Friday night promises an exciting Group F clash on the court when CSKA Moscow hosts EA7 Emprio Armani Milan. Off the court, it is also another chance for old university teammates Aaron Jackson and Shawn James to get together and reminisce. Plenty of former teammates cross paths each week in the Euroleague, taking the opportunity to catch up and share some stories from back in the day. But for CSKA playmaker Jackson and Milan center James, the bond goes much deeper.
In September of 2006, long before they became Euroleague stars, Jackson and James and three of their Duquesne University teammates were all victims of the same shooting incident in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That night not only changed their basketball careers, but their outlooks on life, too.
"That whole thing that happened in 2006 was a very tragic thing," Jackson said. "Something that was unfortunate with a group of my friends, not only teammates, they were my friends. It was a situation where some alcohol and bad choices got into play. Kids had the weapons and they ended up shooting five of us. It was something that was very tragic and affected the whole community, the whole team, affected Duquesne in general. It was something that also brought us together and showed the unity in the community."
Jackson was fortunate that the bullet aimed for him did not hit its intended target. “My [injury] was more of a graze. I got shot and the bullet just missed me and burned my wrist,” he said. “And actually the bullet that burned my wrist deflected off me and hit another teammate of mine. That was kind of surreal seeing that pain and not seeing the bullet and seeing the effect of what happened to him and what could have been me.”
Jackson was treated for burns, but was able to continue practicing with the team. James was not as lucky.
"It took a while for me to come back, because after the shooting, the bullet was in my foot for about a month and a half to two months," James said. "And then they had to decide to go in and get it because it wasn’t moving to where they wanted it to move. In all it took about four months with the recovery for me just to be able to step back on the court.”
While Jackson and James were able to resume their college careers, not all of their teammates were as fortunate. Sam Ashaolu was shot twice in the head. After several surgeries, he was able to recover to lead a normal life, but he was unable to return to the courts.
"Sam Ashaolu had a chance to play professional basketball after he was done and unfortunately he was the one that got the worst of the incident," Jackson said. "I still talk to him to this day. We're real tight. We were roommates after the shooting. I helped him with his homework. To see him go through that and to see where he is now is truly a blessing."
James recalled how he felt when Ashaolu was able to graduate from Duquesne.
"It absolutely was [inspiring], because here's a guy that got shot in the head twice. And for a big moment there, we thought he wasn't going to live," James said. "So for the fact that he was able to pull through that with prayers and grace, and then for him to graduate, it was just a real big moment in his life and for everybody in the community that was pulling for him and supporting him."
Both players, as well as their other teammates learned countless life lessons from the aftermath of the shooting.
"It’s bigger than basketball. You’re only going to play this game for so long and then you have the whole rest of your life to do other things," James said. "So when this happened to me in college, it just made me stop taking the small things for granted. Just being excited about practice or being excited just to have another day, because when that happened, to see that type of violence up close and personal, regardless of who you are, it will change you drastically. Hopefully for the better."
James played only one full season at Duquesne before beginning his professional career in Israel in 2008 with Bnei Hasharon. After three seasons there, he joined Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv and quickly made his impact, being named to the 2012-13 All-Euroleague Second Team. Although he missed the latter stages of last season due to injury, James became a Euroleague champion with Maccabi.
Having enjoyed that Final Four in Milan last spring, he signed to play for EA7 Emporio Armani Milan before the current season.
James continues climbing the charts of the Euroleague's all-time best shot blockers. He is now ranked 25th with 94 career blocks and his average of 1.42 blocks per game is third all-time among qualified players.
Jackson finished college in 2009 and played his first professional season in Turkey and Italy before coming to Bizkaia Basket Bilbao of Spain, with whom he made his Euroleague debut in 2010. Now in his third season with CSKA, Jackson might well have denied James his Euroleague title if he was not injured late in Maccabi's last-second semifinal victory over CSKA in Milan. Known for his tremendous on-the-ball defense, Jackson has been a driving force this season behind CSKA entering this week’s game with the best record in the competition, 15-1 overall. He is also one of the Euroleague's most accurate long-distance shooters this season, having made 14 of his 26 three-point attempts (53.8%) so far.
Even though they went their separate ways, there was no question that Jackson and James would remain in close contact. "Me and Shawn were pretty close before the shooting, but after that and seeing him in the hospital and seeing how it affected him, it created a close bond and something that we will share with each other for the rest of our lives," Jackson said.
After what they've been through, James has the perspective to best appreciate how things have turned out. "I consider myself to be very lucky, very lucky, because to be in that position, to have two people shooting at you and running for your life as you see teammates falling and other people getting shot and just scrambling for your life, you have nothing but to be grateful for [surviving]," he said. "You can't sit back and be down or depressed about certain things. That's why I try to see things in a positive light."
That same thinking has not only given James an upbeat outlook on life, but a renewed focus on the basketball court as well.
"When you have the opportunity to continue your career after something like that, you tend to do it much harder," he said. "You tend to focus a little bit more, you leave it all out there just for the fact that you were given a second chance."