- Read Part I
SYLVA, N.C. --- The basketball legacy of Jackson Simmons' family hangs from the walls of the gym at Smoky Mountain High School.
Stretching seven feet wide, positioned next to the scoreboard, is an oversized picture of the 2007 Smoky Mountian girls state championship team. In the photo there are several notable faces -- Jackson's mother, coach Cindi Simmons, and four future college athletes including University of North Carolina point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid.
But if you look closely enough, there's one face that doesn't belong celebrating on the floor of the Dean E. Smith Center. He's the only male in the photo under the age of 30 and the only person not in a jersey or a suit -- 14-year old Jackson Simmons.
Since committing to the University of North Carolina as a walk-on in August, Jackson has become a name nationally. But make no mistake, in the Simmons family, Jackson has a long way to go before he reaches the accomplishments of his parents.
In addition to coaching the Smoky Mountain girls basketball and volleyball teams to a total of four state titles, his mother Cindi is also a former basketball player at Western Carolina. His father Si also played basketball at Western and coached the boys basketball team at Smoky Mountain in the 1990s.
Back in 2007 Jackson was the manager/statistician for the Smoky Mountain girls during its 2-A championship run, but his involvement with the program started much earlier than that.
"He was actually born during a ball game," Cindi said. "My team was playing, I wasn't with my team but he was actually born during a ball game."
When he was in elementary school Jackson rode the bus after school to Smoky Mountain to watch the girls practice. In middle school he was team manager and started practicing with the team. He played in pick-up during open gym, ran through drills and played one-on-one against some of the varsity players.
"They were my first real competition," Jackson said. "I had to go out and have that chip on my shoulder and prove to them that I could play."
Jackson played one-on-one with several players including DeGraffenreid but his biggest rival was 5-foot-8 forward Amy Haggard. Haggard went on to set records as a goalie for the Coastal Carolina soccer team but back in 2007 she and Jackson were adversaries on the basketball court.
One time Jackson remembers when tempers flared and the two competitors went overboard.
"We were doing a drill and Amy and I were getting into it and I actually elbowed her," Jackson said with a now embarrassed smile. "Needless to say, that was the end of me practicing with the team. But I learned a lot from them and a lot of my characteristics that I have as a player come from her former players. They've been really helpful to me."
While his involvement with the girls team ended with an elbow, you can still see the residual effects of growing up in a basketball family. Jackson is skilled and has great instincts that can only be cultivated over years of being around the game.
Jackson attributes his toughness to playing one-on-one with his dad. Si manned the post at Western Carolina in college and went head-to-head with Jackson in their front yard.
"I used to leave bruises all over the place," Jackson said with a laugh. "It's always been a competition with him. Not just in basketball but video games, board games, but mostly basketball. It got to the point where I'd want to play until I beat him."
Spending evenings in the Smoky Mountain gym helped Jackson improve his game. While other kids his age went tubing and fishing -- the benefits of living in the mountains of N.C. -- Jackson always focused on basketball.
"He's been in the gym I guess since he could walk -- even before he could walk," Smoky Mountain coach Jimmy Cleaveland said. "He's the type of kid who absolutely lives it and breathes it."
Not surprisingly, basketball time and family time bleed together pretty consistently for the Simmons family, but Cindi says she tries to stay a mom first and a coach second.
Cindi is a fiery, passionate coach on the sidelines but doesn't want that to be her persona as a mom. So if Jackson wants basketball advice, he has to ask her to put her coach hat on. Otherwise she's going to tell him what she thinks as a mom.
"We've always told him the coach he's playing for is his coach," Cindi said.
Jackson said being around his mother's teams all his life has given him great instincts and an even better perspective on basketball -- but he's ready to make history of his own.
After making it to the Eastern Regional 2-A final last year, Jackson wants to add to the family legacy. Smoky Mountain lost six seniors from last year's team but returns several juniors who contributed a year ago.
Jackson thinks this year's team has enough to add another oversized photo to the Smoky Mountain gym wall -- and in this photo, he'll be more prominently featured.
"I got to watch that group in 2007 and I've seen the struggles and the ups and downs and you just learn so much. It was a blessing," Jackson said. "Ever since I got to watch that team, I've always wanted to follow in their footsteps and win a state championship."