FIVE YEARS LATER, SHE FEELS THE GROWING GAINS : Aztecs’ Jackson Now Has Time for a Little Basketball

Angelica Jackson did not go home for Christmas last year. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to visit her family in East St. Louis, Ill., she just didn’t have to.

Five years ago, after she graduated from high school and left East St. Louis for San Diego State, the excitement of heading into a new world quickly paled.

It gave way to the fear of being without the support of her family, the anxiety of learning to live in a world that was so much different than the one she knew and the frustration from the realization that she was not Angelica Jackson, high school All-American, but Angelica Jackson, college freshman.

But five years is a long time--long enough for a self-professed “daddy’s girl” to grow up.


Jackson bloomed in her final season of volleyball at San Diego State and again became Angelica Jackson, All-American. She completed her volleyball eligibility in 1987 but needed another year for her degree and decided to play for the women’s basketball team.

Once she found the touch that made her a high school All-American in that sport, Jackson became a force for the Aztecs, who were ranked among the top 20 until late February. After a slow start, Jackson is averaging 10.8 points and 7.0 rebounds in Big West Conference games, of which she started 15 of 18.

Jackson will be a key for SDSU (23-7) against Cal State Fullerton (20-7) today at 11:30 a.m. in the first round of the Big West tournament at the Long Beach Arena. The Aztecs (23-7) lost to Fullerton in two conference games this season.

In her final season of volleyball, Jackson led the Big West with 5.86 kills per game, hit .354 (fourth in league) and averaged 1.40 blocks (sixth). Her 52 kills against Fresno State shattered the previous Aztec record of 35 by Vicki Cantrell against Stanford in 1982.


Jackson also finished second on the Aztec list for kills in a season (727), third in career kills (1,354), second in career hitting (.333) and fifth in career blocking points (589).

Some travel difficulties her freshman year almost prevented her from reaching that point.

She made the 1,800 miles from East St. Louis to San Diego. But trouble covering an additional four miles almost caused her to get on the next plane heading home.

Rudy Suwara, the Aztec women’s volleyball coach, has a rule that a player must run two miles in 16 minutes before she can start practice at the beginning of the season.

“I never liked to run,” Jackson said. “I didn’t practice, but I thought I’d go out there and see what I could do. The first time I missed by five seconds. The second time I missed by like six seconds.

“After the second time, I ran to a pay phone and called my (high school) coach. I told him I was going to go home, that I couldn’t run it under 16 minutes. That was one of the pouting phone calls I made.

“Then I went out and did it.”

Jackson, 5-feet-11, had been an All-American in both volleyball and basketball at East St. Louis High. That she eventually chose volleyball is ironic; Earnest Riggins, the SDSU women’s basketball coach, is the one who told Suwara about her.


Riggins coached Jackson’s cross-town rival in East St. Louis, Lincoln, but left for SDSU before Jackson’s senior year. He wanted to recruit her, and when he found she was more interested in volleyball, he contacted Suwara.

It took just a second for Suwara to know he was interested.

“I went back to East St. Louis and watched her play in a basketball game,” Suwara said. “All it took was one center jump. She jumped right over this girl, who was 6-4, to get the tip.”

Jackson was recruited for both sports, and it didn’t take too long to decide on SDSU. A few trips and a visit to SDSU in February, when the snow is still on the ground in Illinois, did the trick.

“At home, people look at California as Vacationland,” Jackson said. “I thought that would be cool--to live in Vacationland.”

She made another decision. She would stick with volleyball.

“It was a tough choice,” Jackson said. “When I was playing in high school, and I was an All-American in basketball, everyone said I was a little stronger in basketball. But as I was getting recognition, I was getting double-teamed, and basketball became more of a job and not as much fun as volleyball.

“Also, I was a freshman, and it was the first time I was leaving home. Volleyball allowed me to get home as much as possible. It offered all the right breaks. I could go home for Christmas, but with basketball, there are always Christmas tournaments.”


But Jackson soon found that no matter what school you select, or what sport you play, there’s a lot of work involved.

“The main thing was to get a scholarship, a ticket to school,” Jackson said. “It turned out not to be as easy as I thought. I just played around with volleyball. Then I came here, and it was time to learn.”

Jackson, a middle blocker for the Aztecs, had never even hit a quick set when she stepped on the court here. She had trouble getting the timing down, but her jumping ability helped. If she misjudged the ball, she could usually get it on the way down.

“I was so frustrated my freshman year,” Jackson said. “It seemed like had to start again from scratch.

“I was away from home and nervous. Also, I was the only black player on the team at the time. The players were nice to me and everything, or else I wouldn’t have come out here. But it was so much different for me because of where I came from. It was a new experience for me. But that’s one of the reasons I decided to come here. Now I can go into a room and be the only black person and not even notice.

“That’s how much I’ve grown.”

After a year of homesickness and $100-a-month phone bills, Jackson began to adapt to the court--and the classroom.

School also was an adjustment. Jackson was an A student in college prep classes at East St. Louis and finished second in her class of 670. But her grades suffered her first year in college, as they do for many freshmen. She has improved steadily and will graduate in May with a bachelor’s in public administration.

“I got my first C, but after the first year I brought that up,” Jackson said. “Each year it got better.”

As did Jackson’s athletic career.

She led the Aztecs in hitting with a .315 average as a sophomore and .327 as a junior, when the Aztecs were ranked No. 1 for seven consecutive weeks and started the season with a school-record 23 consecutive victories.

She was the leader of a young team as a senior. SDSU finished with its first losing record--15-17--since Suwara took over the program in 1976, but Jackson was enough of a dominating force to be named a second-team All-American.

Her volleyball career over, Jackson was still a year away from a degree. She took a part-time job at a restaurant to help pay the bills. Then Riggins approached her about joining the basketball team.

“I told him I had to work to pay the rent, but he gave me a scholarship,” Jackson said.

Riggins would have liked to have had Jackson on the team for four years, but he understood the situation.

“They recruited me to play both sports, but I said ‘no way,’ ” Jackson said. “But I talked to (Riggins). I kind of looked at him like my father. I could go talk to him. He would come to the volleyball games, and it was like having somebody from home there just to see me. He made me feel like I was at home. He didn’t ask me about basketball, he was just like--my friend.”

Now, she decided, he could finally be her coach.

“I played pickup games after volleyball, and I saw I could still play with the girls,” Jackson said. “But in pickup, there’s no referees. I was playing just to stay in shape, and I noticed I was playing four hours a day, so I thought I might as well play (for the Aztecs).”

But it soon felt as if she was back in her early days of college volleyball.

“When I walked into the gym it hit me,” Jackson said. “This was not like playing pickup. I saw what I was missing--the fundamentals. It was real frustrating.”

Jackson did not take long to get back in the groove, and she improved steadily as the season progressed. Then came those Christmas tournaments.

“This is the first year I missed a Christmas at home,” Jackson said. “The years before, I felt the need to go home.”

Jackson’s parents went to her instead. They watched her play in four games, including a 91-80 loss to seventh-ranked Cal State Long Beach in which Jackson scored a season-high 29 points.

It was a fulfilling moment for Jackson’s father, who had always wanted her to play basketball.

“They didn’t make any trips out here to watch me play volleyball,” she said. “That tells you how much he loves basketball.”

After she graduates in May, Jackson said, she is leaning toward playing volleyball for one of the U.S. professional women’s teams.

“I can play three months out of the year and then I can work the rest of the time,” Jackson said. “But I do want to stay active.”

She also has been contacted to try out for the national team, but Jackson is putting that option on hold.

“With the national team, you have to really, really love the sport,” Jackson said. “I just don’t think my whole heart is in it, and it needs to be to play on a team like that.”

Jackson said she hasn’t had much time to think about exactly what she is going to do. She will probably eventually go home for a visit. And she won’t be the same person who was there before.

“I can see the difference when I go home,” Jackson said. “I’ve experienced, and I’ve learned. I think it’s made me a better person.”