After winning the most important game of his career, Jason Preston had one thing — or more specifically — one person on his mind.
Ohio had just destroyed Buffalo to win its first Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship since 2012. Players were screaming, high-fiving and jumping into each other's arms. As Jason climbed the ladder to cut down his piece of the championship net, he could only focus on the person he felt was most responsible for his success.
And how he couldn’t share it with her.
“First thing I thought about was my mom,” Jason said. “She was a big part of why I’m here and a big part about why I got into basketball. She’s been on my mind heavy this whole year honestly.”
Jason’s mom, Judith, died of lung cancer before his junior year of high school. But he carries her spirit throughout his soft spoken, yet confident demeanor. Jason and his mom were as tight as it gets. One of their favorite things to do together was cheer for Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and the Detroit Pistons when they played on TV.
You see the Pistons weren’t that popular in Orlando, where Jason grew up. But they were another thing that connected a mother and son.
“My mom introduced me to it when I was really young,” Jason said. “I remember she was a Piston fan when I was like 4 years old. It’s basically what I just grew up into. I mean, this was...2004 when they were really good.”
Jason and Judith were best friends. He trusted her, loved her and respected her. Judith was Jamaican and made sure her son understood the values of respect and hard work. And while Judith did her best to teach Jason those values, she understood the importance of her son having male role models in his life.
When Jason met Stanley Brown, the connection was instant. Brown was the stepfather of one of Jason’s closest friends, Jehvaughn Curtis, and he was the coach of Jason’s youth basketball team — the Jr. Magic.
The moment Jason stepped on the court, Brown knew he had a special player. The same vision that Jason utilizes in The Convo when he plays for the Bobcats, he displayed on the court with the Jr. Magic.
But what impressed Brown the most about Jason was his maturity.
“Jason has his mom’s personality,” Brown said. “He’s very cool, calm and collected. He’s very soft spoken and always carried the same demeanor, he’s really just kind of the same person every day. He gets that from his mom.”
So when Jason would show up to practice, Brown leaned on him to be that cool, calm and collected leader he knew he could be. Jason never got a technical foul, though other players would try to talk to him or intimidate him. Sooner or later, though, his play would quiet the hecklers.
“Man, we won a lot of championships when we were smaller,” Jehvaughn said. “We were undefeated for about two-three years in a row. And Jason was like, the leader.”
One of those championships, Brown remembers, came at the expense of a promise that almost never was fulfilled.
When Jason was 8, the Jr. Magic had once again made it to the championship alongside Jehvaughn, his friend Sheldon Thompson and Brown leading the way. The team they were facing, however, was much larger and heavily favored.
Realizing that he needed to inspire the team before tip-off, Brown promised the squad that he’d take them to Hooters if they won the championship. The offer of free honey BBQ chicken wings was all Jason needed to hear.
“They really turnt up on me,” Brown said laughing. “Every time we had a timeout, when we would break it would be ‘one, two, three, Hooters!’”
But even with the added motivation, the Jr. Magic still went down to the wire. With the game on the line, the team looked to Jason to deliver the goods.
“Jason made us win that game off a buzzer beater,” Thompson said. “The crazy part is it was a trick shot. He was like one step from going out of bounds and then he threw the ball up over the backboard and it went over.”
Even after all these years, Jason remembers that game. And he remembers the chicken he’s owed.
“So after the game we were like ‘when are you gonna take us?’” Preston said. “He (coach Brown) said ‘well, I’ll eventually take ya.’ To this day he still always says that he will.”
Even though Brown’s methods were unconventional, Jason and the other players loved him. When Jason visits Orlando, coach Brown is someone he always looks forward to seeing. Besides his mom, Brown was one of the people in Jason’s life that knew he would eventually make his dreams come true.
Part of the reason why Jason was so close to coach Brown was that his mother trusted him as well. When Jason played for the Jr. Magic, there was a game that Brown remembered Jason had got hit in his head and blood gushed everywhere.
Judith wanted Jason to sit out the next game, but Brown needed his star player, and after multiple tries and after Brown’s attempt of makeshift headgear, Jason was ready to play...even if a few drops still managed to get through during the game.
But that was Judith, always protective of Jason but supportive over what made him happy. She wanted him to go for his goals even after she would be gone. She knew the people that surrounded him would take good care of him.
When Jason’s mother passed away from lung cancer, it was understandably a very difficult time for him. Jason was always a soft spoken kid, but those surrounding him worried how the weight of the situation would affect him.
Even though that weight was heavy, Jason carried it. Judith’s death could’ve caused Jason to check out of life. Instead, he decided to live it for the both of them.
“That’s just a credit to the person that he is,” Brown said.
One of the tools that brought peace to Jason was basketball. One of his favorite places to go in Orlando was the Dover Shores Community Center. Jason would first go to the computer lab and study his two favorite players, Chris Paul and LeBron James.
“I’ve watched every LeBron James video that there is,” Jason said. “LeBron and Chris Paul are like, the two guys I’ve studied religiously.”
After Jason would study, he would go play for hours and hours and hours.
Being one of the smallest players on the court, Jason had to use his wits in order to stay on the crowded courts. He made everyone he played with better and it wasn’t easy to knock him off.
When asked about the possibility of playing with or against LeBron or Chris Paul someday in the league, Jason slightly gushed at the idea. It’s been something he’s had to consider after the NBA Draft board immediately learned his name after his career-day against the powerhouse Illinois.
But quickly he refocused on the challenge that was in front of him — the MAC Tournament. From a young age, Jason learned to take pride in his work and finish the job. On Saturday night he did, leading Ohio back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
And as he sat on a Zoom interview as a champion and tournament MVP, Jason was thankful for his mom, God and the coaches and players in his life that got him to this moment.
Athens is 872 miles away from Orlando but the support from home comes with instant shipping. Coach Brown owns a trucking business and will try to watch the highlights of the games he can’t catch. Jehvaughn still contacts him and tells him that he’s proud of him.
Humility is one of Jason’s strong suits. Whenever he’s praised he turns the attention to a teammate working just as hard. All he wants to do is win for his team. Jason hasn’t been to Orlando since about this time last year he’s said. He’s grown even closer to the Bobcats because of that.
The team he has at home, however, is still rooting for him and looking forward to catching up over dinner.
“I told him one of these summers when you get time off, we’ll have to go to Hooters,” Brown said.