By UTEP Athletics
Dave Feitl had a lot to look forward to on May 2, 1987.
With his rookie year in the NBA winding down, Feitl's Houston Rockets were set to open the Western Conference Semifinals at home against the Seattle Supersonics. The Rockets had fostered a 42-40 record during the regular season, but were riding a wave of momentum after upsetting third seed Portland, 3-1 in the first round.
Feitl also eagerly awaited a visit from his former college teammate, Hernell "Jeep" Jackson. Feitl and Jackson had played together for three seasons at UTEP (1983-86), and Jackson was about to embark on a pro career of his own.
The Carson, Calif. native had recently been chosen by the Philadelphia Aces in the United States Basketball League draft. But after a breakout senior year with the Miners - supplying the heart and soul for a 25-7 team - Jackson was getting looks from the big boys.
"Bill Fitch, the coach of the Rockets, had talked to me the previous week about Jeep," Feitl said. "They were thinking about drafting him, because they had aging point guards at the time. The Rockets ownership really liked the way Jeep played, and they were asking me about his character.
"Jeep was going to be flying down to see me in Houston that weekend."
But Jackson never made it.
On May 2, he was scheduled to play in a benefit basketball game at Fort Bliss Logan Heights Fitness Center with two other ex-Miners and four members of the NFL's Houston Oilers.
In the opening minutes of the game, he was the same old Jeep, bringing his infectious smile and spirit to both ends of the floor. Then something terrible happened.
Jackson sat down on the bench at approximately 2:55 p.m., then collapsed. An ambulance arrived shortly after, and paramedics tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him. Jackson was taken to Beaumont Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 4:09 p.m.
"As I was getting home, the phone rang, and someone from El Paso told me that Jeep had died," Feitl said. "Then I checked the messages on my answering machine, and there was a message from Jeep. He said `Hey big boy, I'm coming down to Houston ... come get me. I'm looking forward to seeing you.' It was eerie and sad at the same time."
It was also impossible to believe, how someone with so much energy, enthusiasm and vitality could be gone at age 23.
Coach Don Haskins was so devastated by Jackson's passing that he couldn't summon the courage to notify his parents. Instead, he asked his former assistant coach, Tim Floyd, to deliver the horrible news.
Floyd had just completed his first year as the head coach at Idaho.
"It's still one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do," Floyd said of the phone call he made to Vivian Jackson.
"Coach Haskins asked me to call her because he couldn't reach down deep enough to find it in him. He was so upset about the loss of Jeep."
Weeks later, autopsy reports showed that birth defects in his heart caused Jackson's death. The abnormalities had gone undetected while Jackson was playing 2,862 minutes in 124 games for the Miners over four seasons.
The Miners posted a 101-27 record in those four years, part of an unprecedented run to seven straight NCAA Tournaments. They won the Western Athletic Conference regular season title every year with Jackson on the roster.
Jackson raised his scoring average from 1.9 points as a freshman to 5.1 as a sophomore, 7.5 as a junior and 12.9 as a senior. He collected 313 assists and 165 steals in his UTEP career, numbers that rank seventh and fourth in the Miner record book to this day.
Statistics, however, only begin to tell the story of Jackson's contributions to UTEP basketball.
"He was the epitome of what coach Don Haskins was all about," said Tim Hardaway, who played two seasons with Jackson (1985-87). "He was a hard worker. He went out there and led by example, and taught you what coach was trying to say.
"He was a beautiful human being. He wanted everybody to excel. He never had any arguments with anyone. He was just an easy-going, lovable person."
"He was more of a friend than anything - a guy you could count on, on and off the court," said Mike Richmond, Jackson's teammate for three years (1984-87). "He was just someone who loved people. He loved putting a smile on everybody's faces. He just loved to have fun."
Jackson always found the appropriate balance between playing, practicing, studying and having a good time.