NEW YORK -- The cupcakes were the hardest thing to give up.
I know because I asked Rick Jackson.
"Cupcakes," Jackson said. "Yeah, definitely."
There's an obvious joke that could be made about a Syracuse player giving up cupcakes. The joke involves a setup about non-league scheduling, and it would probably be funny if I spent a few minutes framing it.
But I'm not here to be funny or drop clichés. I'm here to write about Syracuse's most valuable player to date, and to tell you about the text message I got late Tuesday while the Orange were cruising to an eventual 72-58 victory against Michigan State in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic here at Madison Square Garden.
The text came from an NBA scout.
It read: "Jackson is like a new human being!"
It's important to note the exclamation mark at the end of the text because exclamation marks, by definition, are used to "indicate strong feelings." So what we have in that seven-word text is proof that an NBA scout has strong feelings about Rick Jackson, and raise your hand if you predicted this a year ago. Better yet, consider the text the scout sent me when I subsequently asked if Jackson was ever considered a "serious NBA prospect" last season.
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"No," the scout texted. "Overweight D-League player."
In other words, he was Tiny Gallon in orange.
But not anymore.
Jackson has gone from an "overweight D-League player" to an in-shape NBA prospect, and the transition started when he gave up those cupcakes. And cookies. And bad foods in general. That discipline, combined with a new mindset -- it's the I-want-to-grab-every-rebound mindset that can make men millions of dollars -- has created a 6-foot-9, 239-pound specimen who is averaging a double-double and dominating in a way that Jackson couldn't last season when he played at 264.
Do the math, and you'll find he lost 25 pounds. So now, as the NBA scout put it, he looks like a new human being. And he's playing like one, too.
Jackson has seven double-doubles through nine games.
He had three all of last season.
Jackson is averaging 13.6 points and 12.7 rebounds per game.
Only three players nationally are grabbing more boards per game to date.
"He is as good as any inside guy you can ask for," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "I think he has made up his mind [to be] a good rebounder. ... I think he is more focused. The weight loss helps his stamina, but he is determined to go get the ball."
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One of the biggest myths of this sport is that the best way for a 6-9 player to get to the NBA is to "show what he can do" on the perimeter.
Obviously, any 6-9 guy who is great on the perimeter will make lots of money. But most 6-9 guys aren't great on the perimeter, and yet they insist on staying out there and proving it over and over again.
Jackson has taken the opposite/smarter approach.
He realized he would never be an attractive prospect as a scorer. So he ceased caring about scoring and decided to try to become the best at what he's best equipped to do, which is rebound.
So he lost weight and gained perspective, and now he's tearing through everybody -- evidence being the 22-rebound game he had against Detroit, the pair of 13-rebound games he had against Canisius and Cornell, and the 16-rebound game he recorded late Tuesday against the nation's seventh-ranked team.
"No cakes, cookies, none of that," Jackson said. "A lot of conditioning. Just living in the gym. Lot of basketball. Just cut out the bad foods and [play] a lot of basketball, and this is what happens."
I'm not sure it's quite that simple, honestly.
But who am I to argue?
I just watched Rick Jackson dominate a Tom Izzo-coached team in a way that left Izzo frustrated -- "I can't remember us ever getting our ass kicked like that," he said afterward -- and I just got a text from an NBA scout who's suddenly intrigued.
So whatever Jackson did and however he did it, it worked. And now it's time to stop doubting that the Orange are worthy of their No. 8 ranking in the latest Associated Press poll and start debating how high Jackson will go in the 2011 NBA Draft.
"Hopefully, somebody out there will need a guy who wants to rebound," Jackson said. "Hopefully, I'll get that opportunity."
Rest assured, he will get that opportunity somewhere.
But it won't be because somebody gives it to him.
It'll be because he has created it.