Four years down to one game for Jacobson, fans

Tim Klobuchar

Most stalls in the Gophers men’s basketball team’s locker room don’t draw the attention of cleaning crews.
One stands out.
Student workers have noticed that in the two-foot-wide wooden cubicle currently occupied by senior Sam Jacobson, a bottle or can of Sprite is almost always present when they clean the locker room after practice.
The product placement reminds them of the TV commercial featuring another high-flyer, Detroit Pistons star, in which an aspiring dunker says to himself, “Grant Hill drinks Sprite.”
“Now, whenever we get Sprite ourselves,” student worker Robb Garni said, “We say, Sam Jacobson drinks Sprite.'”
In the commercial, the Hill wannabe misses a dunk badly and falls flat on his keister. The Williams Arena workers are just as appreciative of Jacobson, but are content, along with everyone else inside the Barn on game days, to simply watch and cheer.
Their last chance to do that will be Saturday afternoon, when Minnesota plays Northwestern in its 1998 home finale. The game also marks the Williams Arena farewells of seniors Eric Harris and Rob Schoenrock. Everyone knows, however, that Jacobson’s goodbye is extra special.
The Cottage Grove, Minn., native’s prolific scoring and aerial feats would have made him a star anyway, but his hometown boy status has cemented his spot as one of the most beloved Gophers in recent memory. After Saturday, memories will likely have to suffice as Minnesota fans’ Jacobson fix.
“I’ve appreciated it,” Jacobson said of his huge in-state following. “It’s been great since my high school days to have so many people supporting me and following me, and coming here to the U, that same support has been here.”
Jacobson was well-known already when he came to Minnesota as a freshman in 1994. He was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball his senior year in high school and picked up several national honors as well. Naturally, expectations were as high as his vertical leap, and proved impossible to match.
Fans, avoiding sacrilege, never booed Jacobson. They did, however, occasionally voice their displeasure with coach Clem Haskins when Jacobson did meet their goals for him. During his sophomore year, when Jacobson started to get on a roll in a game, he was sometimes removed by Haskins. Fans acted as though the baby sitter had disciplined their son without permission.
Jacobson and Haskins both said they were unaffected by the fans’ reaction.
“The good always outweighs the negative,” Haskins said of the extra pressure Jacobson has faced. “He’s been happy playing here, and the fans, like all fans, expected too much too soon. That’s too much pressure, but he dealt with it in a very professional manner, and he’s handled everything thrown at him.”
Jacobson’s calm demeanor no doubt has aided him in dealing with the pressure he’s faced. His on-court stoicism, Minnesotan all the way, has been one of the trademarks of his game and a big reason for his success. But will emotion get the better of him Saturday? If he breaks away for one last spectacular dunk at Williams, creating a decibel level normally reserved for airplane takeoffs, will we see a fist-pump? A little trash-talk? Heck, even a smile?
“You can’t really tell much with me,” said Jacobson, now the school’s seventh-leading scorer of all time with 1,549 career points. “I’m not a real emotional guy on the court. I don’t get rattled easily. I just try to focus on the game. That’s just my style. As far as emotions, that rattles my game. To me, when you make a great play it’s just one play in the whole game.”
Still, Jacobson’s not immune to the doubts that plague other players. When he had a bad shooting night in high school, he wouldn’t be able to sleep, so he went outside and shot baskets. When he was in a miserable shooting slump earlier this season, he admitted he was putting too much pressure on himself to live up to his expectations.
Of course, opposite emotions can be felt by Jacobson, but not seen or heard.
“He’s a quiet guy,” Haskins said. “But he’s also a witty person. He likes to have fun, laugh and enjoy life more than people realize or give him credit for. He really doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but he’s an emotional person in his own way.”
He might not be gregarious, but that hasn’t taken a toll on his popularity. Although he downplays his local fame, saying, “Basketball’s a big sport, but not everyone follows it,” after home games he can often be seen in front of the Subway stand at Williams signing autographs for kids.
“He’s the hometown kid, so you’ve got to cheer for him,” said student worker Garni, a Minnesota native. “But he’s also a class act all the way around. Things you hear about other athletes aren’t true with Sam.”
Jacobson’s never seemed completely comfortable with the attention he gets, but his Gophers career has nonetheless reinforced his desire to stay close to home once he leaves college. As a likely NBA draft pick this June, Jacobson has expressed that, if he had a choice, the Timberwolves would be No. 1.
After four years stocked with plenty of points, an unforgettable Final Four run and an adoring throng that gives unconditional love, Jacobson sees no reason to want to leave. Any extra burden he would feel to fulfill the state’s expectations of basketball glory are, like Minnesota, familiar territory.
“People always ask me if I want to play for the Timberwolves, and I think that would be great,” Jacobson said. “I wouldn’t mind (the pressure). I’ve been through it so much, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Then he cracks, for him, a public joke while expressing that staying in Minnesota might mean as much to him as it does to basketball fans in the state.
“I’m just trying to spread the word and tell them that I’m interested,” Jacobson said.