COLLEGE BASKETBALL 1995-96 : Mountain of Trouble Overshadows Jessie : College basketball: Former Edison star endures daughter’s health problems and his legal woes.
His newborn daughter was near death. She lay motionless, attached to machines and tubes 600 miles away, and Brandon Jessie yearned to be with her.
But he couldn’t. Not until a judge said so.
Jessie, 21, a star senior guard at the University of Utah, awaited sentencing here in July on shoplifting charges as his child struggled to survive in an Orange County hospital. How he reached that point, Jessie still isn’t sure.
He never experienced anything as traumatic. Not growing up the youngest son of former Ram wide receiver Ron Jessie. Not as a teen-ager, becoming one of the county’s biggest prep stars at Edison High.
These should be the best days of Jessie’s life. Heading into his final college season, he is considered among the top handful of shooting guards by NBA decision-makers. But Jessie has many troubles.
The NCAA suspended Jessie for the Utes’ first seven games because of his relationship with sports agent Robert Troy Caron, a friend from Jessie’s years at Ventura College. He and Caron are defendants in a lawsuit, he feels tainted by the shoplifting incident and his daughter’s fight for her life has left him emotionally drained and physically unprepared for his pivotal stretch run before the NBA draft.
“It’s been real hard,” Jessie said. “Everything that’s happened . . . it’s taken my mental drive away. It’s taken me a while to get to where I was [last season], but I’m about there. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. Like I said, it’s just real hard.”
Kiana Beau Jessie was born June 21 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. She has had to fight for almost every minute since.
The only child of Jessie and his girlfriend of five years, Harper Maycock, Kiana was diagnosed at birth with Down’s syndrome. Shortly after, she contracted a disease highly dangerous to newborns.
Down’s syndrome affects learning and reasoning ability, auditory and visual memory, language skills and muscle tone. The degree to which it affects each person varies. How it causes damage is unknown.
Children are more likely to be afflicted with Down’s syndrome the older the mother is at the time of conception.
Maycock, 22, is not in the high-risk group. Doctors said the defect occurred somehow at conception.
“That was a shock,” said Maycock, who played volleyball at Dana Hills High. “But we dealt with it and we’ve had a lot of family support.”
Maycock and Kiana moved in with Maycock’s parents in San Juan Capistrano after leaving the hospital June 23, and Jessie prepared to return to Utah for the upcoming season. But his plans changed when Kiana was diagnosed three days later with jaundice. The condition, which causes the eyeballs, skin and urine to become abnormally yellow because of bile in the blood, forced Kiana’s return to the hospital.
Then Jessie and Maycock received more devastating news: Tests revealed Kiana also suffered from a rare form of bacterial meningitis called Citrobacter, which can be fatal to babies younger than 8 weeks old.
Kiana was transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange. Specialists attempted to fight the disease with several powerful drugs, but her condition worsened. The disease created abscesses throughout her brain.
“It was horrible,” Jessie said. “Watching this little, innocent baby suffering and not being able to do anything.”
Caron was among Kiana’s many visitors. An Oxnard personal injury lawyer and sports agent, Caron met Jessie through Philip Mathews, a former Ventura College basketball coach.
Jessie and Caron became friends and Jessie worked for Caron’s law firm.
“We just developed a close friendship,” Caron said. “I went down three or four times to see the baby, just to give Brandon some support.”
Jessie and Maycock lived at the Orange County Ronald McDonald House in Orange while Kiana underwent treatment. Normally, Jessie would have returned to Utah to workout with his teammates. Instead of shooting basketballs and lifting weights, his days were spent at the baby’s side and his nights filled with grief.
“You just don’t realize how tough something like this can be until you go through it,” Maycock said. “Even if someone told me a story like this, I could only sympathize so much. It’s a whole different world when you’re going through it.”
Jessie had another problem. He and a teammate were arrested June 3 on suspicion of shoplifting from a Utah department store. Jessie had to return to Utah on July 19 for sentencing on charges of misdemeanor retail theft.
“It was my fault. It was a case of bad judgment and I’m sorry,” Jessie said. “I feel some people are looking at me differently, like ‘Maybe we should re-evaluate this guy.’ I made a mistake, I’ve learned from it and I just want to move on.”
Kiana’s condition deteriorated rapidly in the days preceding Jessie’s court appearance, and doctors were not optimistic. Yet Jessie had no choice. He had to leave.
Maycock drove Jessie to the airport early that morning and returned to the hospital. As soon as she entered Kiana’s room, Maycock sensed something was wrong.
Doctors confirmed her worst fear later that day, telling her Kiana was near death. Maycock contacted Jessie through his pager and told him to return home.
“I was hysterical,” she said. “I just couldn’t stop crying.”
Jessie wanted to cry too. He had been strong throughout the fight with Kiana, doing his best to comfort Maycock. But he had nothing left.
“I just lost it,” Jessie said. “My daughter’s dying and I’m waiting for this judge in Utah.”
Jessie received a $250 fine and a year and a half probation. As part of his sentencing agreement, he must speak about being responsible to students at five Salt Lake City-area high schools.
“At that point, I didn’t care what happened to me,” Jessie said. “I just wanted to get back to Kiana.”
Getting there was a battle too.
Jessie originally planned to return the next day and had difficulty changing flights. His flight was delayed three hours and Ron’s car, on the way to get Brandon, suffered two flat tires.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Maycock said. “His daughter is dying and he can’t get a flight, and then his dad’s car gets two flats. But I knew Brandon would get back, and I knew she would hold on for her daddy.”
Jessie arrived at the hospital after 11 p.m. and Kiana was still alive. Moreover, she improved. In the next few days, Kiana surprisingly moved out of danger. Doctors still can’t explain how.
“She was as close as you get to death,” said Dr. Antonio Arrieta, the hospital’s associate director for pediatric infectious diseases. “She should have died, but kids her age sometimes surprise you. You or I would have died, but kids have an amazing ability to fight.”
She still has. Maycock and Kiana recently moved to Salt Lake City and live in a two-bedroom house with Jessie near campus. Kiana continues to take medication, but is growing. Doctors told her parents the Citrobacter likely caused severe additional brain damage.
“That poor little girl was born with two strikes against her,” Arrieta said. “It’s unpredictable how functional she will be. Those two kids have been through the ringer together.”
Jessie has handled the situation better than those closest to him thought possible.
“I didn’t think he or Harper were ready [to have a child],” said Ron Jessie, an investigator for Newport Beach-based attorney Milton Grimes. “But he has accepted the responsibility and he’s dealing with it.”
Likewise, Utah assistant coach Donny Daniels is encouraged by the couple’s approach.
“Being a parent myself, the worst thing that can happen to you is having a child who has a handicap,” said Daniels, a former player and assistant coach at Cal State Fullerton. “To Brandon’s credit and Harper’s credit, they’ve handled the situation remarkably well.”
But it will get tougher.
Jessie was angered by the NCAA suspension, imposed because he allegedly received a pager, a trip to Mexican resort Cancun and other benefits from Caron when he played at Ventura College. Utah officials and Jessie maintain Caron is a family friend and did not act as an agent for the player. The suit in which Jessie and Caron are defendants stems from an alleged assault May 28, 1994, in Ventura.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “Everyone knows that. I don’t know why all this is happening now.”
Admittedly, Jessie isn’t in ideal shape. He reported to practice at 245 pounds (he weighs 235 now), more than 15 pounds above his playing weight of last season.
“I wanted to work out this summer, I thought about it every day,” Jessie said. “I just couldn’t do it with everything happening with the baby. Everybody said, ‘Well, you can get a couple hours away from the hospital.’ It just wasn’t that easy.”
“I feel so sorry for him,” she said. “This is his senior year and he didn’t have a chance to work out. For him, it’s like not studying for medical exams. He’s been unreal as a dad and he has so much pressure on him.”
As a junior, Jessie averaged 16.1 points and 5.9 rebounds. He was selected the Western Athletic Conference transfer player of the year, first-team All-WAC and the Utes’ co-most valuable player.
Jessie (6 feet 5) is already better than some NBA shooting guards, one executive said. On potential alone, Jessie could be a first-round draft choice.
“Brandon Jessie has all the tools to be an outstanding player,” Utah Jazz President Frank Layden said. “Physically, he’s a man right now. Besides the God-given talents he has and the genes and all those things, he was in the perfect setting to grow because of Coach [Rick Majerus].”
Jessie spurned scholarship offers from more prominent programs such as Duke and Georgetown largely because he wanted to learn from Majerus, who is well regarded by NBA executives for developing talent.
Jessie had the ability to play for Utah and most Division I teams after Edison, but he didn’t apply himself in school. A three-year varsity starter, Jessie set school records with 1,580 points and 818 rebounds. He twice was named the Sunset League’s most valuable player and excelled as a wide receiver/safety in football and sprint champion in track.
“He’s the best athlete ever to come out of Edison,” football Coach Dave White said. “He only played football for half of his junior season, and I have no doubt he would have made it to the NFL. He’s the type of guy [who] comes along once every 10 years.”
Majerus, though, is more concerned about Jessie’s chances of earning a degree in sociology than helping Utah win a second consecutive conference title.
“I admire Brandon for a number of things,” Majerus said. “He really loves this baby, he has had to go through some tough times and he does have a lot on his plate.
“But he has to realize he’s not the Lone Ranger in having responsibilities and problems. Brandon can’t use this to rationalize not doing well in school or on the court.”
Jessie realizes this will be a difficult season. He plans to do his best and hopes for a long NBA career. But life will go on if that doesn’t happen.
“Kiana makes me look at life completely different now,” Jessie said. “I’m still going to work hard every day in practice and play hard in games. I’m still going to listen to what Coach Majerus has to say.
“But it’s hard to get [to the NBA], and I’m not worried. If I make it I make it. If I don’t I don’t.”
* BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
Utah Coach Rick Majerus is a happy man and Ute basketball fans like it that way. C8