Only Sam Jacobson really knows what it feels like, but ever since the Gophers men’s basketball player set foot on campus three years ago, he’s been poked and prodded by just about everyone who has ever followed his career.
Nobody is watched more closely than the junior from Cottage Grove, and nobody is expected to perform at a higher level. When somebody like Jacobson came along — he was touted as the best Minnesota basketball player since Kevin McHale — people noticed.
And as the Gophers embark upon their 1996-97 season Saturday against Stephen F. Austin, Jacobson finds the attention still surrounds him and the questions haven’t gone away.
He should provide answers about his health, desire and future throughout the season. But despite all the outside distractions, Jacobson doesn’t feel the pressure to perform beyond his expectations.
“I don’t think any more than other years,” he said. “I just try to keep improving.”
Jacobson seemed destined to reach his potential before stamina problems took their toll midway through last year’s Big Ten season. As a sophomore he averaged just under 15 points during his first 20 games. In the remaining 12, he averaged under 10 points.
Jacobson had allergy problems and difficulty breathing. Because of this, Gophers coach Clem Haskins reduced Jacobson’s minutes in the second half of the conference season.
Doctors discovered that Jacobson had a deviated septum. His now famous off-season nose surgery repaired it and allowed him to breathe easier.
For some time Jacobson had the most famous nose in Minnesota. Everybody wanted to know about it.
“It’s kind of dying down now,” he said of the attention. “I’ve told everybody it’s not something that’s just a super, major improvement. I’m not going to be able to run across the United States without getting tired or anything. I can breathe better. I was usually all stuffed up, but it’s a lot better now.”
Still, Haskins said Jacobson will play about 25 minutes per game.
“With the kind of style coach plays, you’re only going to be in 25 to 30 at the most anyway because of the hard pressure defense,” he said. “He’ll give you a breather and bring you back in.”
He hopes to have offset his endurance difficulties by bulking up during the summer. He lifted weights and is much stronger.
Jacobson did it because he was getting pushed around too much by bigger players.
“I’d go up against guys like Voshon (Lenard) and Jayson Walton and they basically had the advantage over me,” he said. “They pushed me around whenever they wanted to. You play in summer games and you come up against Melvin Newbern and those guys. They’re strong, too.”
While Jacobsen might be physically improved, Haskins said “The most important thing for Sam is to play with heart.” He wants the small forward to show the same intensity Haskins saw in former All-Big Ten selection Willie Burton, who led the Gophers to the Elite Eight in 1990.
Jacobson understands where Haskins is coming from, and said he has done a pretty good job being more vocal on the court. But he said it’s more typical of his personality to be quiet while playing.
“Coach knows what each player can do,” Gophers senior John Thomas said. “(Haskins) is just trying to bring out the best in him with his athletic ability and desire.”
Thomas, Jacobson’s roommate, is more animated and vocal. Jacobson said the two have the same persona off the court, but are different at game time.
“I’m more to myself,” Jacobson said. “I play better when I’m thinking to myself and not worrying about everything else. It’s just your personality. I don’t think it means John wants to do more. I want to do well and I want our team to do well just as much as everyone else.”
Jacobson thinks this might be a turning point in his Minnesota career. Now that he’s a junior, he’s been through the Big Ten battles and postseason play.
“I think the first two years are just kind of a learning experience,” he said. “When you hit your junior year you’re more experienced, you know the system, you know the other teams and their offense. You know what to expect.”
And he knows all eyes will be on him.