In just about every possible way, Jackie Cruz Towns was everything you would want in a mother.
Her parenting strategy mirrored her profession as a nurse at Rutgers for over 20 years. Jackie was caring and loving, a mentor and a passionate and vocal cheerleader for her family.
She instilled years of hard-earned experience in her kids; a champion for all that involved her daughter, Lachelle, and basketball superstar son, Karl-Anthony.
While producing a documentary on the then-high-school junior, I got to know Karl-Anthony’s parents well and asked Jackie about the reasons why she felt it imperative to play such an active role in her son’s life.
“The support system is always what’s needed for any student-athlete to achieve their goals,” she said. “If you don’t have the family behind you, you very rarely get there. We want him to have a better life than we did.”
Jackie’s tutelage and devotion to her seven-foot son, who she affectionately called “Little Karl,” occurred both behind closed doors at their central New Jersey residence as well as in the presence of Karl’s classmates and fans.
The St. Joe’s Metuchen basketball gym was always packed – filled with supporters thrilled to watch one of New Jersey’s greatest prodigies perform as Jackie put it, “like a ballerina dancing.”
For games, her routine was consistent. She would sit with Lachelle and her daughter JJ in the top row; row 4, underneath the north basket.
Her seat location was always about as far away from Karl Sr. as possible. Not because they didn’t get along – the Towns parents had an idyllic relationship, but Karl Sr., himself a standout player at Monmouth College, found it a challenge to concentrate on the nuances of the game with Jackie’s constant cheering.
Karl Sr. knew he couldn’t get his wife to tone down the cheering for their son. Her passion wasn’t to be muted, and Jackie made sure to inform those around her of her intentions prior to tip-off.
That year, she told me that she would explain to those seated near her: “I am really sorry, but this is the way I react, so please forgive me now and I’ll come back to normal when the game is over.”
During that season, Jackie also explained the feelings she felt when watching her son in action.
She said, “I just have this out-of-body experience (when I watch Karl play). I don’t see anybody but my son.”
But Jackie wasn’t just Karl-Anthony’s No. 1 fan. Along with Karl Sr., she imparted a tough, don’t-settle-for-anything-less-than-perfection attitude in her son, who graduated high school with a 3.96 GPA.
That mantra became evident at the dinner table, the site of so many teaching moments throughout his childhood, after an excruciating loss to archrival East Brunswick High School.
It was the second time that season that St. Joes had failed to beat the Bears, and Jackie implored her son to utilize the seven-point defeat as a learning experience.
But Karl-Anthony wasn’t having it. He calmly told his mom, “Sooner or later you have to stop learning. We can keep learning and learning but if we don’t do (anything), it doesn’t make a difference.”
Instead of accepting defeat and chalking it up to another life lesson gained, he knew he needed to win – nothing else would suffice.
That year, Jackie told me about the sacrifices Karl-Anthony made to be on the path to stardom. She mentioned that he didn’t hang out with friends like the other kids his age did.
The family had often discussed what it would take to realize the dream of making it to the NBA. He had to get his shots in – he had to get bigger, stronger, more mobile.
And, in that moment, in the dining room, he knew that the sacrifices would only be worth it if he won.
His mother played many roles in his life – mentor, inspiration, best friend (along with his dad) and role model were just a few.
And as kids often do, Karl-Anthony always sought to make his mother proud of him.
A shining example came on July 12, 2012, when the 16-year-old Towns laced up his sneakers in an exhibition game for the Dominican National Team in Las Vegas. The opponent: Team USA.
Jackie was a native of the Dominican Republic and when she reflected on that game, which included the youngster smoothly connecting on a three-pointer over future top overall pick Anthony Davis, she could hardly contain her emotions.
She said, “That was the ultimate; watching him at 16 playing against LeBron and Kobe and Anthony Davis and doing all of the fundamental things that those pros were doing. That was the most inspiring and memorable moment.”
While the recruiters, elite college coaches, fans, pro scouts and the rest of the basketball world took notice of the big man with otherworldly skills, the Towns parents made sure Karl-Anthony’s priorities and attitude were kept in check.
Jackie always impressed upon her son the notion that others needs had to be taken care of prior to fulfilling one’s own.
After each high school game, when the media wanted to speak with Karl-Anthony about the game and Karl Sr. wanted to provide feedback on his performance and coach Dave Turco was looking to address his squad – Jackie made sure Karl-Anthony signed every autograph, took every selfie, and treated every youngster the way her youngster was being treated by his adoring fans.
During that eventful high school season, Jackie said, “Karl is very grounded. He’s Karl; we don’t see him as anyone else and he doesn’t see himself as anyone else.”
That same humility remains evident today within the 24-year-old two-time NBA All-Star. Coach Turco recently said, “I’ve always said Karl is a better person than basketball player, and that comes from the life lessons that Jackie instilled in him.”
To Jackie, importance wasn’t based on status, but determined by what she felt best aligned with her morals. The more respect people gave, the higher the person ranked with her.
As Karl continued his ascent up the hierarchy of high school prospects, he gained recognition and coverage from the biggest national sports media outlets, but she was never prouder than when his picture landed on the cover of the sports section of the local newspaper. It was the outlet that she read daily and it was that one that featured reporters who covered her son most often.
The 2015 NBA draft in Brooklyn, the one that saw “Little Karl” selected first overall, provided Jackie with an all-access pass to mingle with NBA royalty.
But it was meeting local sportscaster Andy Adler that left her awestruck. Adler made an indelible impression on Jackie and the chit-chat provided a lasting memory for the Towns matriarch.
It truly was all about respect, humility, friends and family for Jackie Towns.
That’s one reason why she regularly drove the 700 miles from New Jersey to Lexington, Kentucky with Karl Sr. to see her baby compete for the Wildcats.
It’s also the reason why she had to be physically restrained (by Karl Sr.) as she was flipping off and cursing at Joel Embiid after the Sixers center, who had just been in a physical altercation with her son, exited the court.
She felt Embiid had disrespected her son and that just could not happen.
The passing of Jackie Towns is tragic. She was a beloved wife, mother, daughter, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend to so many. She worked tirelessly to provide the best life possible for her kids and, for just a short time, enjoyed the spoils that accompanied the success of her adoring son.
That son made sure she was well taken care of and felt as much love as Jackie provided him.
Love, as explained on Karl-Anthony’s Instagram recently, which included his mother sleeping with him in Pre-K so he could get the best possible nap.
One of the earliest gifts Karl-Anthony bestowed on his mom was a surprise wedding vow renewal at Snuffy’s in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.
While Jackie had thought she was attending a ceremony for a friend, unbeknownst to her, she was provided a wedding gown and feted with a ceremony – something she didn’t have when she originally married Karl Sr.
Coach Turco recently said, “She was the heartbeat of every room she walked into.” And on that day, as with so many others, that statement rang true.
Jackie Towns’ time on earth was cut short by a hideous virus. It’s unfair and her passing leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of those who loved her dearly.
She was special – and the lives she touched, including that of one of the NBA’s most unique talents, will forever be enhanced because of her life which she lived so well.