It would make a great story, I told him, and we decided to reconvene after the Iranian domestic league ended. But we never spoke again. He could never sit still very long, and I was focused on other work. We had one additional exchange on Facebook, when I passed along a greeting from Mike D’Antoni, who had coached him when he briefly played for the Phoenix Suns in the N.B.A. “Tell Mike I said, Hi,” Vroman replied. And then nothing.
But the chance meeting with the woman in Toronto would inevitably turn my attention back to an athlete who might have become a sensation in the N.B.A. had he made his career here and not overseas. Imagine what the American media would have done with a player who dressed in costumes in his spare time, hung out at art festivals, essentially worshiped a tiny white dog, partied relentlessly and — it should be noted — was a relentless rebounder.
The Toronto encounter would also lead me to to Jackson’s father, Brett, a former center at U.C.L.A. and the one person whose life, in some ways, was just like his son’s. And I would also get to know Brett’s second wife, Pari Habashi, a therapist who loved, nurtured and fretted over Jackson until the day he died.
In April 2015, the three of them attended the 40th anniversary of John Wooden’s last championship team at U.C.L.A., one that Brett played on. Jackson was gaunt, not in playing shape and seemingly overcome with emotions and a growing spirituality. He went to where his stepmom sat, got down on his knees and hugged her.
“I remember he was just tired,” Habashi said. “I knew there was something different then. But he was so loving. He was hanging on Brett and hanging on me and saying, ‘I love you so much.’”
The next month, Jackson called his stepmother to wish her a happy Mother’s Day, and again told her he loved her.
“It was the last time we spoke,” she said.
Brett Vroman is now 61, a gentle bear of a man with silvery hair that he let grow past his shoulders for several months after his son’s death, one of the many ways he has spent the last two years trying to cope with the pain. He walks with a slight hitch from years of playing basketball around the world on gimpy feet and from folding his seven-foot frame into cramped airplane seats and hotel beds.
Over 40 years ago, he was a lithe basketball prospect out of Provo High School in Utah. He stood 6-10 in eighth grade, jumped out of the gym, and was eventually recruited to U.C.L.A. by Wooden and handed the impossible task of being the next Bill Walton.
There were definite similarities with Walton. He, too, was a gifted big man with a shaggy blond mane and a rebellious streak.
“I prefer to say I was a free spirit,” he said. “Jackson was the same way.”
As a skinny freshman at U.C.L.A., Brett Vroman contributed to that 1975 national title. But he clashed with the Bruins’ next head coach, Gene Bartow, and transferred to U.N.L.V. Today, he claims the distinction of being the only person to play for both the revered Wooden and the provocative Jerry Tarkanian.
While Brett was at U.N.L.V., he married a young woman named Lesle Davis. He was then drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, but did not stick. He played 11 games for the Utah Jazz in 1980 and then crossed the Atlantic to carve out a career in Europe, taking along his wife and young children: Jackson and his older sister, Lauren.
For a while, it was an idyllic life. The kids went to school in Spain and vacationed in the Greek Isles. In Italy, they lived next to Harvey Catchings, another basketball big man making a living in Europe.
The Vromans and the Catchings car-pooled their kids to school; the group included a little girl named Tamika Catchings, a future star in the W.N.B.A.
In Italy, the Vromans met Joe Bryant, another expat basketball player, who was known as Jelly Bean. He introduced his 7-year-old son to the Vromans, calling him “Kobe Bean.”
As adventurous as the European lifestyle could be, things deteriorated when Brett Vroman’s playing days ended. By the late 1980s the family had settled back in Utah, but Brett struggled to adjust as he studied to become a mental health worker, the same job he holds today. After 13 years of marriage, he and Lesle Davis split up when Jackson was in the first grade.
Davis, who declined to be interviewed for this article, took the children to live in Alaska but eventually sent both of them back to Utah to live with their father.
For Jackson, the estrangement from his mother lasted over a decade and ended only when he visited her and his half brother, Robin Anselme, at his mother’s Florida home a few years ago. He described the meeting in 17 words on his Instagram account: “Emotional day reuniting with my brother and mom I haven’t had contact with in over 15 yrs.”
But the true impact of that long separation was left unsaid.
A Career of His Own
Jackson’s adolescent years in Salt Lake City were turbulent, and at one point he and his sister were sent to live with their aunt, Shelley Vroman. Jackson clashed with his father at times, and basketball could be the most contentious subject of all.
Still, with the help of his stepmother Jackson managed to get admitted to Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, where he played for a coach named Curtis Condie. And after two years there, Condie recommended him to Iowa State’s coach, Larry Eustachy, thinking Eustachy would appreciate Jackson.
Sure enough, Eustachy fell instantly for him. Tough, emotionally vulnerable, loyal and rebellious all at once, Jackson Vroman reminded Eustachy of himself.
On a recruiting visit to Utah in September 2001, Eustachy watched Jackson do battle in a tournament in Salt Lake City.
“He got in a fight and decked some gang member,” Eustachy recalled. “Brett was worried and asked me if I was still interested in Jackson. I said: “Interested? I love him.’”
Jackson’s college career had its mishaps, but he blossomed into a star. In June 2004 he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls at the beginning of the second round and immediately traded to the Phoenix Suns for Luol Deng.
Jackson proceeded to play a half-season for the Suns and D’Antoni before he was traded to the New Orleans Hornets in January 2006. Brett proudly recalls his son dominating Tracy McGrady in one game, and playing even better against Tim Duncan.
But in February 2006, Brett was watching on TV in Salt Lake City when Jackson took a pass from Chris Paul in a game against Brett’s old team, the Jazz. While attempting a dunk, Jackson shattered his wrist. By the time it healed, the course of his life had changed. He was about to dip his size 15 basketball shoes into his father’s footsteps. He was headed overseas.
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