When Jeremy Jackson boarded a flight at Portland International Jetport in late December, he couldn’t help but feel excited to get back to the place he hadn’t been since the first week in August: home.

The 6’5″ LaPlace, LA native and senior forward on University of Southern Maine’s men’s basketball team got word of an early Christmas present he’d be receiving when he found out he and his teammates would be traveling to New Orleans for a holiday tournament called the Big Easy Challenge, where both his and his fiance’s families were able to watch him play live for the first time as a Husky.

“I was pretty excited to eat some Cajun food and feel some sunshine, but even more thrilled to see my family,” Jackson said. “We visited, ate, had fun; it felt great.”

In fact, it was a feel-good trip for the entire team. The Huskies ventured to the Upper Ninth Ward area of New Orleans during their downtime and put on a clinic for youth players, many whose homes and neighborhoods still showed the effects of Hurricane Katrina nearly seven years later.

It was an eye-opening experience that USM Head Coach Karl Henrickson said he felt was just as important as the basketball games his team traveled to the Big Easy to play.

“Culturally, it was a great experience,” Henrickson said. “All the players from Maine on our team had never been there, and I had never been there either, so it was really good for us to see another culture, especially one in which a player of ours is from.”

The Upper Ninth Ward — which along with the Lower Ninth Ward, make up the largest of the city’s 17 wards, and is known for its Habitat for Humanity Musicians’ Village — was among one of the many areas of the city hit hard by Katrina.

Although the residents of this area are still effected by Katrina in one way or another, something special happened during the Huskies’ visit there. While the team was teaching youth players to dribble, shoot and pass on one of the Upper Ninth Ward’s outdoor courts, more and more kids started coming out of their houses to play with the team — a telling illustration of the community togetherness they share.

“There was still so much devastation everywhere, and here are these 10-year-old kids having the time of their lives playing with college basketball players. It was a striking experience,” Henrickson said.

Jackson was living with his family in LaPlace — 29 miles northwest of New Orleans on Lake Pontchartrain — when Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005. Fortunately, no one in his family was affected physically by the Hurricane, but he did lose power and water for two weeks, and his fiance’s family had to flee to Texas because of the damage to the area they’re from.

He may not have lost much to Katrina, but Jackson — who is leading the team in scoring and rebounding with 13.6 PPG and 9.1 rebounds per game, and poured in a game-high 25 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in an 85-84 win over Western Conn. State Saturday — is still proud of where he came from and relished the opportunity to show his teammates his hometown culture.

The Alario Center, located 35 miles southeast of LaPlace, is where USM played its two games and where Jackson played many of his AAU games with the Louisiana (LA) Thrillers. It also serves as a practice facility for the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets.

He was able to show them around New Orleans and bring them to a seafood restaurant that featured boiled shrimp with local Cajun flavors.

“Cajun food is some of the best food in the country, and I was happy to show my teammates what it was all about,” Jackson said.

The team was presented with a special treat when Jackson’s fiance’s family prepared an entire meal of jambalaya, red beans and rice, and other traditional Cajun dishes. They were able to eat it on the balcony overlooking the pool and tennis courts of their hotel, which sat beside the iconic Mississippi River.

The culture, combined with Jackson’s homecoming and the team’s opportunity to help a devastated community in some way, even if it was small, were all things that went into deciding the Huskies’ holiday tournament destination.

“I feel these trips are a very important part of the education of a student-athlete, and it was a great opportunity for Jeremy to play in front of his family and be able to share his home with the rest of the team,” Henrickson said.

Since arriving at USM in the winter of 2009 from William Carey University (an NAIA school in Hattiesburg, Miss.), Jackson has provided the Huskies with more than just points and rebounds. He’s done what Henrickson described as “set the standard.”

“He’s someone who plays extremely hard and is extremely coachable,” Henrickson said. “There’s obviously a period of transition when any student comes to Maine from Mississippi, but with the character and respect he has for others, he was accepted very quickly here. He really cares about the people around him and that devotion is inspirational.”

Although USM lost both of its games to Clarke University (Mass.) and Birmingham Southern, Jackson — who plans to be playing professional basketball next year, whether it be overseas or in the states — played well in front of his hometown crowd, and the Huskies’ took something more than just wins a losses from their trip.

“The purpose of our trip was to do something different, and we definitely did it,” Henrickson said. “On the ride back from the clinic, the team was very quiet, looking out the windows at the houses and neighborhoods of the Ninth Ward still damaged from Katrina — a very special moment.”

They were all at Jackson’s home.


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