The government and the good lord know him as Leonard Jackson.
In the basketball world, he's just Jack.
Neither the man nor the name are well-known to most sports fans in Oklahoma, but go into any gym in the state, and you're bound to find someone who knows Jack.
“If you don't know Jack,” former Oklahoma standout Kermit Holmes said, “shoot, you lost.”
Jack has been coaching elite-level summer basketball teams for more than four decades, first with the Oklahoma City Rams program, now with Athletes First. At one time or another, he's been in the gym with virtually every major-college player who's come through the state's basketball pipeline.
Saturday night, a couple hundred people gathered in Oklahoma City for a surprise party to honor Jack. He didn't hit a milestone. They just figured that after 40-plus years, it was time to say thank you.
Jack never asked for any recognition. That's not why scours gyms all over the state looking for players who deserve a chance. Not why he uses his own money to feed kids playing in tournaments. Not why he drives hundreds of miles to take players to and from practice.
He does it because of the kids.
“That is his life,” his wife, Charlene, said. “He loves it.”
* * *
Jack started coaching in 1968 fresh out of Dunjee High, the historically black school in Oklahoma City. For several years, he coached little league football and baseball, which he eventually gave up.
But when he was 20, he got into basketball.
He never left it.
He eventually joined the Rams, which was the elite youth summer basketball program on the west side of the state for decades. Run by the legendary coach Johnnie Williams, the Rams fielded teams for various age groups.
Jack never coached the older teams, the ones with high school juniors and seniors. He always stuck with the younger squads. He preferred it that way.
Those kids, he believed, were just beginning to realize their potential.
And he was always on the lookout for the next generation of Rams. That meant he went to junior high games. Freshman games. Jayvee games. If Jack thought there might be a player there, he was there.
He became a fixture in gyms in the Oklahoma City metro area. He couldn't go to a game without being recognized.
Nothing has changed since he joined Athletes First a little over a decade ago. Once the high school season starts, he goes to a game almost every night. Add that to his coaching duties once the summer season starts, and that's a lot of basketball.
“He went through three wives,” Charlene said. “It probably would've been four, but I was too old to go anywhere.”
Charlene laughs whenever she's out with her husband. Doesn't matter where they are. Store. Church. Restaurant. Someone will always come say hi to Jack.
One time, she went with him to Las Vegas for a tournament. She usually doesn't go on his basketball trips — that's his time — but she decided that she wanted to go.
“Oh, good,” Charlene thought, “we're finally going somewhere that nobody will know him.”
They checked into their hotel, and from down a hallway, they heard a holler.
It was Darryl Dawkins, the former NBA dunk master who now coaches youth teams in New Jersey.
Holmes, who played for Jack and is now an assistant at Lamar, runs into other college coaches on the recruiting trail who know Jack.
“I consider him one of the patriarchs,” Holmes said. “He's a legend around there.”
* * *
Holmes remembers when he first met Jack. He was in high school at the time playing summer ball for the Tulsa Hawks. The Hawks were the elite program on the east side of the state while the Oklahoma City Rams were the elite squad on the west side.
The teams faced off in the state AAU finals, and despite a big game from Holmes, the Hawks lost to the Rams.
Holmes was furious.
He went to the water fountain, and sitting nearby were two men, one of which hollered out to him.
“Hey, Holmes,” the man said, “are you going to come play for the Rams after we beat y'all this next game?”
“I ain't comin' and playin' with the Rams.”
A week later, Holmes was on a bus from his home in Okmulgee to Oklahoma City to start playing for the Rams. He'd talked with the Rams' coaches a couple days after the state tournament and decided to switch squads.
At Holmes' first practice with the Rams, the man who'd been by the water fountain was there.
It was Jack.
“Holmes,” he hollered, “I told you you was gonna come play with the Rams.”
Holmes soon found out what every other player knew about Jack — he would do anything for them.
Need a ride? Need a burger? Need a pat on the back or a kick in the backside?
Jack will do whatever he can to help.
“He really cares about us,” said former Edmond Santa Fe star Josh Richardson, who played a year for Jack in Athletes First and is now a junior guard at Tennessee. “You can tell by the way he handles himself.”
Now, don't misunderstand — Jack isn't some softy. He's old school and brutally honest. If a kid isn't in shape, he'll tell him. If a kid isn't tough enough or needs to work on his game, Jack won't hold back.
But even with today's generation of players, Jack's style resonates.
“I feel like he cares more about us than a lot of other coaches would,” Richardson said.
Richardson was on an Athletes First team a few summers ago with James Woodard. It was the first time Woodard had played on an elite travel team.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “To be able to play and compete with the best players, the elite players all across the nation was a blessing to me.
“I believe that Coach Jack, he gave me my first steps to exposure on the national level.”
He became the Big All-City Player of the Year at Edmond Memorial High and is now a sophomore guard at Tulsa.
Woodard had to put in the work to get to that college level, spending time in the gym and refining his skills, but getting into Athletes First gave him a chance to test himself against other top players and showcase himself to college coaches.
“He gave me a big opportunity,” Woodard said. “I'm thankful for him.”
* * *
Jack has former players who've reached every height of basketball. Some have played big-time college ball, a few even made it to the pros. Many are coaching.
But Jack doesn't measure successes by how many are making NBA riches or drawing basketball paychecks.
His goals are smaller yet grander.
“If I can save one kid from the streets,” he once told Charlene, “I'll have felt my work wasn't in vain.”
Basketball may not last a lifetime, but to some, it is a lifeline.
Jack threw it to hundreds of boys.
“As long as I've known him, I've never know him to take any credit for it,” Holmes said. “This is what he loves to do. It's a passion. (But) he's touched so many kids.”
So, some of those players gathered to say thank you Saturday night. There were smiles. There were laughs. There were hugs.
All for Jack.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.