The National Basketball Players Association is the union for N.B.A. players, a group of adult millionaires, most of whose mothers don’t attend unit meetings.
But Terri Jackson is no ordinary N.B.A. mom. She is also the executive director for the W.N.B.A. players’ union, and, in February, she was invited to the N.B.A. players’ union’s winter meeting. As she put finishing touches on the presentation she was about to deliver, her son, Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies, was nominated to be one of the union’s vice presidents.
He gave a short, impromptu speech, telling his colleagues he wanted to bridge the gap between established players and younger ones like him. He said he felt it was time for him to take on that responsibility.
When he finished, Terri Jackson said, she wanted to get up and cheer; she was so happy to see the maturity he showed. Instead, she squeezed her fists tightly and kept them hidden behind her laptop screen, so as not to embarrass her 23-year-old son. When he was elected, she raised her arms in celebration.
In becoming a union vice president, Jackson Jr. extended a family tradition of being involved in player unions and the future of the game. His father, Jaren Jackson Sr., a journeyman N.B.A. player from 1989-2002, was also a players’ union member.
Five years into his career, Jackson Jr. has already exceeded what his father accomplished on the court. Last season, he was named the N.B.A.’s defensive player of the year, and he helped lead the Grizzlies to one of the best records in the Western Conference.
“If you love the game, that’s what you’re really doing it for,” Jackson Jr. said of his union activity. “I want kids growing up, whether it’s my kids or other people’s kids, when they grow up and they want to play in the league, they’re going to have a good foundation.”
Practically since birth, Jaren Jr. was destined to care about labor issues. He was born while his father, who had most recently played for the San Antonio Spurs, was going through a work stoppage during the N.B.A. lockout in 1999.
Jaren Sr., whose father was also a union member as a longshoreman in New Orleans, was a free agent during the lockout, waiting for the Spurs to re-sign him.
He would sometimes fly to New York to attend bargaining meetings, joining elite players like Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond.
“This was a tough time for me,” Jaren Sr. said. “I wasn’t sure about my future and I sat there and listened to these guys, you know, drop F-bombs all over the place and talk about these players getting paid and owners making this money.”
Terri Jackson also has a family history of support for unions. She remembers a story about her father, who was a lawyer, speaking for better pay for teachers at a school board meeting.
“When I think about getting to be the executive director for the W players, I just, you know, I think a little bit: ‘Wow. You know, my dad would be so proud of this’ — or he is so proud,” Terri Jackson said. “And that his grandson is a union rep? That’s amazing.”
She and Jaren Sr. both went to college at Georgetown University, where she also attended law school. She has taught classes about women in sports and worked at the University of the District of Columbia as a legal counsel and later assistant general counsel.
The family moved to Indiana in 2012 when Terri began working for the N.C.A.A; she eventually became the organization’s director of law, policy and governance. In 2016, when Jaren Jr. was in high school, she became the executive director of the W.N.B.P.A., where she has led initiatives for improved maternity benefits and better pay for players.
His parents’ careers meant Jaren Jr. moved often, and that he had to learn to adapt to new people quickly.
The Jacksons said they raised him to participate, to be comfortable in front of people he didn’t know.
He was always bigger than the other children, and he learned early how to make his peers feel comfortable. At age 4, that meant sharing toys in a sandbox, and, as he got older, it meant speaking up for them in class or running for student council.
“Given all that your life has been blessed with, all the opportunities that you have, there’s an expectation that you participate in the lives of others,” Terri said.
His classmates elected him to student government, which taught him how to relate to his peers and to help them feel heard.
He also learned how to perform in front of groups, a skill that transferred to his professional basketball career. At summer camps growing up, he would perform dances with friends. A hip-hop performance when Jaren Jr. was about 14 or 15 years old remains etched in Jaren Sr.’s memory.
“I’m not allowed to share the video with anyone,” said Jaren Sr. “But he did a magnificent job.”
Jaren Sr. reached the N.B.A. as an undrafted player and cobbled together a long career in pieces, making stops in lesser leagues and finding smaller roles with N.B.A. teams, including one championship season with the Spurs.
Jaren Jr. was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, already nearly seven feet tall.
He played one season at Michigan State before the Grizzlies selected him fourth overall in the 2018 draft.
Injuries have interrupted his first few years, but Jackson’s talent has been undeniable. On an exceptionally young Grizzlies team, Jackson has quickly become one of the leaders.
He missed the first 14 games of the 2022-23 season while recovering from surgery, but he was still voted the league’s defensive player of the year.
He learned the news when the TNT analyst Ernie Johnson announced it during a broadcast. Jackson sat back on a couch at home with a basketball between his knees. As soon as Johnson said his name, Terri, who was standing near him, started shouting in celebration.
“WOOOOOOO! Yes! Yes! Yes!” she said, as Jaren Jr. smiled and put his hands over his eyes.
“I just like to chill be quiet and relax,” Jaren Jr. said, “but she’s — you let your mom enjoy those moments.”
This time, she didn’t have to hide her joy behind a laptop.
When his peers elected him as an N.B.P.A. vice president, Jaren Jr. made sure they knew that he understood he had a lot to learn. He tries to keep his teammates abreast of how to take advantage of collectively bargained benefits, he said.
He has worked with his teammate Ja Morant as Morant navigates the league’s punishment for a series of social media videos that resulted in a 25-game suspension. Jaren Jr. declined to give specifics, saying “that’s his business.”
He had tried to be involved in the union even before joining the executive committee, he said, but having an official role means longer meetings and more responsibility.
“It’s a lot,” Jaren Jr. said. “You have to look after the league — you’re like a big brother.”
The veteran players in the union’s leadership roles are helping him as he learns the league’s business machinations, he said.
In his parents, he also has two more veterans of sports league union work to rely on if he needs them. But these days, Jaren Jr. doesn’t often do that. Their time together tends to be more family focused, the lessons of the past having been imprinted long ago.