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Ute senior plays hard, practices harder

Undisputed team leader has basketball bloodlines

SHARE Ute senior plays hard, practices harder

Rick Majerus stood at the concourse level in the Huntsman Center and looked down at the basketball court some 30 rows below him one afternoon last week.

"That's all you need to know about Nick Jacobson," the University of Utah coach said about his senior guard. "He's still down there working. We had a 3 1/2-hour practice today."

And the Utes' marathon workout had been over for an hour. Most of Jacobson's teammates had already showered, dressed, eaten and were long gone. Who could blame them? Even Majerus was on his way out the door — to get some food, naturally.

Yet Jacobson stayed on the court an additional 20 minutes, running from spot to spot all the way around the 3-point arc, taking passes from a tall, thin blond woman and nailing shot after shot.

Jacobson is the most prolific 3-point shooter in U. history. He's the undisputed leader on the Ute team this year. He's a guy who eats, drinks and sleeps basketball — yet his wife completely understands.

And he's the main reason the Utes took a huge — albeit early — step toward a Mountain West Conference championship with a road win at UNLV late Monday night.

"He truly is like (Larry) Bird, (Karl) Malone, (John) Stockton, Magic (Johnson)," said Majerus, comparing Jacobson's work ethic to a quartet of original Dream Teamers. "He's the first one to practice and the last one to leave — and he loves it. He loves the game."

GROWING UP: Nicholas Vernon Jacobson was born and reared in Fargo, N.D. Yet he's never seen the Coen Brothers' movie "Fargo." The 1996 film, starring Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning role, is considered a classic by many.

But Jacobson has no interest in seeing how his hometown is depicted by Hollywood.

"It stereotypes the people so much that I refuse to watch it," said Jacobson, with nary a hint of the supposed North Dakota accent so prevalent in the movie, doncha know. "I don't know anybody who talks like that. I've seen the previews enough to know that nobody talks like that. So on principle, I won't watch it. A couple of people have tried to buy me the DVD — but I still won't watch it."

What he did watch — and play — growing up was basketball. He couldn't help it, really. It's what the Jacobson clan of Fargo does. Tim Jacobson, Nick's father, is a high school basketball coach. Hoops have been a major part of each of his siblings' lives, too. Oldest brother Jesse played college ball at St. Cloud (Minn.) State. Sarah, Nick's older sister, was on the Concordia College (Minn.) women's team. And the youngest brother, Adam, played at Northern Iowa last season before transferring to play at North Dakota.

While all the Jacobson kids were good basketball players, it was clear Nick was the star. He led Shanley High — the team coached by his father — to back-to-back state championships in 1997 and 1998 as a sophomore and junior. The competition, admittedly, wasn't great, but Nick was dominant.

It was after his junior season that Jacobson took a recruiting trip to Utah. The Utes were coming off a trip to the NCAA title game. Among the people he met on his initial visit was a player on Utah's women's team named Amy Ewert. (More on that later.)

So Jacobson committed to becoming a Ute before his senior year of high school. Subsequently, his father took a job coaching in a Minneapolis suburb. Nick was anxious to see how he'd fare against more athletic players from schools with enrollments several times larger than what he'd been used to.

It turns out he did just fine — and then some. Jacobson's picture-perfect jump shot was true in Minnesota just as it had been in North Dakota. He averaged 31.3 points and was named honorable mention All-America.

THE LONGEST YEAR: Taking the step up from North Dakota to Minnesota high school basketball was a breeze, so it was understandable that Jacobson came in expecting to contribute immediately at the college level.

But it wasn't so easy this time.

Jacobson's jump shot was still a thing of beauty, but his defense was, well, let's just say it wasn't up to Majerus' standards. The Ute coach, frankly, knew Jacobson wasn't ready to get much playing time on the 1999-2000 team led by Andre Miller. He suggested that he take a season to work on his game as a redshirt.

"It was tough," Jacobson said. "Physically I worked hard and practiced hard and mentally it was hard to be away from my family for the first time. And then, not being able to get the reward of playing in games — it was tough."

But it was also worth it.

"It was a great year for me, for my development," said Jacobson. "It made me a lot more mature and ready to play the next year."

One not-so-impartial observer agrees. Ewert, the U. women's player Jacobson met on his recruiting visit, became friends with him during his redshirt season. They soon became romantically linked.

It seemed like a perfect match. Jacobson, who liked to spend as many waking hours as possible on the basketball court, had found a woman who understood his passion for the game.

Ewert, for her part, was impressed with how dedicated her boyfriend was.

"I can't say enough about how hard he has worked," she said. "The development he made as a player between his redshirt year and now is unbelievable. He's always been a great shooter, but he's an unbelievable defender now. When he first came in, the one complaint that coach (Majerus) had about him was that he didn't play much defense in high school. He's come a long way."

In fact, Jacobson has become Utah's defensive stopper — often drawing the other team's top offensive threat.

"Nick is now a superb defender," says Majerus.

NEWLYWEDS: Nick and Jessica are all the rage on MTV these days for their reality series about young wedded bliss. At the U., Nick and Amy make up that almost-too-cute-to-be-true couple.

After dating for a couple of years, the two basketball stars were married on March 31, 2002, after Amy's college eligibility was up but Nick had two more years to play.

"Nick is a 10 and he married a 10 — and I'm not talking about looks," Majerus said. "I'm talking about character. His wife, Amy, is great."

Amy's college playing days are over, but she is still a regular on the Huntsman Center court. It was Amy who was rebounding the ball and passing it back to her husband as he worked on his 3-point stroke more than an hour after the team had been dismissed that day last week. It was after she'd done her own workout, running up and down the Huntsman Center stairs while Nick and several walk-on players were on the court shooting.

"It's good because I'm pretty understanding about him being away and the demands that it takes to be a Division I athlete," says Amy.

For Amy, watching Majerus' Utes is far more nerve-wracking than it was for her when she was a player for Elaine Elliott.

"You don't have any control over what the team does," said Amy of being in the stands when Nick's games are on. "When I was playing, I had complete control of what I was doing and I could help the team. But when I watch Nick, I have no say in what happens — even though I'd like to."

Amy, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, is obviously proud of her husband's success this season. She's also excited about the prospects of watching him play after he's finished college.

"If Nick gets the opportunity to continue playing basketball, we'll go wherever that takes us," Amy said. "It's up in the air, but that makes it exciting. We both like to travel, and we like to try new things."

THE LEADER: It's well-documented that some ex-Utes haven't enjoyed playing basketball for the hard-driving Majerus. But Jacobson is different. Perhaps because he's the son of a coach, he understands why the Ute boss demands so much.

"It's been a great experience," Jacobson said. "There has never been a time that I wanted to leave. I've loved playing for coach (Majerus). He's been so good to me and wanted me to be good and get better."

And Jacobson has gotten better — on both sides of the court. He's been a four-year starter, but his scoring average has gone up each season. Coming off his 27-point performance against UNLV on Monday, Jacobson is averaging a team-high 15.1 points per game.

On what is perhaps the youngest team in Division I basketball, Jacobson is the undisputed leader. He's one of just two seniors on a team that has no junior class. And, since Tim Frost, the other senior, is a transfer, no other player on the roster has been on more than two previous Ute teams.

"At times I wish we had an older, more mature team — who wouldn't?" said Jacobson. "But I like this group a lot. They are working hard, and we're definitely headed in the right direction. I don't come to practice wishing we had an older team."

He's certainly not going to allow the team's youth to be an excuse for lower expectations.

"Anything short of an outright conference championship this year will be a failure in my opinion," says Jacobson. "We have the ability. We just need to come out each night and give a consistent effort."

It's that type of attitude along with his work ethic at practice and honor roll designation in the classroom that makes Majerus gush.

"He's a great captain — one of the four best I've ever had," said Majerus, naming Alex Jensen, Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn as the others at Jacobson's level.

The Ute coach sees similarities between his senior shooting guard and a certain former Jazz star at that position.

"His career kind of parallels (Jeff) Hornacek's — his quiet demeanor and his class. Plus he's an excellent student, he has a great wife and he's a coach's son (like Hornacek)."

Majerus admits he's biased, but he feels Jacobson will be able to make a living playing basketball next year.

"I've got a lot of friends in the NBA, and they all shake their heads and say 'it's too bad he didn't get a little more juice from up above,'" Majerus said. "He's a self-made player. He gets everything out of his ability. Can he make the NBA? I'm prejudiced, but I think a guy like (Jazz coach Jerry) Sloan would love Nick . . . He has a chance. If not in the NBA, he has a future in the game somewhere at some level."

One thing Jacobson isn't planning on doing is following in his father's (or Majerus') footsteps.

"I'm not interested in coaching. I've been around a lot of coaches, and they're stressed out a lot of the time. I don't need that."

Instead, after basketball he plans on using his degree in finance — which he'll complete this semester — to earn a living.

In the meantime, Jacobson's Ute career is nearing a close — something that hasn't really sunk in yet.

"In 1999 when I learned I was going to redshirt I remember thinking, 'Man, I'm going to still be here in 2004 still playing,' " Jacobson said. "It seemed so far off and so far away. But here I sit and it's 2004."

Beyond next season — even if he's not getting paid for it — Jacobson will still spend hours on the hardwood.

"I love playing basketball," he said. "I'll keep playing until I can't anymore."

E-mail: lojo@desnews.com