and West Viliet streets near a convenience store. Moments before, the two brothers were playing video games together.
"It was feeling like it wasn't true the type of brother he was he was a kind person. That would be the last person that you would think would die so when it happened I was kinda shocked because it wasn't feeling real knowing that he ain’t really coming back home. It hit me seeing my momma lose her son, see my sister lose her big brother,” Qwan says. “He was the oldest so doing what he had to do around the house and responsibilities now that he gone, I’ve got to step up. I’m the man of the house now.”
Even when Qwan is laser-focused on the basketball court, memories of his older brother are never far away. It all comes out when he does a little celebratory dance after a big play in homage to Quintez.
Coach Harris has seen his fair share of challenging life stories in his years as an educator and coach, but Qwan’s unique circumstances have prompted him to take a special role in his life to help minimize the noise.
“Young men today have to separate themselves and maintain a focus. With him being the nation’s leading scorer, a lot of people want to be a part of you," Harris says. "I just teach him he can’t take anything from anybody and he can’t do anything that can affect his career."
MUGGSY BOGUES WEIGHS IN
When you think about basketball players who played bigger than their size, the conversation begins and ends with Muggsy Bogues. At 5-foot-3, Bogues has the distinction of being the shortest basketball player to compete in the NBA, and he did it at a high level for 14 years.
We reached out to Bogues to talk about Qwan, but soon learned that the similarities went beyond just their shared stature on the court. Bogues grew up in a single parent household in a rough-and-tumble housing project in Baltimore. He was injured in a shooting at 5 years old, a situation he describes as being in the “wrong place at the wrong time." And like many kids growing up in trying circumstances, basketball was his salvation.
His advice to Qwan is to tune out his surroundings and channel the adversity in his life into a greater good.
“Negative things that happened in his family life? That’s not his life. The positive things going on his family life? That’s his life,” Bogues says. “He needs to focus on that and hope he has the supporting cast around him to give him that type of luxury to stay focused, that he continue to live out his dreams.”
On the basketball tip, Bogues says Qwan needs to zone in on one area of his game to progress to the next level, and it’s not about dropping 70 points a game.
“We know he can get his shot off. We know he can score. But can he affect this game on the defensive end where we’re not being exposed on that side and being taken advantage of where we have to constantly adjust, and constantly scramble because of his height out there. So that’s where his impact will really start to shine when he can change the game on the defensive side of it," Bogues said.
WHO’S GOT NEXT?
While a Carmen North player shoots free throws, Qwan and his coach huddle on the sidelines. Their conversation is likely about game strategy but the scene is emblematic of a bigger picture and bond.
These two are in it together.
Harris sees a young man that has already handled the worst that life can throw your way and deserves a chance at a better future. And he’s determined that others take notice.
"There’s nothing he’s not capable of handling in the classroom and on the court," Harris says. “There’s no question he belongs at a Division I school. Maybe not a Kentucky or a Duke, but he could go to somewhere like Nebraska. You can’t tell me with a 15-man roster, there’s no way he can’t be on that team and make them better."
Qwan has those dreams as well, but he takes nothing for granted. Coming from where he comes from, he’s still found a place that allows him the luxury to dream. But the long and the short of it is, nothing is guaranteed.
“I want to get a Division I scholarship, I'm going to do whatever to get one,” Qwan says. “If that don't work for me I'm still going to keep grinding ’til something comes to me.”
In other words, go ahead and fixate on Qwan Jackson’s height, he’s used to hearing he’s short. He’s in it for the long game.