TOMBALL, Texas — Justin Jackson focused his hypnotic gaze at the hoop while the tip of his tongue peeked out of the left corner of his mouth. Only Jackson knew whether he was having fun, but that he was there to work was undeniable.
The 6-foot-8, 200-pound senior forward stood on his fenced-in, 50×60-foot backyard court and maintained a poker-faced expression. He caught passes from a moving target: the Shoot-A-Way Gun 8000, which ejected one basketball after another until Jackson attempted 250 shots. He typically aims for 500, but his daily naptime calls at 11:30 on this particular Monday morning since he has been awake since 4 a.m.
Jackson is one of the top high school basketball players in the country, ranked No. 10 by Rivals in the 2014 class, and recently signed with North Carolina. But what sets Jackson apart from other elite prep basketball players is his daily routine as a homeschooled athlete.
“It’s tough,” Jackson said. “I just try to fit everything in. You’re sort of on your own schedule, like a college schedule. It’s not for everyone, but I really enjoy it.”
A homeschooled student since the fourth grade, Jackson has seen demands on his time soar the past two years. These days he wakes before sunrise and joins his family on a 30-mile drive to Lutheran North in Houston for basketball practice.
Inside the auxiliary gym, Jackson greeted his teammates, members of the Homeschool Christian Youth Association (HCYA), one of the largest and oldest organizations in support of homeschool students in the country. Every season players pay $600, which goes toward the rental space for practice, tournament fees and equipment.
For the third year, Jackson captains the varsity team, considered one of the most dominant private programs in Texas, currently ranked No. 2 among Christian homeschool basketball teams nationally.
Although the team practices only twice a week for two hours a session, the solidarity and brotherhood between players is firm. Jackson is the team’s nucleus. Once a quiet leader who rarely expressed his opinion out of fear of creating conflict, he has matured into his role as captain and is now just as confident in offering constructive criticism as he is complimenting his teammates.
“He is always directing us on the court, telling us what we can do better,” said Jacobi Gordon, a 6-foot-6 freshman shooting guard, who joined HCYA after watching Jackson play last season. Gordon was impressed by Jackson’s will to win and by how much he involved his teammates. “I knew it would be a better opportunity [to play with him].”
Unbeknownst to Gordon – and perhaps many others – the agile, smooth and assured player is drastically different these days. Jackson ducked from the ball back in elementary school. He eventually developed his love for the game when his family lived in Cincinnati, where he’d often practice solo in the snow.
That is, only after he abided by the family rule: work before play. Basketball provided motivation to do well in school. Not that Jackson needed convincing. His mother, Sharon, described his approach to learning as innately diligent and focused, as evidenced by his 4.0 GPA throughout his academic career.
“School always comes first,” said Jackson, who often does homework during the commute to basketball practice. “My teammates know that I take school work pretty seriously. If they need help, they usually come to me.”
Growing up, Jackson was advanced for his class. He received extra assignments on the side, but his workload still proved unchallenging enough that he had leisure time to color in class. Beginning in fourth grade, Jackson’s parents decided to take a different approach to his education by homeschooling him.
His parents still wanted Jackson to have an opportunity to play organized basketball, which he did for the Cincinnati Trailblazers, a homeschool team. At the time, the program only offered a 14-and-under team, but the gangly Jackson was welcomed on the roster at age 10. By mid-season, he earned a starting spot on the junior varsity team.
When his family relocated to Texas, Jackson temporarily transitioned to private school at Northland Christian for sixth grade. But three-quarters into the year, Jackson wanted to be homeschooled again.
“He never articulated why,” Jackson’s mom said. “Being homeschooled is part of him. It’s who he is.”
Aware of the stigmas associated with being a homeschooled athlete, Jackson dispels what he feels are big misconceptions.
“People think we can practice all day, everyday,” he said. “It sort of makes me angry. My schedule sometimes gets so busy with school that I can’t get a workout in everyday.”
That’s because when he’s not preparing for speech class – as part of a co-op he takes along with approximately a dozen homeschooled students at a nearby church – he’s completing assignments for his sociology and biology courses, both of which Jackson takes for dual credit at Lone Star, a Houston-area community college.
Academics aside, Jackson said another misconception about homeschooled athletes is that they don’t face elite competition. The Warriors’ recent nationally televised game against Trinity (Euless, Texas), as part of the GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase, proves otherwise. The game featured top unsigned 6-foot-11 senior center Myles Turner. And in attendance to watch Turner: Kentucky coach John Calipari and assistants from Texas and Duke.
Jackson’s team has also traveled to Springfield, Mo., for the annual National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championships, which attracted 338 elementary, junior and high school teams. HCYA lost the national title to Allonzo Trier’s Oklahoma City Storm. Trier, one of the top point guards in the 2015 class, has since enrolled at Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.).
Jackson, twice named to the National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championship All-America first team, was selected to the USA Basketball 16U team. Alongside Jabari Parker, now a freshman at Duke, and Blue Devils signee Tyus Jones, he helped the team win gold at the FIBA Americas 16U Championship in Cancun, Mexico.
“He’s a very tough, hard-nosed defender,” said Callaway (Jackson, Miss.) guard Malik Newman, the No. 1 rated player in the 2015 class. “He has the ability to run a team and get to a basket. He’s like a Ron Artest-type, and he’s only going to get better because of his work ethic.”
That Jackson is homeschooled hasn’t been a disadvantage on the recruiting circuit. As an eighth grader, Jackson drew interest from Washington. When he entered high school, he received attention from more than two dozen programs, including Ohio State, Arizona and North Carolina.
“He took pride in the fact that he was homeschooled and was being recruited,” Jackson’s mom said.
His parents have taken extreme caution to ensure Jackson will be eligible for collegiate play, going so far as to file away all of his assignments-organized by grade and stored in Tupperware in the garage-in addition to connecting with college coaches to verify that his course load is on track.
As much as Jackson’s parents have been involved in his education and athletic upbringing, Jackson is essentially self-sufficient and responsible for managing his time, from school to basketball to family to church.
“The big thing for me is to show that you can be a big-time athlete and still live for Christ,” Jackson said. “If I have the opportunity to make it to the pros and be on that type of platform, I want to show people how a Christian acts and lead by example.
“I’m blessed to get a scholarship to play in college, and I have dreams to make it even higher.”