Born in a railroad boxcar in Illmo, Missouri, Mannie Jackson spent his early childhood years with his parents and other members of his extended family living on the tracks. Years later, following a fabulous high school basketball career at Edwardsville, Illinois, he accepted a basketball scholarship to Illinois.
It would be the start of an amazing journey that would take him to the highest levels of the business world began.
Before he was through, and he is still not done, he would become a senior vice president of Fortune 500 company — Honeywell Inc. — and eventually serve on the board of directors for six major international companies. He also became the first African-American chairman of the board for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he himself was later enshrined.
His 2002 enshrinement came in recognition of him becoming the first African-American to own a major sports/entertainment organization having purchased the Harlem Globetrotters in 1993. Also that year, Black Enterprise magazine name him one of the nation’s 40 most powerful and influential black corporate executives.
The 6-foot-2 Jackson, who was elected team captain and finished his college career as the fifth-leading scorer in Illinois history, describes his business career accomplishments “as improbable and maybe more difficult than averaging 60 points per game in the Big Ten.”
At Illinois, Jackson broke down racial barriers, when he and former high school teammate Govoner Vaughn became the first African-Americans to letter and start for the Illini men’s basketball team. After graduation Jackson headed to New York City to work and play for the Technical Tape Corporation in the National Industrial Basketball League. Ironically, Vaughn would join the Globetrotters.
Working in New York City “allowed me to see beyond basketball,” Jackson said. “It allowed me to see beyond academics, and it allowed me to see beyond race because for the first time I met many high level business achievers from all backgrounds.”
His ascent in the business world was interrupted when Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein asked Jackson to join the international team as a competitive player. Following his globetrotting basketball days, he reentered the corporate world with a new found global prospective.
— Mannie Jackson
In 1992, with the once-storied Harlem Globetrotters in bankruptcy, his business and basketball passions intersected when he began investigating the possibility of buying the team. Jackson was still with Honeywell when he eventually purchased the Globetrotters the following year.
That Jackson was able to turn the Globetrotters into fast-growing, profitable and relevant entity didn’t surprise former Illinois teammate Jerry Colangelo, whose own resume includes stints as chairman and CEO of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks.
Colangelo, the current chairman of USA Basketball’s board of directors, said his former Illinois teammate made him a better person in his own journey to success. A fellow guard, Colangelo remembers his sophomore season, when senior Jackson was “amazingly helpful” to him as well as being a great teammate who “showed leadership and the willingness to step out there and put himself on the line.”
“Because of the business acumen developed in his storied business career and his passion for the game of basketball, it was a natural tie-in,” said Colangelo of Jackson’s efforts with the venerable Globetrotters. “The fact he actually played for the Globetrotters for a time gave him all that was required in the way of experience and know-how to turn that business around in an incredible way.”
In order to help other African-Americans in the business world, Jackson later co-founded and served as the first chair for the Executive Leadership Council, an organization devoted to increasing the number of black executives in corporations worldwide.
Count former Globetrotter Hallie Bryant as another longtime friend and fan of Jackson’s. Bryant, who spent nearly three decades as a player and front-office administrator with the Globetrotters, said Jackson, was a true competitor but that’s not what made him stand out.
“He was always curious and thought outside of the box; he was very astute,” said Bryant, who played at Indiana. “Above all he had integrity, and that’s why we hit it off so well.”
A commitment to philanthropy was cemented during Jackson’s tenure as owner of the Globetrotters when the organization’s charitable contributions totaled in the millions, including $2 million raised for the Nelson Mandela African Children’s Foundation. To demonstrate just how far he had come, the man who spent his early years in a segregated community in southern Illinois counted Mandela as a friend and has met such world leaders as Pope John Paul II and several U.S. presidents, not to mention polarizing figures such as Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev.
In recent years, Jackson has turned more of his attention to helping others succeed in the business world. He sees himself as a philanthropist and a venture capitalist working with several new companies and early startups.
“I find myself having the opportunity to work with many brilliant people who have great ideas, and what they need is the experiences I’ve had and the capital contacts I have,” Jackson said. “I pick one or two a year that I want to invest my time and dollars into. I enjoy helping people realize their dreams.”
Jackson’s legacy of giving back has extended to his alma mater, where he donated $2 million dollars to start the Mannie L. Jackson Illinois Academic Enrichment and Leadership Program (I-LEAP). The program provides academic and social support through bi-weekly one-on-one academic coaching sessions, mentoring, academic skills development, leadership training and referrals to resources. He has also partnered with Lewis and Clark College to develop an International Humanities Center at the site of his once segregated grammar school in Edwardsville.
Jackson and his wife Cathy have three adult children; Randall, Candace and Cassandra, to whom he has also stressed the importance of education. But he relishes the opportunity at Illinois to help students from backgrounds like his succeed.
“Any way that he’s able to lend a hand to students or even to me, he does it at the drop of a dime,” said Krystal Andrews, I-LEAP senior program coordinator. “Really what he’s most proud of would be this program and being able to affect change here.”
A member of the board of directors for the university foundation, Jackson recently contributed $3 million in support of the Mannie L. Jackson University of Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame. He received the Illinois Alumni Achievement Award in 1996.
“He’s been an enormous force in terms of helping the basketball program and alumni association and the university,” said longtime Illini observer Loren Tate, who has covered Illini sports for 48 years at the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette newspaper.
In recent years, Jackson authored the book “Boxcar to Board Rooms,” a reflection on his memories and travels. Jackson keeps two small boxcar replicas in his office and would like one day to place a full-sized one on his property. These days when he passes a railroad track, he still thinks of his humble beginnings.
“I’m a long way from that world today,” Jackson said, “But I never look at a boxcar and see anything other than hope.”