Unlike some high-profile athletes at other Division I schools, Penn athletes are almost never stopped for selfies on campus. Or at least they weren't until walking skyscraper Mark Jackson showed up.
“I basically can’t go out without people staring at me,” Jackson said. “I get asked for pictures at least once a day. It happens all the time. The number of photos of me out there… so many.
Unlike those photo-magnets at a school like Duke or UCLA, Jackson’s apparent fame has nothing to do with anything he’s done on the court. After all, the basketball season won’t start for another few days.
No, Jackson isn’t recognized on Locust Walk — he’s gawked at.
It turns out that the insanely tall guy you stared at the other day saw you looking, and for the record, he wants you to know that he’s 7-foot-3.
If nothing else, Jackson is tall. Extremely, incredibly, ridiculously tall. He’s the tallest basketball player in the Ivy League by four inches. He’s a full 15 inches taller than his shortest teammates. Sophomore guard Devon Goodman could stretch on his tiptoes and Jackson would still be a full foot taller. Jackson is under no illusions — when you’re generally the tallest in a room by about a foot you’re probably going to develop a sense of humor about it.
“Airplanes are pretty hard. I have to duck under doorways,” Jackson said, laughing. “At least I can always reach things on the top shelf.”
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While Jackson’s height gets him his relative fame, it’s not even the most interesting thing about the freshman. Jackson has had perhaps the most interesting path to Penn of any student-athlete. It was also the longest.
Jackson committed to Penn in his senior year of high school all the way back in 2015. From the start of the recruitment process, coach Steve Donahue and his recruit had an understanding — Jackson would commit and apply to Penn in 2015, but defer attendance until 2017. In the meantime, the Salt Lake City native would go to Paris for his Mormon mission.
“We knew he was going to go on a Mormon mission, so that went into the evaluation. I saw a really big kid that knows how to play. He plays hard and has good hands. Everything else was a work in progress. Now there’s a lot of big kids and a lot of people roll the dice on kids, but Mark to me kind of separated himself with those things,” Donahue said.
Both Donahue and Jackson suggested that the two-year gap would be beneficial for Jackson. Instead of getting a raw 18-year-old just growing into his body, Penn would get a stronger, more mature 21-year-old.
“I just kind of knew that was something I wanted to do,” Jackson said. “[The coaches] were very ok with that, they thought it would give me more time for my body to develop.”
Over the last two years, Jackson has indeed grown. When he left high school for Paris two and a half years ago, the giant was about thirty pounds lighter than his current frame.
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Jackson would tell you that the more important growth for him has been spiritual. The goal of the Mormon mission is for Mormon young adults to travel and study abroad. To hear Jackson tell it, the point of the trip is to learn how to serve others less fortunate that yourself. In Paris, this meant visiting with refugees fleeing from wars in Syria and elsewhere, growing closer to God, and more immediately, learning French.
“Basically, we’re volunteers for our church. We work with people that are interested in learning more about Mormons; what we are and what we do. We do a lot of service,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty crazy just being over there and meeting people. When I went over, I didn’t speak French. I just like went over and kind of learned the language and learned what it’s like to live in France.”
One of the biggest takeaways for Jackson was the relationships he made in Paris. Jackson is an outgoing guy – to a certain extent, he’s had to be. Part of Jackson’s job as a missionary was to talk to complete strangers in a foreign language about religion, which can often be a touchy subject. None of those difficulties stopped Jackson from making lasting relationships with both his colleagues and with those he served. He still talks to some of them regularly.
“A lot of my time was spent working with people from the Congo, Nigeria, a lot of African refugees and Syrian refugees," Jackson said. “Just helping them find a place in France, set their lives up and get them going. We did a lot of different things, day-to-day it changed a lot.
“We just did service the entire day. When you are 100 percent focused on other people, it’s pretty eye-opening; it teaches you a lot about what’s important in life. Working with refugees just seeing how hard their lives have been, just to see all the difficulties they went through… it makes you think about how blessed you are.”
The perception of Mormonism is not lost on Jackson. He explained that while some slight cultural differences may exist between him and non-Mormons at Penn, the differences aren’t any larger than those between other religious groups on campus.
“So all-in-all I think Mormons are viewed as being kind of like weird and bizarre. There are a lot of rumors going on that are weird. Generally, we’re just pretty normal,” he said. “Nothing is different between me and the other guys on the team. On a day-to-day basis, we’re just focused on being good people.”
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Life as a missionary is a huge departure from what most on Penn’s campus are used to. The Mormon church imposes a strict set of rules and regulations that govern everything from the schedule missionaries must follow, to the music they listen to and their internet access. The goal of these rules is to preserve the focus on service and eliminate personal distractions.
“Basically, we had an hour every morning to work out. I would do pushups, sit-ups, go run, stuff like that. There weren’t a lot of courts or places we could play, and we didn’t really have the time.” Jackson said. “In the last four months, I was put in a place near a basketball court. Every morning we’d wake up at like six and take a bus to the basketball court. I’d work out, go home, shower, prepare really quickly for the day and then go out and be doing things.”
Jackson is one of the only Division I athletes that hasn’t played their sport competitively for the last two years. He admits that after playing only a few games of pickup ball against French kids he called “not great,” his feel for the game is rusty.
“Coming back and trying to get back in the swing of things has been frustrating. I’m not where I was at before [in high school] in terms of tendencies and being able to know what to do quickly.”
Jackson understands that as he shakes of the rust his freshman year, he’s not likely to see much of the floor.
“I think everyone on the team is just doing everything we can personally and as a group to make sure that were succeeding as a team. If that’s sitting on the bench the entire year, working hard in practice, or if we're out there on the court playing the entire game. We all know that the goal is to win.”
Donahue thinks Jackson improving his conditioning could result in his becoming an impact contributor for the Quakers.
“He plays hard. The two-year advantage of letting his body catch up to that and it has. He’s probably got to gain another 30 pounds of strength. If he can chip away at that and become a well-conditioned kid with all those other attributes… It could happen in six months, a year, a year and a half, two years, I think it’s going to happen,” Donahue said.
If Donahue is right, Penn basketball fans will be looking at a 24-year-old 7'3" giant, with the strength and ability to match. Even if it takes Jackson a few years to shake off the rust and fill out his frame, the potential is there for Ivy League domination.
Maybe in a few years, people will be asking for autographs, not just selfies.
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