North Dakota State’s A.J. Jacobson: His mother’s son

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

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.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

“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.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

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.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

North Dakota State’s Lawrence Alexander Jr.: Shooting for his son

Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia
Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo by Dave Eggen/Inertia

Lawrence Alexander Jr. corralled a short-hopped bounce pass on the right wing with 11 seconds remaining in the 2014 NCAA Tournament second round and his 12th seed North Dakota State Bison trailing fifth-seed Oklahoma by three.

He had no fear. The pressure of playing the role of giant-killer against a national power on national television, and taking the biggest shot in school history — one on which the hopes and dreams of an entire state rested — had nothing on trying to keep his son alive as a poor teenage father in Peoria, Illinois.

“That was an amazing day,” says Alexander, who calmly drilled the game-tying 3-pointer en route to a then career-high 28 points to lead the Bison to the first NCAA Tournament win in school history.

But it wasn’t the most amazing day of Alexander’s life.

“Not by a long shot,” he says, with palpable joy in his voice as he thinks back four and a half years earlier to Oct. 26, 2009, the day his son, Lawrence III was born.

“The birth of my son is the greatest moment of my life, it’s not even close,” says Alexander, who had turned 18 just four days before Lawrence III entered the world. “I was broke, I was scared and I didn’t know how I was going to keep him alive, and I am forever a better person for it,” he says.

Now 23, as a 6’3” point guard, Alexander has emerged as a bona fide NBA prospect and mid-major star, earning Summit League Player of the Year honors by averaging 18.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Achievements and honors that, along with his shot against Oklahoma, he says would not have been possible without his son.

“I don’t think I’d be playing basketball if he wasn’t born,” says Alexander. “He definitely changed my whole life, my responsibilities completely changed: It wasn’t just worry about yourself and your own needs, it’s you have to put someone else whose entire life depends on you first.”

Lawrence Alexander. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics
Lawrence Alexander. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics

Against all odds

Poor, black and a teenage father; Alexander had three strikes against him in the eyes of many by the time he turned 18.

“I kind of had a lot on my plate before getting here,” says Alexander. “My senior year (of high school) I was becoming a father, I had to balance school and basketball and becoming a father.”

But Alexander credits the odds that seemed to be stacked against him for making him the man he is today.

“I think everything I faced growing up, the family I have, and of course my son, are what made me who I am today,” he says.

Alexander was born and raised in Peoria, a city that sits on the Illinois River in the heart of the state.

“It’s a great city and a good community, but you still have things that make you lose focus, a lot of danger,” says Alexander of his hometown, where nearly 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

“The crime rate has been going up every year. You have peers who try to force you to do things that are not healthy for you, healthy for your body,” he says.

Alexander admits that he didn’t always have his priorities in order as a teenager, but that all changed when his son was born.

“Once I became a father, I started to get a lot better,” he says, “he turned me into a better person.”

On the hardwood, Alexander had a solid career at Peoria Manual High School, averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game as a senior for the Illinois Class 2A runners-up, earning First Team All-Conference, All-State and state tournament MVP honors.

But upon graduation, he found himself without a single Division I scholarship offer.

“North Dakota State actually wanted me to walk-on,” he says of his senior year, “but my family didn’t have the money so I couldn’t.”

But he was able to land a scholarship to play prep basketball for St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield, Wisc. It was an opportunity that Lawrence could not pass on if he was going to make a run at his dream of playing college ball, but one that meant moving away from his young son, which he calls the hardest decision he’s had to make in his life.

“It’s definitely hard. No father wants to be away from their child for not even a half hour. But I knew it could lead to a better life for him,” he says. “I knew once I left it would be tough on me, him and his mom, but I knew when it was all said and done he’d be able to have things that he needs and he wants.”

Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.
Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.

Fargo-bound

After a standout prep season at Northwest Military Academy, Alexander was offered a scholarship by then head coach Saul Phillips, and jumped at the opportunity. The only thing was, he didn’t know the first thing about Fargo.

“No, actually, I couldn’t,” he laughs when asked if he could have located Fargo on a map at the time.

“When [Phillips] old me he was in Fargo North Dakota I was like, ‘where is that?’ All I could think of was just a bunch of farmland and nothing surrounding it,” he says.

But Alexander says he immediately warmed to the notoriously frigid city.

“Once I got here it definitely changed my mind. I came here and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I was kind of spoiled for the first two years, because they didn’t really have a bad winter, but last year it definitely caught up to me.”

Far apart but always in his heart

For Alexander, playing college basketball and earning a college degree has meant spending most of his four-years in college nearly 700 miles away from his son, something he calls “excruciating.”

“I love him, and I want to be around him all the time, but I think the sacrifices today will provide him with a much, much better tomorrow,” he says.

Alexander has kept up with his over the phone, facetime and the internet, and remains a constant presence in his life even from afar.

“He was born with a basketball,” he says proudly of his son, “he had one in his crib.”

But while Alexander admits he’d be happy if his son enjoyed the same successes as he has on the court, he isn’t trying to push him into the sport.

“He’s had a ball with him ever since he could walk, but he actually played peewee baseball last spring. He wants to play flag football, but I don’t think his mom is going to let him,” he laughs. “Honestly, I don’t want him to feel like he has to follow in my footsteps or live up to anything I’ve done, as long as he’s happy and healthy, I’m happy.”

Announcing himself to the world

Alexander stepped out onto the hardwood at the Spokane Arena on March 20, 2014 and stared across the court at fifth-seed Oklahoma. He saw as not only chance to prove that he belonged on the same floor as one of the premier programs in the country, but also as an chance to pay back the school that had given him the biggest opportunity of his life.

“North Dakota State gave me a chance to continue to play basketball and even more importantly to get a degree, it gave me a big chip on my shoulder to prove myself against everyone else and to play against Oklahoma,” he says.

Up until that point, Alexander had enjoyed a solid but unspectacular career, averaging between 10.8 and 12.8 points per game in each of his first three seasons. But against the Sooners, Lawrence played out of his mind, drilling 10-of-15 shots and 4-of-7 three-pointers.

The monster game served as a launch pad for Alexander’s career. As a senior, Alexander has scored 20 or more points 14 times, including 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half, in a 57-56 win in the Summit League championship game over archrival South Dakota State.

Alexander has vowed to savor every moment and leave every once of himself on the floor when 15th seed North Dakota State takes the floor against second-seed Gonzaga in the final NCAA Tournament of his career.

“This is it. I’m forever grateful for everything North Dakota State has done for me and I’m going to give them everything I have in return,” he says.

When his college career does come to an end, Alexander would like to continue his career professionally, either in the states or overseas.

“Hopefully I can continue to play basketball and be somewhere playing professional basketball, but if not, I’d love to get into coaching,” he says.

But wherever he goes and whatever he does, his motivation remains the same as when he first set out on his journey five years ago.

“Whatever I do, I’m going to be doing it to provide with my son,” he says.

Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.
Lawrence Alexander Jr. Photo Credit: North Dakota State Athletics.

For more untold stories of the underdogs that make March Madness and the NCAA Tournament so magical, read here.