To be around the New York Knicks during the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons was to be around a team that was the complete opposite of today's rudderless, drama-filled organization.
The Knicks tipped off the ‘87-88 season with one of the best young centers in the game (recent No. 1 pick and future Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing), the hottest young coach in the sport (Rick Pitino, a Long Island product who’d just brought little-known Providence College to the Final Four) and, perhaps most poignantly, a truly homegrown rookie point guard in the charismatic Mark Jackson.
Dropped into this short-lived version of basketball heaven was a cherubic young man named Troy Jackson, who was only too happy to join the party his big brother was leading inside the World’s Most Famous Arena.
The name Troy Jackson not a ring a bell? How about when we call him…Escalade?
Yes, among the many wondrous facts about one of the greatest and most popular (and unquestionably the largest) streetball players of all time, is that the late Escalade came up under the wings of the player with the fourth-most assists in NBA history. Not that “Es” ever made a habit of telling folks that.
“Troy and Mark were super close friends. Talked on the phone several times a day,” recalls Grayson “The Professor” Boucher, who considered Es his best friend on the And1 Mixtape Tour. “But he never put it out there because he didn’t want to leech off his brother’s fame. He wanted to make it on his own. To pave his own way. Once I asked him, ‘Why don’t you put it out there that you’re his brother? People are shocked.’ ‘I’m just trying to make my own way,’ he told me.”
And what a path the late Escalade made, paving his own way as demonstratively as he drove the lane, overcoming obstacles at first with his mammoth size and then with his even greater kindness. In fact, by 2005, when Mark’s epic playing career was over and it was Escalade on the cover of Sports Illustrated, little bro had surpassed big bro in fame.
“I remember one time, we were walking through the mall, and some kids ran behind us, and I’m thinking, ‘They must recognize me.’ Instead, one of them taps me on the shoulder shyly and asks, ‘Can we take a picture with Escalade?’” Mark says. “That was the first of what became many times where he was the one people wanted to meet.”
So who was this 6’10”, 450-pound behemoth (his weight fluctuated wildly between about 360-500, but 450 seems like the most regular estimate) who was still breaking cats off with crossovers, finishing with dunks and knocking everyone’s socks off with smiles as big as his midsection when he died in 2011 at age 38 of hypertensive heart disease?
Escalade was born on Jan. 11, 1973, in Queens, the youngest of five children, to Harry and Marie Jackson.
“Troy was much younger, but I always tell people—same parents! It was eight years or whatever after their previous child, but they must have had a look in each other’s eyes one night [laughs], and that led to Troy,” says Mark, who you now know as the top analyst on ESPN’s NBA coverage.
“Troy did come out of nowhere, and it took us a little while to really connect,” says Marie Jackson, who still lives in the Long Island house Mark bought her and Harry (since deceased) early in his playing days. “It took him a little while to mature, I think, because Mark made Troy feel like he had it all. Mark made him feel like he was part of everything in that NBA life, and that made Troy a brat for a little bit. But he matured, and became my gentle giant. He and Mark obviously had a really special relationship.
“My daughter misses him a lot. She is divorced and she has kids who are ballplayers, and they really loved Troy and looked up to him. Sometimes we think about that and cry. Troy had a very close relationship with all his nieces and nephews, and would share advice, love and sometimes just silliness. I mean, Troy couldn’t be in a room with people for more than five minutes without making everyone laugh.”
While Mark starred at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn and then St. John’s University in Queens, Troy followed his footsteps as a young CYO baller for St. Paschal.
“The first time I remember seeing him play was 10, 11 years old,” Mark recalls. “He was balling.”
Where Mark considered the game his calling since he was a young boy, Troy took a little longer to take it seriously, perhaps distracted by the relatively lavish lifestyle Mark had shared with him.
Says Marie, a founding and still active member of the 21-year-old Mothers of Professional Basketball Players organization: “Mark was eight years old when he told us he was going to play ball. Mark had the discipline that Troy did not. Troy had the talent but not the discipline. If Troy had the discipline Mark did, he could have played anywhere.”
Not that Troy did too badly for himself. The success he found as a player at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Long Island, coupled with some flashy ball-handling and passing he showcased at Harlem’s Rucker Park, earned him a look from Wallace Community College in Selma, Alabama. He played there for two seasons and left after his sophomore year having been named to the all-region team.
Troy then parlayed his community college experience into a shot at a Division I roster, as legendary coach Denny Crum offered him a scholarship to the University of Louisville, one of college hoops’ blue-blood programs. There were conditions attached, however, as the team demanded Troy lose weight in order to keep his spot. He would no longer be allowed to tip the scales at over 500 pounds as he did at Wallace. At Louisville, even while only earning playing time to average three points, he kept that figure well below 400.
As Louisville’s senior associate athletics director Kenny Klein puts it, “Troy was very well-liked here.”
Marie recalls encouraging Troy to pick a focus: “I told him, ‘You’re in college now, but at your size, you can’t be a receptionist. No one is going to be comfortable arriving at a front desk and seeing you. You better find something you like and do that.’”
After college, Troy spent some time with the Harlem Globetrotters and remained a regular on the New York streetball scene. Concurrently, And1 was turning streetball—theretofore seen as a non-commercially viable step-cousin to the structured NCAA and NBA—into big business with its Mix Tapes, tours and show on ESPN2.
“When streetball became available as a career, he jumped at it,” Marie says. “Streetball was the place for him. And he did not work another day in his life.”
You better find something you like and do that. Troy had found his “that.”
“Es joined us for the tour in 2003, right as we were really taking off, and he had a huge presence with the fans,” says Mandy Murphy, who was the public relations manager for And1 from 2002-06 and is now head of growth, strategy and development at PeacePlayers International. “We’d do these autograph lines after the games, and people would be intimidated at first because of his size, but he was such a big teddy bear. People would be like, ‘Of course I’m a fan of yours, but I didn’t know you’d be so nice in person.’ He’d talk people’s heads off about where they went to school, what they were into—much friendlier than people would expect.
“They were the reality TV rock stars of their day. They became household names, and Es was a big part of that. His physical presence stood out amongst the guys on that team. When And1 was its heyday and we’d be touring and asking who fans’ favorite player was, Es was always one of the top five.”
No one benefited more from Escalade’s giant heart than his physical polar opposite in the streetball world, little Oregon-bred baller Professor.
“I first met him in the summer of 2003, when I made it onto the tour from open tryout,” says Professor, who is still active on his highlight-heavy YouTube channel. “I spoke with him very briefly that stop, then more at the next one and the next one after that. He was just cool. Out of all the guys on the tour, he took the time to meet me on a personal level. I didn’t know Mark was his brother. I didn’t know about Louisville. I just knew he’d been at Rucker and been dunking on people. But he made himself always available to me. A lot of guys were older, harder to connect with. But Es was always checking in on me.
“He knew how to handle his business. He was always on time, well-spoken, high character, center of attention in any room, just alive. I found it comforting how he’d keep me involved with the bigger group. Es was a leader and he always looked out for me.”
Says Murphy: “He and Professor were so memorable. You had this huge African-American guy from New York and tiny white guy from Oregon, and they became best of friends. Es really took him under his wing. We’d be on the tour bus at 6 a.m., having to do radio spots, and Es would actually read the talking points and prepare for the interview. Fess was so shy at first, but Es really helped him so much. A total mentor to Fess.”
These days, Professor is a great interview, thoughtful on the state of the game, his place in it and eager to recall the beauty of his friendship with Escalade. He’s also still a pure baller, and as such, can wax as poetically about Escalade’s game as his personality.
“What was Troy like as a player?” Professor repeats the question. “First off, he had a really high B-ball IQ. Obviously, he got flair, knowledge and so much swag from Mark. He had a great high school career. Good JUCO. And then he spent time at Louisville with some great coaches. He really knew the game. He was a good facilitator out of the post, and a real leader on the floor, which is rare for a post player.
“He was so smooth, with great hands and touch. On the streetball level, people loved him because of the way he could pass and handle for a big guy. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone in streetball with his size that could move and handle like he did. People still love him. Just look today, his videos go crazy viral. I’d say 2003-2004 was his prime. There were many times when he’d do a move and then dunk in the lane. A lot of guys can lose their balance after a move when they get into the lane. Es could finish his moves with a dunk. That was always really impressive, especially at 6'9", 400 pounds.”
There is always the “especially at,” or “even with” or “in spite of” with Troy Jackson, and with good reason. Shaquille O’Neal is considered the modern physical giant of basketball, and he rarely played at more than 325 pounds. Troy never played a game as an adult anywhere close to that light.
“At his size, with his athleticism and his ability to handle the ball, he wanted to make it in basketball and, in a way, he did,” recalls Mark. “His struggle was the weight, really. He was so much younger than us. My dad would get paid on a Friday and he’d go do something special with the youngest one—often that was go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac. So he was always big, but he could still dominate a certain level of competition at his size. He had an incredible feel for the game. ... But when you elevated the competition, that’s when you noticed the conditioning and the size hurt him.”
Says Murphy: “Es was very self-aware. He’d eat a ton, then be like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten all that.’ Some guys might egg him on a bit, but for the most part, they were supportive; they wanted him to be in shape. After some meals, Fess might just say, ‘Let’s go to the gym.’”
The And1 Tour started to peter out not long after the 2005 SI cover, as the brand was sold and fans lost interest—at least at the scale that was packing gyms and parks in the early 2000s. But guys like Escalade and Professor still had their fans and could garner big crowds on and off the court.
“He could go to a club where an NBA role player, who might make millions a year, wouldn’t even get recognized. But Troy would be VIP. Not only did everyone know him, they loved him,” says Mark.
That love made Escalade a sought-after player for any company in the streetball space, and at the time of his passing, he was in Los Angeles with the crew from the Ball Up tour, which had Professor on board as well.
“I’d never lost a friend or relative from heart attack, and we never even thought about it,” Professor says thoughtfully. “From 2003-2011, we were hanging out, touring, playing ball and that never changed. Today, if I had a friend in that state, I’d try and help them. But at the time, we weren’t that health-conscious. He may have had some health scares, but he didn’t share them, so I didn’t know if there were concerns like that. Like I said, we were doing the same things pretty much the whole time I knew him. Really, he embraced it. He loved the name, the marketing, and he had a high level of self-esteem. He had no intention of losing weight. I would encourage him to get active, slim down a little, but not because we were thinking about long-term health or life, just as basketball players.
“As he got older, he was playing less because he was out of shape. There would be seasons where he’d ‘get back in shape,’ but basically he made no major efforts about it. I remember Mark and I talked about it one summer and we pretty much agreed—‘Es is gonna be Es. He’s not going to change.’”
All-Star Weekend 2011 brought a major confluence of the larger basketball and smaller Jackson families together in Los Angeles. Every NBA ASW is a giant affair, but this one had added relevance to the Jackson clan. Mark made his home in Los Angeles, where he was a pastor at True Love Worship Center International, mom Marie was in town with the MPBP and Escalade was doing press for the Ball Up tour, seeking to recreate the And1 magic.
“I believe it was God’s plan that I be with someone when I found out my child passed,” Marie remembers. “We’re at Mark’s church. Chris Tucker was there and I’m talking to him. A guy taps me on my elbow, demands that I walk next door, which I did. Mark was in there in a fetal position. ‘What happened to one of his kids?’ I’m thinking. I had just spoken to my son the night before and he was fine….
“My son turned 38 in January and he was dead on Feb. 20. He’d had a massive heart attack, even though he had just passed [a] physical to play again with that Ball Up tour. But I have come to terms. God gave me a limited time. He must have needed him up there more than here.”
What Troy Jackson’s life lacked in length, it made up for in impact, particularly around his immediate family and the broader world that loved a certain style of hoops.
“I still see Facebook posts dedicated to him. Those tapes are still floating around. His memory is still very much alive,” Marie says. “Troy influenced a lot of people. This is one of the greatest streetball players who ever lived. Troy was on the cover of Sports Illustrated! That doesn’t happen. He gave something to this sports community and to the kids that he touched. I have to believe that he served his purpose here. I lost my son six years ago and lost my husband in 1999. I thank God they had a father in their lives until they were grown. They had a two-parent family and they respected their father. That was their foundation. That had a lot to do with who they are and who they became.”
Troy would be 44 today. His playing days would be over. But it’s not hard to imagine him still being on the scene in a big way, as an announcer, coach, scout or social-media celebrity.
Mark Edwards is an Atlanta-based basketball trainer who helped And1 launch the Mixtape Tour and served as a mentor to Escalade, Professor and others. Edwards has strong feelings about where Escalade would fit in the basketball/media landscape of 2017.
“If Es was alive today, he’d be larger than life,” Edwards begins. “He’d be a celebrity! He’d be hosting parties, starring in reality shows. Personality-wise…who’s better than him? If he was working in basketball, he’d probably be a scout. On social media, who wouldn’t follow a 6’10”, 500-pound guy who would be calling out Shaq and having fun with him? Escalade had more personality than Shaq…and that’s tough to say.”
Adds Professor, “Es would be completely known today. I’ve been editing my own videos since ’06. I made a mix of Es when he passed away. I put it on YouTube and it didn’t get much spin. Maybe because streetball wasn’t that hot right at that moment. But later, my brother—who is a video editor, too—would make these Escalade mixes and they went crazy. It was new to people. If he was alive today, he’d do huge numbers on YouTube, Instagram. I feel like that genre of basketball has sort of dried out, so someone with his skill set and size would be really cool for people to see and learn more about.”
Package it all up properly—Es and Fess could have filled MSG with a joyousness rarely seen since Troy was running the Garden hallways decades earlier with his brother Mark.
Ben Osborne is the Editor In Chief of Bleacher Report.