It was never hard to spot Jacob Pullen on the floor during a Kansas State game. He was the four-year guard with lethal long-distance range and a Gimme The Damn Ball look in crunch time.
It’s not hard to pick him out of a crowd on the streets of Barcelona, where he signed with one of Europe’s top clubs a year ago, either. Pullen, fresh off of practice, moves slowly in a purple sweatshirt and gray sweatpants. His trademark beard, which falls about an inch below his chin, looks just as it did the day he last stepped on the court for K-State.
We’ve planned to meet at 9 p.m. at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Barcelona. He arrives right on time, but the long wait for a table there doesn’t seem worth it to him. “I know another good place,” he says. “They like me there.”
He leads us to a crowded restaurant nearby, only we’re seated quickly—upstairs, away from much of the noise where my tape recorder has a prayer. Pullen orders for both of us in Spanish, a tool he’s sharpened since arriving in Spain. Then again, maybe it needs a little more refining.
“I don’t know what that is,” Pullen, perplexed, says as a plate of something he did not mean to order is placed between us. “I’ve never had that.”
We fixate our attention on the mysterious plate. It appears to me to be a beef jerky-ish dish. Pullen disagrees. Perhaps thinly-sliced dried fruit?
No matter. Pullen bravely takes a bite and survives. “It’s not bad,” he assures me. By the time I timidly nibble on a piece, he’s already jumped back into our old conversation.
“That was the toughest loss I’ve ever had, man. I wanted to go to the Final Four so bad. It was the only thing I ever wanted.”
For a gifted 24-year-old, Pullen has a long hoops story to tell. Growing up around Chicago and playing against the likes of Iman Shumpert and Patrick Beverley, it wasn’t easy for Pullen to make a name for himself as a high-schooler. A late bloomer by his own admission, he figured he was destined for a low-DI school until a strong Nike All-American camp put him on higher ground. Teams like Marquette and Oklahoma suddenly showed interested.
He also managed to catch the attention of Dalonte Hill, an assistant at Kansas State. Hill asked then-fellow assistant Frank Martin to give Pullen a look, and Martin obliged. Unsurprisingly, it turned into a classic love-at-first-sight tale. Sort of.
“The first time he touched it, he shot an airball that missed the rim by six feet,” Martin recalls over the phone. “But he got down, guarded the guy that was bringing the ball up the floor, created a turnover, ran down, took the next shot and buried a three. I said, I like that kid.”
When Pullen showed up to school months later, he had neither mega-hype nor a guaranteed starting spot. He’d have to earn his minutes in practice going against a freshman who did carry some celebrity status, Michael Beasley. The dominant forward was accompanied by a fast-rising, high-flying redshirt freshman who had generated substantial buzz as well: Bill Walker.
“I played against Mike so much in AAU that we kinda had a rivalry before we got to K-State,” Walker recently told SLAM. “Out of mutual respect, I think we chose to play together in college because of those battles.”
The friendly rivalry only grew more intense under coach Martin.
“We never had a good practice unless you put one on the other to make ‘em mad,” Pullen begins, referring to the Wildcats’ two superstars. “The minute one scored on the other one, that was the best practice you’ll ever see us have. ‘Cause they would go at it all practice. Michael would score and say, ‘Bill I’m gonna get 200 today, you can’t guard me!’ Bill would just come down and dunk on him. I remember having practices where they were on the same team, they would sub out, and sit on the sideline and eat sunflower seeds! Spittin’ in the cup eating sunflower seeds while we’re practicing, you know, just running up and down.”
Pullen must have made a little noise in practice, too, because he opened his freshman season as coach Martin’s starting point guard. His debut couldn’t have gone much better: 18 points and 5 dimes in a blowout win against Sacramento State.
Between January 18, 1994 and January 29, 2008, the Kansas Jayhawks held a 35-1 record over the Wildcats. On January 30 of ’08, No. 2 Kansas marched into their matchup with No. 22 Kansas State confident that the result would be a lot more of the same. But these were Michael Beasley and Bill Walker’s Wildcats, and their school was sick of playing second fiddle.
That night, Beasley and Walker each shot 9-18 from the floor and combined for 47 points. The team built a two-possession lead with over a minute left, when a 6-foot-nothin’ point guard from Maywood, IL, nailed home a pair of backbreaking free throws. Pullen, the finisher, shot 10-10 from the stripe on his way to 20 points in the W. (1:40 below)
Led by Beasley and Walker, Kansas State started that ’07-08 season with an 18-6 record. The team stumbled late, though, and entered March Madness as a No. 11 seed. They were able to quickly upset OJ Mayo’s Trojans, but fell to Wisconsin the following game in the Round of 32.
Pullen scored just four points in 22 minutes against the Badgers. That June, Beasley was selected second overall by the Heat, and Walker by the Celtics 35 slots later.
“I always think about the possibilities of us staying together,” says Walker, reflecting on the dozens of K-State wins and trio of tournament runs left on the board after he and Beasley declared.
The following season, with the team largely broken up, its biggest stars stolen by the NBA, Kansas State struggled to find a groove. The team didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament and was eliminated in the second round of the NIT tourney by San Diego State. Pullen scored just 3 points to close out what had been an otherwise solid sophomore campaign.
Instead of rolling into Year Three of the Beasley/Walker/Pullen trio, K-State was unranked entering the 2009-10 season.
Pullen didn’t like the sound of that.
The Wildcats cracked the top-25 in both the AP and coaches’ polls just over a month into the season, and closed the year as the consensus No. 7. Pullen and Dennis Clemente formed a dynamite backcourt, and they found a gem in big man Curtis Kelly, a Junior transfer from UConn.
In March of 2010, Kansas State earned a No. 2 seed in the same NCAA tournament that had eluded them the previous season.
The team rolled into a Sweet 16 matchup with Jordan Crawford’s Xavier squad. In a marathon of a game, Pullen pulled off the following three plays:
23.6 seconds left in regulation. Pullen for three. 70-67 Kansas State.
32.9 seconds left in the first OT. Pullen layup. 86-84 Kansas State.
31.2 seconds left in the second OT. Pullen for three. 97-94 Kansas State.
His final bucket iced the game. Clemente and Kelly combined for 48 points themselves, and, for the first time in his career, Pullen was on to the Elite 8.
There, though, he ran into an upstart Butler team spearheaded by Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack destined for a title appearance. The lost opportunity still stings Pullen.
“My junior year, that was the best team we had,” Pullen declares. But fatigue wore on the team following its battle against Xavier. The Wildcats shot just 38.5 percent from the floor against Butler. It cemented another season of heartbreak for Kansas State, and altered Pullen’s career path.
“If we would have made it to the final four my junior year, I woulda entered,” Pullen explains. “Everybody said, Oh you woulda been a late-first round, second-round pick your junior year, you had a great year, and all of that. I just wanted to go back to school man.”
Three full years and one month after the Wildcats’ monumental upset over Kansas, the two teams matched up again. This time, Kansas was ranked No. 1 in the country. This time, Kansas was dealing with Pullen’s Wildcats.
Kansas State was again unranked when the game tipped off. The No. 1 team in the NCAA facing off against an unranked opponent usually ends up as a laugher.
Only nobody was laughing as the game wore on. Unless you count the always-expressive Pullen, who must have had some fun dropping 38 on the Jayhawks’ collective heads in a shocking blowout home victory.
Suddenly hot, K-State upended Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton’s No. 7 Longhorns in Texas two weeks later.
K-State’s strong finish earned them a No. 5 seed in the 2011 Dance, where they knocked off Utah State in the first round. Round 2 brought a matchup with Wisconsin, and in it a shot for revenge, three years after Wisco bounced K-State to end Pullen’s freshman year.
Clutch as ever, Pullen showed up, and then some: 38 points on 6-8 from deep, 13-22 overall.
The performance, masterful as it was, would go down as his final act for Kansas State. Led by a more balanced scoring attack, Wisconsin cold-heartedly sent Pullen into the world of Draft experts, game-tape nitpickers and, ultimately, the true hardwood. Or so we thought.
“The crying shame is that Jacob went out his senior year and dominated college basketball coming down the stretch—set a career-high in the last game he ever played, set the school record for points in a career in the last game he ever played—and yet he went from possible late-first, early-second to not being drafted at all,” coach Martin, now at South Carolina, complained to SLAM while channeling much of the emotion he’s become famous for.
Pullen, a student of the game’s sometimes-ugly business end, was far less bothered by the outcome. He understood well that only first-round picks immediately earn guaranteed contracts in the NBA. As the 2012 Draft slipped into its second round, he decided it was best to go unselected.
“I didn’t want someone to control my rights, and send me to a bad team in Europe or the D-League,” Pullen reasons. “A D-League player makes at the best about $20,000 before taxes. You could work at McDonald’s and make more money than that for a whole year.”
Instead of being selected into uncertainty, Pullen took his talents to Italy for a season, followed by a year in Israel. Finally, in August of last year, he wound up with the team Martin has enthusiastically titled “the L.A. Lakers of Europe.”
His long-distance ventures have earned him a secondary perk. Pullen met a number of American players abroad. One such player was in Milan and earning 1.5 million euros annually while averaging 3 points and 1.5 assists per game. Naturally, Pullen wondered how those numbers added up.
The player’s contract stemmed from a law which varies in degree from country-to-country, but establishes a limit on the number of American players a European team can have on its roster. As Pullen detailed, international leagues know that all-American rosters would play top-notch ball, but also irritate home fans.
Some clubs don’t love the rule and try to get around it. If an American player owns a European passport, he can technically be counted as a European on the roster. It’s beneficial to both the team, which maintains the right to sign a different American, and the player, who gains leverage in contract negotiations.
“You look at good teams, and they find a way to get Americans,” Pullen begins. “Most of the times it’s with a passport. That’s a smart thing to do.”
Pullen briefly caught on with the Suns back in the summer of 2012. In Phoenix, he crossed paths with Igor Kokoškov, an assistant coach who also ran the Georgian national team.
“He asked me if I wanted to join the team and get a passport, and I was like, Yeah,” Pullen recalls. “Now every high-level team in Europe will sign me ‘cause I have a [non-US] passport. A [non-US] passport is a lot of money over here. You get one of those things, you’re like gold, man—everybody wants you.”
Pullen’s skills haven’t hurt his chances of signing a lucrative contract, either. He broke the Spanish single-game three-point record with 12 in March. His Barcelona club reached the Eurobasket Final Four in May, but fell to Madrid in the semi-finals.
Pullen’s one-year deal with the team is up, but he expects to sign a new multi-year contract. And why shouldn’t he?
“I do my homework, man,” Pullen says with a smile. “I got a three-bedroom condo here with a hot tub and a grill in the back to myself. It’s 70 degrees most of the year. I really can’t complain.”