To dozens of youngsters in Dorchester, Kendrick Jackson is their big brother, their mentor, and one heck of a basketball coach.
At 24, Jackson, even with a beard, is at times hard to distinguish from the teenagers who play for his AAU team, the Beantown Bulls, a basketball program he launched three years ago for at-risk youth ages 12 to 18.
Some of his players come from broken homes, are in gangs, and have been in and out of school. But more often than not they are simply misguided youngsters in need of an opportunity. And they’re drawn to Jackson. They look up to him, on and off the court, because in many ways they see a bit of themselves in him — and he in them.
“Kendrick understands the struggle that people of color have to go through,” said 17-year-old Solomon Abioye, who plays power forward for the Beantown Bulls. “He doesn’t want to see people like us go through that struggle.”
For Jackson and for his players, the Bulls are more than just a team; they are a brotherhood, a family.
“They go to battle for me. I go to battle for them,” Jackson said. “They withstand the odds. That’s why I call them my gladiators. We’re always battling something.”
And for years, Jackson was fighting his own battle on the streets.
When Jackson was 10 years old, his family moved from Faneuil Gardens, a Brighton housing development, to the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, one of the most dangerous sections of Dorchester.
The young Jackson spent most of his time playing sports — basketball, football, and swimming. It wasn’t until shortly after he began attending Charlestown High School that he learned about the war raging around him.
“I started to see real-life situations, who was in a gang, what areas not to go to, fights, [and] people getting robbed,” he said.
Jackson quickly learned the ropes. He and his friends stuck together, and formed a gang to protect one another.
His family knew little about his troubles, but began to see the effects. Jackson’s grades began to slip and he became rebellious, often bumping heads with his parents.
Jackson, who is one of four children, felt alone and badly wanted to have his big brother, Kenneth, around. But Kenneth was away at college. “That older brother guidance I longed for really wasn’t there,” he said. “The brother who had time for me was into drugs, women. . . . I gave into it.”
Jackson barely attended his sophomore year of school. He stole from stores, broke into homes, robbed and assaulted people. He was arrested a handful of times.
“It’s part of life experiences in Dorchester,” said Jackson, who has the scars from that time in his life. “I saw a lot of my friends go to jail and die.”
Nineteen of his friends fell victim to the streets, he said, including five of his closest friends. One was 24-year-old Alex DoSouto, a former gang member who had turned his life around before he was killed on Jan. 8, becoming Boston’s first homicide victim of the year.
Jackson is not proud of his past and would prefer not to talk about it.
“Most people see me as a basketball coach and I like that,” said Jackson.
Jackson received a wake-up call when he was 17: He thought he was going to become a father. He knew he needed to shape up. He rushed to a mentor at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative anxious for some guidance and was given a job teaching kids how to play basketball.
Jackson first started an organized basketball team in 2012, after urging from some of the teens he was coaching. It was called the Boston Heat and had seven players. The team was later renamed Beantown Bulls, and its numbers quickly swelled to 50 players from across the city.
Unlike many other AAU teams, Jackson’s comes at no charge to the players. He spends much of his own earnings as an employee at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative to cover tournament fees, travel vans, hotels, and food for out-of-town games. The Dorchester Youth Collaborative has helped with uniforms; Jackson’s mentors and some of his players’ parents have also contributed financially, he said. Jackson’s brother, Kenneth, pitches in as a coach.
“He went from not knowing what he wanted, to pursuing it with a passion I’ve never seen him pursue anything before,” Kenneth said.
Though the season lasts from March until July, Jackson remains involved in his players’ lives year-round.
They confide personal problems to him, and he makes sure they’re doing well in school. He buys them clothes and in some cases gives them his own sneakers.
“It’s rare in this world to see someone with such heart and caring for all of those teenagers. He really looks out for them,” said Murray Sackman, 61, who handles administrative duties for the Beantown Bulls. His son, 18-year-old Elliot, a Newton North basketball player, also played for Jackson.
“He coaches basketball for the way he wants them to live their life,” Sackman said.
Jackson spends many nights in a gray DYC van with members of his team, racing to his players’ high school games, trying to never miss one.
“You go, boy!” Jackson shouted as he stood at the edge of the basketball court with three of his players at Braintree high school, where Catholic Memorial and Newton North were battling it out Tuesday night in the Division 1 South boys’ basketball semifinal.
One of his star players, 18-year-old Guilien Smith, had just dunked on the opposing team before falling to the floor.
“He expanded my game,” said Smith. “He had the same dreams I had when I was younger — he’s helping me get there. He’s like an older brother to me.”
Emmett Folgert, who runs the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, described Jackson as a “true indigenous leader,” adding that many of the youths he works with end up going to college.
“He’s a great positive role model,” said Kenneth Johnson, Jackson’s coworker at DYC and longtime friend. “He’s from the city. He’s been through a lot of the struggles some of them have been through and are going through.”
Jackson was the first person who Napoleon Miller, then 13, thought to run to after a family dispute. Miller, who said he once hung out with the wrong crowd, is now 18 and a basketball player at Newton North.
“He knows what I go through,” Miller said of Jackson. “[The Beantown Bulls] really means a lot to me.”
Miller’s father, Napoleon Sr., said he is thankful to have Jackson in his son’s life.
“[Napoleon] comes from a real complex neighborhood,” said the elder Miller. “He’s never been arrested and that’s a miracle. I can credit that to Kendrick.”