Sunday, May 13, 2001

Jackson, Orr together again

Basketball reunites friends at Seton Hall

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        George Jackson had just learned the day before that he hadn't gotten the basketball head coaching job at Ohio University.

        It had been a long day, a day full of bad news, and he was sleeping it off — soundly — when the phone rang.

        It was the Friday morning of NCAA Final Four weekend.

        The thought that the telephone was actually ringing had barely registered in the mind of the Withrow High basketball coach when a smile crossed his face. He couldn't explain it, because he didn't even know who was on the other end of the line.


        “Big Jack?”

        “Yeah, Louis, how ya' doin'?”

        “Good, Big Jack. Sorry to be calling so early. Listen, I don't know this for sure yet, but I've got some things in the mix, and I might have a shot at the Seton Hall job. If I do, you've got a spot if you want it.”


        George Jackson, 45, who had coached Withrow to two state Final Fours and possessed a glittering 311-146 record, knew at this moment his life might be about to change. He is a renowned shaper of young men, many of them college scholarship winners, some of othem pros. He had accomplished this in a dark, drafty, leaky gym not large enough to host games.

        The “Louis” on the other end of the line was Louis Orr, 43, with whom Jackson had been friends since their days at Madison Elementary, where principal Major McNeil would become a major influence in Jackson's life. Jackson and Orr played ball together on intramural teams at Gray Y, and later at Lyons Junior High for legendary coach Walter Allen. Jackson will never forget the game at St. Rita School for the Deaf when he and his teammates thought their opponents were unable to speak — until one of them yelled out, clear as a bell: “Time out!” Louis about keeled over. In the same game, Louis hit his knee on the hard-tile floor and a wristband was borrowed from a bench player — so that stringbean Louis could use it as a kneepad.

        “Skinny” and “Fat” is how the people of Madisonville referred to Orr and Jackson. Along with Steve Bell, they honed their game at Stewart Park, sometimes shoveling snow off the court. Even when Jackson left for Wittenberg and Orr for Syracuse, they stayed in touch. When Jackson was a junior, he invited his teammates over to watch Syracuse and freshman Louis Orr on TV in an NCAA Tournament game at Tennessee. Jackson predicted Orr would spoil the Ernie & Bernie show (Grunfeld & Clark), and Orr did. Jackson walked around campus with his chest puffed out for two days after that.

        You want close? When Orr had wrapped up his NBA career and had gone off to play ball in Italy, he left his white Mercedes with Jackson.

        Jackson was the first person Orr called when he returned to town, after leaving his Italian team in the middle of the night, in the middle of the season, paychecks yet to be received. Jackson knew something was up when he got that phone call, because there was no two-second delay this time in their trans-Atlantic conversation.

        Orr knew his playing days in Italy were over when, after a particularly stellar night (he had a triple-double), an Italian reporter asked him: "When are we going to see the real Louis Orr?”

        It was Jackson who helped persuade Orr to leave his insurance job in Cincinnati to take a volunteer job at Xavier University with Pete Gillen in 1990, then to leave with Gillen to go to Providence, then to take the assistant's job at Syracuse, then the head coaching job at Siena.

        It was Orr who convinced Jackson to stay the course during the early, lean years as Withrow's head coach, instilling discipline and an academic code and cross-country running, even as his best players quit the team. Later, when Orr had returned to town, he stopped by Withrow's practices whenever he could, suggested things.

        Jackson and Orr were inducted into the Withrow High School Hall of Fame in 1994, an emotional night for both.

        Everybody in town knew Withrow was about to lose its head coach when Jackson was quoted upon his family's return from a Seton Hall visit (to see the campus and meet with Orr and Seton Hall athletic director Jeff Fogelson and the other coaches) that “we laughed like we haven't laughed in a long time.”

        No, George Jackson didn't know when the phone rang on that Friday morning of the Final Four weekend that his life was about to change forever. He certainly didn't know that the campus of Seton Hall in East Orange, N.J., is located 20 miles from the corporate headquarters of the pharmaceutical company for which his wife, Melanie, works. He had no reason to know that West Orange High School is one of the top two academic high schools in the state, and that it has a girls golf team. Stephanie Jackson is an honor roll student and a golfer.

        Big Jack didn't know any of that. He just knew he was smiling, and he hadn't even picked up the phone.


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