April 30, 2012
Dave Feitl had a lot to look forward to on May 2, 1987.
With his rookie year in the NBA winding down, Feitl's Houston Rockets were set to open the Western Conference Semifinals at home against the Seattle Supersonics. The Rockets had fostered a 42-40 record during the regular season, but were riding a wave of momentum after upsetting third seed Portland, 3-1 in the first round.
Feitl also eagerly awaited a visit from his former college teammate, Hernell "Jeep" Jackson. Feitl and Jackson had played together for three seasons at UTEP (1983-86), and Jackson was about to embark on a pro career of his own.
The Carson, Calif. native had recently been chosen by the Philadelphia Aces in the United States Basketball League draft. But after a breakout senior year with the Miners - supplying the heart and soul for a 25-7 team - Jackson was getting looks from the big boys.
"Bill Fitch, the coach of the Rockets, had talked to me the previous week about Jeep," Feitl said. "They were thinking about drafting him, because they had aging point guards at the time. The Rockets ownership really liked the way Jeep played, and they were asking me about his character.
"Jeep was going to be flying down to see me in Houston that weekend."
But Jackson never made it.
On May 2, he was scheduled to play in a benefit basketball game at Fort Bliss Logan Heights Fitness Center with two other ex-Miners and four members of the NFL's Houston Oilers.
In the opening minutes of the game, he was the same old Jeep, bringing his infectious smile and spirit to both ends of the floor. Then something terrible happened.
Jackson sat down on the bench at approximately 2:55 p.m., then collapsed. An ambulance arrived shortly after, and paramedics tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him. Jackson was taken to Beaumont Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 4:09 p.m.
"As I was getting home, the phone rang, and someone from El Paso told me that Jeep had died," Feitl said. "Then I checked the messages on my answering machine, and there was a message from Jeep. He said `Hey big boy, I'm coming down to Houston ... come get me. I'm looking forward to seeing you.'
"It was eerie and sad at the same time."
It was also impossible to believe, how someone with so much energy, enthusiasm and vitality could be gone at age 23.
Coach Don Haskins was so devastated by Jackson's passing that he couldn't summon the courage to notify his parents. Instead, he asked his former assistant coach, Tim Floyd, to deliver the horrible news.
Floyd had just completed his first year as the head coach at Idaho.
"It's still one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do," Floyd said of the phone call he made to Vivian Jackson.
"Coach Haskins asked me to call her because he couldn't reach down deep enough to find it in him. He was so upset about the loss of Jeep."
Weeks later, autopsy reports showed that birth defects in his heart caused Jackson's death. The abnormalities had gone undetected while Jackson was playing 2,862 minutes in 124 games for the Miners over four seasons.
The Miners posted a 101-27 record in those four years, part of an unprecedented run to seven straight NCAA Tournaments. They won the Western Athletic Conference regular season title every year with Jackson on the roster.
Jackson raised his scoring average from 1.9 points as a freshman to 5.1 as a sophomore, 7.5 as a junior and 12.9 as a senior. He collected 313 assists and 165 steals in his UTEP career, numbers that rank seventh and fourth in the Miner record book to this day.
Statistics, however, only begin to tell the story of Jackson's contributions to UTEP basketball.
"He was the epitome of what coach Don Haskins was all about," said Tim Hardaway, who played two seasons with Jackson (1985-87). "He was a hard worker. He went out there and led by example, and taught you what coach was trying to say.
"He was a beautiful human being. He wanted everybody to excel. He never had any arguments with anyone. He was just an easy-going, lovable person."
"He was more of a friend than anything - a guy you could count on, on and off the court," said Mike Richmond, Jackson's teammate for three years (1984-87). "He was just someone who loved people. He loved putting a smile on everybody's faces. He just loved to have fun."
Jackson always found the appropriate balance between playing, practicing, studying and having a good time.
"He was the hardest and most disciplined worker when it came to playing basketball and partying," said Wayne Campbell, a Miner from 1982-88. "Nobody was going to party harder than Jeep. There were times where we'd break curfew and be out partying until three or four in the morning, knowing we had practice at the crack of dawn. But who would be the guy to get us out of bed the next morning? We needed Jeep to pull that off. And we were never late for practice."
After earning limited playing time as a freshman, Jackson began to assert himself as a sophomore during the 1984-85 season. He backed up Luster Goodwin at point guard and also saw extensive minutes at off-guard. He scored 15 points in UTEP's 87-81 win over San Diego State in El Paso. The Miners and the Aztecs tied for first place in the WAC standings that year with 13-5 records.
As a junior in 1985-86, Jackson dished out a career-high 115 assists, while serving as a mentor to the freshman Hardaway.
"Tim wouldn't have had the ambition to take his game to the next level without Jeep forcing him to work on his game after practice," Campbell said. "That's not an easy task when you have a three-hour practice, and coach Haskins ran all of the energy out of us.
"That's just the kind of character that Jeep had. He was our starting point guard. He was helping the guy that wanted his job. Now who does that?"
Jackson added 108 assists as a senior, while tying for team-high scoring honors. He scored a total of 39 points in his last two college games, both in the NCAA Tournament - a 98-91 overtime win over Arizona (23 points) and an 84-82 loss to Iowa (16 points), both in Tucson. Jackson recorded five steals, a UTEP NCAA Tournament record, versus the Hawkeyes.
"He was definitely going to be a first or second round draft pick. That's the game he had," Richmond said. "He loved the game of basketball, and loved playing for the Miner fans more than anything."
"I think he would've made a hell of a pro," Feitl said. "I played with Kenny Smith and Tim Hardaway, and Jeep had the right combination of athletic ability and being coachable."
"He had tremendous heart, tremendous swagger and tremendous confidence," Floyd said. "He had a great smile and he was a great, great player. He was the guard that we really needed to affect winning. We had great bigs, great twos and great threes prior to his arrival. But we always came up a little bit short. It's not coincidental that after Jeep arrived, the string of conference championships and NCAA Tournament teams began."
Jackson touched Campbell's life to such a great extent that he named his son Landon Hernell Campbell.
"He will always be a part of my life, no matter what," Campbell said. "I'm fortunate that I was able to spend four years with him."
"I seems incredible that it has been 25 years," Floyd said. "You remember his giant personality like it was yesterday. His spirit and enthusiasm really rubbed off on our crowds. He was such a hustler and such a winner. He made it easy for our fans to stand up and cheer."
While his former teammates and coaches remember Jeep a quarter-century after his passing, Richmond imagined a future where he was still here.
"I think he would have done a lot of basketball camps and clinics in El Paso," he said. "He would have been involved with a lot of stuff. You would have seen a lot more ex-players coming back. We probably would've been around coach Haskins a lot more [before his death in 2008]. I can see Jeep on the phone now saying `Yo, let's go.'
"He would've been an even bigger cat now than he was back then."