KCJ

Tribune reporter K.C. Johnson is sandwiched between aspiring professional basketball players during an NBA pre-draft camp game in Arlington, Texas. (Photo for the Tribune by Brian Harkin / July 28, 2007)

The magazine is in mint condition, and Jerome Jackson carries it almost everywhere.

The white lettering and red trim make the date jump off the cover: August 15, 1994. That's the year Time magazine profiled Lake Providence, La., painstakingly poring over poverty's effects on the town of 5,000 Jackson once called home.The issue accompanied Jackson as he first landed a basketball scholarship to a junior college in Missouri, which he parlayed into a two-year ride playing alongside former Bull Trenton Hassell at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn.

Jackson, 31, has carried his motivational magazine to so many professional tryout camps that he might lose count if the stakes weren't so high.

"This is No. 25," Jackson says on the eve of last weekend's first NBA Development League predraft camp at the University of Texas-Arlington.

"It's to the point now where it's not even about me making it anymore. It's just everything I do, word gets back home and people know that I'm at least still trying. That's what I'm trying to relate to the community -- at least keep trying. Even if it takes you 25 times, the 26th time may be the one you need. You never know.

"A lot of kids in my hometown try something one time and they give up if it doesn't go their way. I just went home for the 4th of July and kids asked me, 'Are you going to camp this year?' Even though I know my age is a factor, as long as they keep pushing me, I'm going to keep trying until I just can't do it anymore. If I can inspire anybody, that's my dream."

Dreams, of course, come in all shapes and sizes.

That truism was on full display as 200 players of various talent levels descended upon this town's college campus to play four games in two days under the eyes of D-League coaches and officials.

Their goal was a D-League contract that would pay $12,000 to $24,000 depending on draft status. The NBA and D-League invited the Tribune for a behind-the-scenes, participatory look.

Friday, 9 p.m.

My wife pushed me over the edge.

As I weighed the options -- weekend at home with our 17-month-old son or surely a torn ACL in Texas -- she suggested the opportunity would be "fun" and "once in a lifetime." Of course, she's four months pregnant, so hormones have robbed her brain of any logical thought.

Still, the chance to peek behind the curtain, to play (or get dunked on) with youthful Division I players, to follow George Plimpton's classic lead, pulled too strong.

I was the oldest camper by seven years, so I called my college coach, Bill Knapton, for advice. Knapton spent 40 seasons at Division III Beloit College. After he stopped laughing, he said, "Stop and shoot the jumper. If you drive, your layup will be blocked."

Perhaps that's why I smiled knowingly when my D-League coach, Jaren Jackson, gathered his 10 players for our first team meeting at the camp hotel, pointed at me and asked if I was "a pick-and-pop guy."

My teammates clutched their official uniforms like gold. Jaren Jackson, the ex-Georgetown star and 12-year NBA veteran, drew simple offensive sets with black marker on a white sheet of paper.

Afterward, Arnold Dillworth, a crafty point guard from Tacoma, Wash., burned his nervous energy by inviting everyone to his room for "bonding." Jaren Jackson emphasized rest. A noon tip on Saturday beckoned.

Saturday, 8 a.m.

Long before his first game, Chris Blackman picks at his oatmeal and sausage and studies plays.