Faith in the Final Four

  • by Chris Davis
Photo courtesy David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletics

With half his collegiate career in the rearview mirror, Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson knew a change was in order.

This kind of post-season soul-searching often leads players of his caliber to recommit themselves to the game. Some gain a renewed dedication with a quest to earn more playing time or establish themselves as the team’s dominant leader. Others decide to take their talents to a different program.

But last summer, the junior-to-be knew that any change he was going to make would occur away from basketball.

“I knew exactly what I needed to change,” Jackson says. “I always knew about God, but this is the first year I haven’t been lukewarm about it.”

For two years Jackson was tempted to make that head-first dive into a full-blown relationship with Christ. But each time he was drawn to the opportunity, Jackson decided to go a different direction.

Athletes in Action’s co-campus director at the University of Wisconsin, Brian Smith, said he’s known the Badgers point guard since he arrived in Madison as a freshman.

“During a freshman orientation meeting he was one of the only guys to check the box about wanting more information about the ministry,” Smith says. “But he never got back to me that year.

“At the beginning of his sophomore year we met, and he shared [about his Christian faith] with me. He sounded passionate about Christ.”

But what seemed like a lack of commitment that year from Jackson, left Smith confused.

On the last day of the retreat, he decided it wasn’t for him

Jackson was invited to an AIA student leadership retreat and was once again presented with the opportunity to go all-in, this time as a student leader. But on the last day of the retreat he decided it wasn’t for him, and the AIA staff members didn’t hear from Jackson for virtually the entire school year.

It wasn’t until this time last year, when Smith was walking around Wisconsin’s campus praying for Jackson, that he got a call from him asking to meet.

“We got together and he ended up pouring out his heart to me,” Smith says.

That was when Jackson finally made the change.

“I understood it was a relationship, and it wasn’t performance-based”

“It was the first time I really understood God,” Jackson says. “I thought it was a religious thing – follow His rules, make Him happy. But once I understood it was a relationship and it wasn’t performance-based, it was a lot easier.

“It forced me to reevaluate my life. Once I understood [this principle], I didn’t want to waste any more time.”

This time Jackson has stayed in touch with Smith. The two have been meeting each week for the past year, studying the Bible. The change has been evident in not only Traevon Jackson the person, but also in Traevon Jackson the basketball player.

His knack for thriving during the most intense moments of a game was evident early in Jackson’s career as he made three game-tying or game-winning shots in his sophomore season. But initially, the Westerville, Ohio, native wasn’t sure about the impact this new spiritual understanding would have on him as a player.

“It made me want to dominate and be the best ever at this university”

“I thought it would make me softer,” Jackson says of fully committing his life to Christ. “But it’s been the opposite – it made me want to dominate and be the best ever at this university.”

Wisconsin’s run to the Final Four has been due in part to Jackson’s newfound desire to play the game with Christ. The son of former NBA player and Ohio State standout, Jim Jackson, he has carved his own niche in the Big 10, averaging just under 11 points and nearly five assists a game this season. In the team’s four NCAA Tournament games, Jackson is tallying just shy of 13 points a game, along with 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

For Jackson, reaching the Final Four has been a goal since the summer – something Smith says Jackson has been focused on and excited about. However, he points to something even bigger that’s taken hold of Jackson’s life.

“Around the Big 10 Tournament he was even more excited about the spiritual conversations he had with his teammates,” Smith says. “He’s seeing that his purpose for [being on] this team is to be a witness and ambassador for Christ, where last year it was [only] to win a national championship.

“He understands that in your pursuit of [knowing] God, what you’re getting is God – not the things God blesses you with. His reasoning for it isn’t that ‘if I’m obedient, I’m going to get a national title,’ but it’s ‘when I’m obedient to God I’m going to get [a relationship with] God, and that’s good enough for me.’”