There’s a certain satisfaction college basketball fans get while watching a hometown kid competing for his hometown school. Depending on the closeness of the community, the player can be considered the son of an entire city.
In A.J. Jacobson’s case, it’s more like he’s the son of an entire state.
Jacobson grew up in Fargo, North Dakota and is the son of famed North Dakota State women’s basketball legend Pat (Smykowski) Jacobson, the all-time second-leading scorer in the program’s history. Now A.J. is carving his own path for the Bison as a redshirt freshman and second-leading scorer for a team headed to its second straight NCAA Tournament.
“He’s a Fargo kid and in a lot of ways, not to steal a nickname from Fred Hoiberg, but in a lot of ways he’s our Mayor,” North Dakota St. coach David Richman says. “He’s a Fargo kid who’s now playing here and he’s having success. He’s the North Dakota Class A all-time leading scorer, there’s a lot of expectations for him from a lot of people, but none greater than from himself and I think that’s what separates him.”
According to Jacobson, it was always a dream of his to attend North Dakota St., not to follow in his mother’s footsteps, but to truly experience the culture he had watched while growing up in Fargo.
“It was more me wanting to be a part of the North Dakota State family, the culture here is just unbelievable,” Jacobson says. “Obviously, being from Fargo played a role, but I didn’t really think about my mom going here in my decision-making… It’s home to me, that’s why I stayed around here and I love it here.”
But this isn’t your typical story of a men’s basketball player being pushed by his father to achieve the same athletic accomplishments. While Jacobson’s father David is very much part of the reason A.J. is the person he is, it was Pat who was the main part of the reason A.J. is the player he is. She would drive A.J. to the gym and stand under the basket as his personal rebounder, imparting her knowledge onto him.
“She was always pushing me to get better and pushing me to do things that other kids wouldn’t be doing,” Jacobson says of his mother’s influence on his athletic career. “She always said I need to finish with my left hand on the left side of the hoop, she forced me to use good form. She was always in my ear giving me positive encouragement and positive criticisms.”
“There’s no question, I think both his parents were big in making him who he is and making him the competitor that he is,” Richman says. “It’s an extremely competitive family, and that really set the tone and set the stage. Pat, his mom, is the second all-time leading scorer in the school’s women’s basketball history. When you grow up in that environment, you can’t help but pick up some things along the way.”
Playing in the shadow of his mother’s accomplishments, Jacobson says it makes him even more driven to forge his own path and leave his own mark on North Dakota St.
“It’s no pressure really, but it’s a little bit motivation,” he says. “She was one of the greatest players to ever play on the women’s side, and it’s something that I can aspire to be like. But it’s not any pressure, it’s more of a motivating tool.”
Richman saw that drive and motivation first-hand during Jacobson’s redshirt year.
“There was really a want to be great,” Richman says. “A.J. would have a tough practice, as a lot of true freshmen did, and he’d be in the gym at 8 a.m. the next morning working on something he didn’t do well. I think that’s the biggest thing—there’s a drive, there’s a want to not just be good but to be great by A.J., and that makes him special. Obviously he’s got good size at 6’6”, a high level of skill and he’s a really intelligent young man, but make no mistake, his best qualities are his want and his drive to be great.”
This year, Jacobson played a key role in leading the Bison to their second straight Summit League title, ranking second on the team with an average of 11.9 points and shooting 41 percent from three-point range. As one of two in-state players on the roster, Jacobson feels an immense sense of pride in helping to lead North Dakota St. to the promise land of the NCAA Tournament, but that pride isn’t new to him. He feels it every time he puts on his jersey with the letters “NDSU” on his chest.
“I want to go out there and compete for the North Dakota fans, obviously they like seeing a North Dakota kid on the team,” Jacobson says. “I grew up watching North Dakota State, I went to almost every single game I could go to, men’s and women’s. It was a dream of mine to come and play here and I was able to fulfill those dream and obviously it gives me a sense of pride in the culture here, the environment here and North Dakota State in general.”
“He’s grown up here, the community’s always been in his family. He’s been coming to this campus as long as we can remember, watching his mom and coming to our games. There’s no question, it’s a big part of what makes him successful,” Richman says. “Would he be successful at other programs? Absolutely, there’s no doubt in my mind. But here with the understanding of the makeup and the history and passion with him and his family, I think that adds to [the pride he feels].”
North Dakota St. received a No. 15 seed and will face No. 2 Gonzaga in the South Region on Friday. As the Bison go out with intentions to spoil some brackets, Jacobson relishes the opportunity to put North Dakota St., and the state of North Dakota, on the college basketball map.
“Obviously we want to get a win and go up there with a bang,” he says. “But we just want to go out there and compete and play hard and show the country what North Dakota State men’s basketball is all about.”