MANHATTAN — Before Jacob Pullen started playing basketball he watched it with his father, Jerome. Together, they attended too many games to recall, and watched countless more on TV.
Growing up in Maywood, Ill., they were naturally drawn to the Chicago Bulls, but were fans of the sport in general. If they knew of an intriguing high school game in the area, they went. Anytime a good college game was on television, they tuned in.
Watching all that basketball gave Pullen a great appreciation for those who played it at a high level. He marveled at Michael Jordan, and can still run off a list of his childhood idols: Doc Rivers, Michael Finley, Dee Brown and Ricky Davis. His favorite, though, was Allen Iverson.
"He loved that guy," Jerome Pullen said. "He was like him, a smaller guy and a really tenacious player. I remember Jacob asked his mom for a reversible Allen Iverson jersey, and he never took it off. He would switch the sides, wear it every day and hide it under his pillow at night, because if it got put in the wash he thought he'd be without it for too long."
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Jacob Pullen remembers those days well. Before he grew a beard, made the cover of Sports Illustrated and became the Kansas State fan favorite he is today, the senior guard was like any other kid in suburban Chicago. He played little league baseball, shot hoops in his driveway with neighborhood friends and looked up to the amazing athletes he saw on TV.
The thought of watching Iverson play in person was enough to send him bouncing around a room.
It's hard for him to believe people are anticipating his return home today with that same level of excitement. The Wildcats take on Loyola Chicago at the Gentile Center, and there are sure to be a few children wearing his jersey in the stands, watching him up close for the first time.
"It's amazing to me," Pullen said. "Coming out of high school you just never thought you would be of importance to people in Chicago and to family at the same time. I never thought that me playing basketball would ever make such a difference in some of their lives.
"Then, when you get the opportunity for them to actually come to a game, and you understand how much they've supported you and how much they went out of their way to really make sure you were doing OK... you want to show them why they're proud of you."
Will it be a special experience for him and his family? Of course. His mother, Charlotte Pullen, works at Loyola Chicago as a database manager and wore a Ramblers shirt all day Friday to make up for the K-State apparel she will sport — and force on her co-workers — today. Jerome Pullen said the family has secured close to 100 tickets and is expecting relatives to come in from as far away as Georgia.
But, as Jacob Pullen is quick to point out, it is also simply another game on the schedule. Another business trip the fifth-ranked Wildcats need to win.
"Just another game, man," Pullen said. "It's an opportunity for my family to see me. That's the only difference with this game from any other road game."
But it is a big difference. K-State coach Frank Martin says he doesn't think college players generally perform well in homecoming games.
"It's just another game for him," teammate Curtis Kelly said. "I don't think he should put any pressure on himself. No disrespect to Loyola, but it's not like we're playing in the Chicago Bulls' arena."
The Wildcats did adjust their normal schedule for this game, though. In order to give Pullen some extra time in Chicago and allow his family to cater a meal for the team after the game, K-State flew commercially out of Manhattan to Chicago and will not return home until Sunday.
That's the plan, anyway.
"It's all depending on the outcome of the game," Martin said. "We win, and we'll be in a great mood. We'll go over to Rush Street and have a great time. We lose, and we may just practice in Charlotte Pullen's backyard."
The Pullen family would welcome the Wildcats, but, like their favorite college basketball player, they are hoping for a win more.
Maybe they will bring his old Iverson jersey for luck. They've been looking forward to this game for too long to hold anything back.
"My wife has had it circled on her calendar for at least a couple years," Jerome Pullen said. "We're really excited and ready to have him home."