ASU basketball a family affair for Jacobsen

In retrospect Eric Jacobsen really had no chance of landing anywhere except Arizona State to play his collegiate basketball career. As a third-generation Sun Devil, Jacobsen was exposed to the school and its traditions at an early age. He grew up attending basketball games and tailgating at football games with his parents and extended family.

He also attended ASU basketball camps as a middle schooler and even has a photo of himself posing with former Sun Devil great Jeff Pendergraph (now Ayres) to document the occasion.

So it wasn’t a surprise when he proclaimed – at the ripe age of five – that he was going to be a Sun Devil basketball player someday. “I don’t think there was any doubt in his mind,” said his mother Theresa Jacobsen.

As Jacobsen grew into his 6-foot-10 frame, he slowly blossomed into a bona fide Division-I prospect at (Chandler) Hamilton High. However, the young post player was only scratching the surface of his potential and, for the most part, had been overlooked by ASU coach Herb Sendek and his staff.

However, Sendek would quickly become familiar with the rising prospect after Jacobsen’s grandmother, Jo Ann Bryant, intervened and took destiny into her hands.

She actually wrote Sendek a letter urging the coach to take a look at her grandson. Soon after that, former ASU assistant coach Scott Pera was at Hamilton games to scout Jacobsen, thus beginning ASU’s involvement in his recruiting.

It was Spring 2011 and Jacobsen had just finished his junior season at Hamilton. He and his family decided to take an unofficial visit to the ASU campus to tour the facilities and hear Sendek’s pitch.

“Funny enough the plan was to not commit on the trip,” Theresa said. “His club [basketball] coach had told him to keep his options open and there was no reason to commit early.”

The visit lasted nearly three hours, and included a 45-minute video presentation, which highlighted former ASU post players Jeff Pendergraph and Eric Boateng. Sendek’s message was clear: he loved Jacobsen’s potential and thought he could develop into a dominant college big man -- much like the other two players.

Apparently the sales pitch worked. Jacobsen committed to ASU on the spot -- ending his recruitment before other schools could get seriously involved.

It was a rousing moment for Jacobsen and his family. His childhood proclamation had finally become a reality.

“That was the moment I saw my son’s dream come true,” Theresa said. “And I thought to myself, ‘how ironic is this.’ “

It’s ironic because he would be the second person in his family to play basketball at Arizona State.

The first was actually Theresa, who played for the Lady Sun Devils in the early 1980s. Her affiliation to the school and basketball program certainly influenced Eric’s decision to commit to ASU.

“It was definitely in the back of my mind and I thought it would be a cool thing to follow in her footsteps,” Jacobsen said.

A Mother’s Influence

Jacobsen’s apprenticeship began early – shooting hoops with his mother in the driveway of his family’s home. Theresa, a 6-foot-1 power forward during her playing days, often gave him pointers on the finer aspects of being a post player: establishing position, perfecting footwork, and boxing out defenders.

Jacobsen said he was not able to beat his mother in a one-on-one game until middle school, when he was aided by a massive growth spurt. “She was tough,” Jacobsen joked. “Even though I was young, she never eased up on me.”

Most young boys would not readily accept basketball advice from their mom. Then again, Theresa was no ordinary mom.

After battling a mysterious viral illness that sidelined her for an entire year after high school, she bounced back to become an NJCAA second-team All-American during her sophomore season at Mesa Community College. Her brilliant play earned her a scholarship offer from Arizona State, which she happily accepted.

She was a member of the 1982-83 ASU squad that made it to the Sweet 16 and lost to eventual champion USC, who was led by Cheryl Miller.

Unfortunately her Sun Devil career only lasted one season. She sustained severe shin splints, which prevented her from playing competitive basketball. She decided to voluntarily forfeit her scholarship. However, her resilience to get back on the court would serve as inspiration to her son many years later.

Family Comes First

Family has always been at the epicenter of Jacobsen’s life. So much so that he decided to honor his family with a tattoo. However, when Jacobsen approached his mother last year about his desire to get inked, he was met with some reluctance.

“I understand tattoos are part of today’s culture,” Theresa said. “I just made it clear that you shouldn’t get a tattoo unless it means something to you, because that tattoo will be on your body for the rest of your life.”

Heeding his mother’s advice, Jacobsen conducted extensive research to ensure his tattoo would accurately represent what was most important to him.

Jacobsen was interested in Polynesian artwork, so he interviewed a local tattoo artist to get additional feedback on various symbols in the Polynesian culture. The final result: a prominent tattoo embossed on his left shoulder.

The meaning behind his extravagant tattoo was simple – it represented everything that was important to Jacobsen.

The symbol at the center of his tattoo represents God. The layer surrounding the center is a symbol for a mother and three sisters. And the next layer is a symbol for a warrior and protector – a role that Jacobsen embraces within his nuclear family. The bottom and most outer layer symbolize stability.

Jacobsen is grounded enough to spend an entire week at the Turks and Caicos with his mother, grandmother, and three sisters. They hung out at the beach, relaxed and even played some beach volleyball. “I think it’s pretty cool,” Teresa added. “C’mon, how many 20-year-old guys are willing to do that?”

Jacobsen, the eldest of four children, takes his role of big brother seriously. That role took on a new meaning when Jacobsen’s parents divorced in 2008. He always watched over his three younger sisters, but felt an even greater responsibility to do so after the divorce.

“He is extremely protective of his sisters,” Theresa said. “And he is such a loving and caring big brother.”

Along with his teammate (and friend) Jonathan Gilling, Jacobsen was a volunteer coach last season for his sister’s basketball team at Hamilton High. His middle sister, Sarah, participates in Unified Sports, a program created in 2011 by the AIA and Special Olympics Arizona for aspiring student athletes with intellectual disabilities.

On the flip side, Jacobsen’s family is always there to support him as well. His mother, sisters and grandparents are fixtures at home games. And you can typically find them cheering loudly behind the ASU bench.

Perseverance Leads to Success

When asked about Jacobsen, Sendek gushed about his junior starting center. He rattled off a number of positive characteristics. However, Sendek said the most impressive attribute about Jacobsen is his perseverance.

“As a freshman, he didn’t play a great deal,” Sendek stated. “Last year, by in large, he was in a reserve role. And now he has stepped into an expanded role and is playing great basketball.”

Despite playing limited minutes in his first two seasons, Jacobsen continued to stay the course. Even in today’s college basketball scene where transfers are commonplace, that was never an option for Jacobsen. “My mom taught me to never give up on something you’ve committed to,” he explained. “You need to be a man of your word.”

So instead of sulking about a lack of playing time, Jacobsen went to work this past summer to transform his body and his game. He reported to preseason workouts with a chiseled 255-pound frame. His game had substantially improved as well.

Jacobsen spent the entire offseason working on his post moves and rebounding. He also worked on converting shots around the basket and finishing through contact. On the defensive end, he became quicker in the post, which helped him stay out of foul trouble.

The season is still early but it appears all the hard work has paid off.

Through ten games, Jacobsen is averaging 11.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 67 percent from the field. He is also logging a team-high 33.3 minutes per contest.

It has been an up-and-down season for the Sun Devils (6-4), but the one constant has been the play of Jacobsen.

The Tradition Continues

Sendek has quietly developed a string of post players during his tenure at ASU. It began with Pendergraph, Boateng, and Bachynski. Now you can add Jacobsen to the list of big men who have enjoyed tremendous improvement under Sendek.

“Those are four outstanding post players that didn’t start at the top of the mountain,” Sendek said. “But each guy worked exceptionally hard to become one of the better post players in our conference.”

Jacobsen – who is arguably the most improved player in the Pac-12 – has also become more of a vocal leader this season.

“We have so many new guys this season,” he explained. “So I think it’s something I need to do for this team.”

One of the newcomers in particular, freshman post player Connor MacDougall, has been the beneficiary of Jacobsen’s leadership. Jacobsen has taken the freshman under his wing, albeit in an unconventional manner.

“I’m getting my butt kicked everyday in practice,” MacDougall joked. “But being able to play against him as a freshman is going to make me better in the long run.”

For Jacobsen, one goal motivates him to work hard each and every day.

“I want to get back to the tournament and actually make a run,” he said. “I’d like to do that before my Sun Devil career is over. I just want to win games because people don’t remember teams that lose.”

There may be some truth to his statement, but one thing is for certain. Special players are never forgotten.

And Jacobsen has become a special player both on and off the court.

The small faction of fans behind the ASU bench – otherwise known as Jacobsen’s family – would attest to that.

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