Greg “Jocko” Jackson, who died of an apparent heart attack earlier this week, was a towering figure in Brownsville and not just because of his stature. The 6-foot-tall former basketball player, who managed the Brownsville Recreation Center, made such an impact on this community that some considered him the unofficial mayor of Brownsville.
Since 1997, Jackson helped to turn around this once battered low-cost facility into a beacon of light in the midst of one of New York City’s most crime-infested areas.
Jackson, 60, played for the Phoenix Suns and the NY Knicks from 1974-1975, but soon realized that his true passion was to help people back on his home-court in Brownsville. “I actually quit,” he told The Brooklyn Ink last March. “I was built for what I do now, to help.”
And from the reaction of the community to his sudden death, it’s clear that he did just that. Mourners throughout the day on Thursday left their condolences and remembrances under a smiling photograph of Jackson on a large sheet of paper that covered one of the center’s brick walls.
“He was just one of the best, pure-hearted human beings I ever met in my life,” said Andre Bellinger, 51, a senior volunteer at the center, who has known Jackson for over 30 years. He credits Jackson with helping him to become a better person.
“He taught me how to be a professional with everything. He taught me how to get along with people. He taught me how to be family-oriented,” he said, still shaken by the news of his mentor’s death. He had just seen Jackson the night before, he said, and they’d been laughing and talking.
Since Jackson grew up in Brownsville surrounded by drugs and crime, he understood why its image was so troubled. But he was determined to use his center as a catalyst for change. He helped to instill pride throughout the center by sprucing up the grim décor with vibrant colored murals painted on the walls and displaying posters of influential figures throughout the facility. And the center soon became a haven for many in the community, because it offered various sports activities, afterschool programs, and a workout facility.
Jackson, was soft-spoken and had a calm demeanor, but he demanded that anyone who attended the center would have to demonstrate respect for themselves and for others. “All that cursing, all that arguing. In here, you can’t do that stuff,” he told The Brooklyn Ink in March, shaking his head.
The center—and Jackson— became such a positive influence on the community that Jackson became a prominent figure with connections to many of the area’s politicians, including Congressman Ed Towns (D-10th District).
Jackson often said that he owed his second chance in life to Congressman Towns, his basketball coach when he was in high school. Senator Towns, Jackson told The Brooklyn Ink, was appalled that the school’s guidance counselor advised Jackson to drop out of school in 1967. The congressman interceded, Jackson said in March, reviewed Jackson’s grades and with the permission of Jackson’s mother sent the teen to live with his parents in Chadburn, North Carolina to finish high school. Jackson excelled academically and went on to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. and then was drafted to the NBA in 1974. In March, Jackson said he owed Towns for saving his life and encouraging him to help others.
Congressman Towns spoke fondly of Jackson and says that he was truly a member of his family. “My mother adored him,” Towns said in a phone interview. “His death was a big loss for our family.”
Congressman Towns said that Jackson’s death will create a void in the entire borough of Brooklyn because he helped so many people by inspiring them to go to college and helping them find the resources they needed. “ He will be greatly missed because of his way of encouraging people,” he said.
Those he helped, like Andre Bellinger, are still in shock and in mourning about the loss of their beloved leader. But they are determined to continue his legacy.
“Everything is going to go on like he was out there right now. Basically, it’s like he’s on vacation. We’re still going to carry on,” said Bellinger.
Greg Jackson leaves behind his wife, Carmen, and his nine children.
A public memorial will be held on Monday, May 7 – Tabernacle Baptist Church, 580 Sackman Avenue, 3-8 p.m.; The public funeral will take place on Tuesday, May 8 – Christian Cultural Center, 12020 Flatlands Avenue, 9 a.m. to noon
Another story about Jackson by the Brooklyn Ink: “Jocko” Keeps a Hoops Tradition Going in Brownsville (August 2011)