Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Backup guard Dillon Graham could have taken the run-out to the rim for a contested layup in last week’s exhibition against Florida Southern. Instead, Graham flipped a no-look pass over his left shoulder to a trailing teammate.
Jacob Kurtz dunked the ball.
The Florida players on the bench went nuts. So did the Rowdy Reptiles in the bleachers. But the reverberations extended far beyond the O’Connell Center, shaking the ground 80 miles to the southeast in the Orlando suburb of Oviedo.
“Everybody in town was excited and tweeting about Jacob,” said Josh Kohn, who coached Kurtz (aka "Jake da Snake"), the UF walk-on forward at Hagerty High. “And when tweets came up about the dunk, people were saying, ‘Is that really our Jacob Kurtz?’ ”
The answer, of course, was yes.
The Oviedo and Hagerty communities no longer can claim Kurtz exclusively as their own. He now belongs to Florida Gators everywhere, and especially to the tightly knit band of folks in the UF basketball complex.
“Everybody loves Jake,” sophomore guard DeVon Walker. “How can anyone not love Jake?”
Not only do the Gators love Jake, they need Jake. And due to a confluence of circumstances (injuries, suspensions, illnesses) the 6-foot-6, 210-pound Kurtz, with just 14 points and 12 rebounds in 48 minutes of mostly mop-up college basketball the last two years, might actually start at power forward when the 10th-ranked Gators open the 2013-14 season Friday against North Florida at the O’Dome.
“I’d be lying if I told you that I ever thought I would actually start a game, even an exhibition, and play 25 minutes,” said Kurtz, who did start in UF’s 110-88 defeat of Division II Florida Southern, scoring 11 points on 5-for-6 from the floor and grabbing nine rebounds. “That would have been more like a dream.”
Some dreams come true. Even fairy tales.
This is the latter.
“He's a really good player,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “He's not the most talented, athletic or gifted guy. He's just really smart and knows exactly what's going on, everything that we're doing. He's a really good passer. He's extremely reliable. He's got a very, very high basketball IQ, maybe the highest on the team, and I really, really trust him.”
That trust just may find Kurtz very much in mix next week at 20th-ranked Wisconsin, but first things first.
To fully appreciate Kurtz’s current status with the Gators, consider what it was three years ago when he arrived at Florida as a freshman. He knew he wanted to major in mechanical engineering, but he also knew he wanted to be involved -- somehow -- in the UF basketball program.
Through his high school coach’s relationship with former UF assistant Larry Shyatt, Kurtz was allowed to come to Gators practices and sit on the second level and watch. By himself. He did that for a semester. Donovan often asked Shyatt, “Who is that guy up there?” Answer: Just a kid who wanted to watch practice.
But deep down?
“I wanted to be a part of the team,” Kurtz said. “I didn’t know how it was going happen, but I believed it was going to happen. The first thing I had to do was to show my face around.”
And Kurtz was ubiquitous.
So when one of the Florida managers left after a semester, the search for a replacement started with the big guy upstairs. Kurtz jumped at the offer to come downstairs. Now, he wasn’t just watching practice, he was doing laundry, filling water bottles, wiping sweat off the floor and running errands for coaches.
In other words, living the dream.
"You're around basketball," he said. "How bad could it be?"
The following fall, the Gators held walk-on tryouts and Kurtz was one of three players picked for the team. He had a built-in advantage as far as familiarity, plus the coaches had played pick-up with him the season before. They knew he was decent. More importantly, they knew he was reliable.
“You don’t take walk-ons solely based on their ability to play,” explained Mark Daigneault, assistant to the head coach. “First and foremost, you want someone who is a positive influence on the team and locker room. They have to be completely high-reward and no-risk. That’s what he is. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t respect him.”
Kurtz played just eight minutes his first season, but in those seldom-seen seconds became a fan favorite in the student section.
He took no shots, but sank two free throws that year.
“He scored points at Florida before I did,” said UF quarterback Jeff Driskel, who's known Kurtz since they were in seventh grade and also attended Hagerty. “Nothing Jake ever does will surprise me. The guy works so hard and has always been so likable. That’s what makes him so easy to root for.”
Kurtz was a standout baseball player as youth, but gave it up to focus on basketball. As a junior, he was a tall kid, but his coach considered leaving Kurtz on the junior varsity until a starting forward got suspended before a big game against powerhouse Winter Park Lake Howell the first week of the season.
The team needed size, so Kohn started Kurtz.
“He grabbed 17 rebounds and we won,” Kohn said. “And it wasn’t like 13 just fell in his lap. He went and got 'em.”
Two weeks ago, Kohn talked to Kurtz after the Gators participated in a closed scrimmage. He asked his former player how he fared.
"I think I did OK. Like 12 points, 10 rebounds, something like that."
Kohn was floored by the answer.
“I could sit here and say I’m really proud of him, but no, it’s not that simple,” Kohn said. “This is an amazing story, even if they had a full lineup, because I still think he’ll get minutes then too. And you’re talking about the Florida Gators. It’s not like Billy Donovan is flipping coins in his office, saying, ‘You know what? I think I’ll start Jacob.’ This is about opportunity, determination and believing in yourself.”
All those traits have endeared Kurtz to his teammates, with their respect level of him ascending by the day.
Playing in the low post for the scout team the last two years, Kurtz has been the recipient of many a Patric Young forearm and never complained about it. He took one to the chest Tuesday that would have sent most players to the training room for the rest of the day.
Kurtz spent 10 minutes gasping for air on the sidelines, then went back on the floor.
“To me, it’s all worth it,” he said. I’ve never thought for one day, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s always been, ‘I get to do this.’ This is why I came here.”
He also came to UF to get a degree and he’s well on his way. Mechanical engineering isn’t exactly the garden variety major for basketball players -- Kurtz shook his head and smiled when asked if any teammates were in his Dynamics class or Thermal Heating lab -- but he hasn’t ruled out pursuing a career in coaching.
But first he’s got some playing to do.
An interesting statistic about Kurtz: He’s one of the worst shooters on the team, yet leads the Gators in field-goal percentage during practice this preseason at 64 percent. That speaks to his understanding of what he can and can’t do.
“He helps you win because he’s an ultimate glue guy,” Daigneault said. “The better your other four guys on the floor are, the better he is. He really understands how to play with good players. Throw him out there with Patric Young, Kasey HIll, Casey Prather and Michael Frazier and he’ll be plenty good enough. The word is ‘functional.’ His self-awareness is so good you can’t really quantify what he does.”
The coaches know Kurtz will be where he’s supposed to be (spacing is huge in Donovan’s system), he'll make the right pass, be fundamentally sound when boxing out and probably get a couple put-backs.
“That’s who he is,” said former teammate and close friend Erik Murphy, now with the Chicago Bulls. “He may be be starting for whatever reason, but I don’t think it’s going to change him or affect his mindset at all. Jake is different than the rest of us. It may seem like a big deal, but he’ll just go out there and be Jake.”
That’s exactly what the Gators want. And need.
Think about it. Last year, Kurtz played a total of 40 minutes or the equivalent of one full game over the course of a five-month season. To him, it was all one big bonus, as he evolved from late-game fan favorite as a freshman to virtual cult hero his sophomore year, scoring a total of 12 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
Kurtz hit a 3-point shot against Georgia -- his only attempt from the arc in his career -- and literally sent the UF bench into a frenzy. His teammates‘ collective reaction served as further testament to the high regard with which he’s held in their locker room.
“It’s both amazing and encouraging to me, just to think of how he’s persevered,” Walker said. “Jake’s an example for all of us to look up to. He started at the bottom and worked his way up. Now look at him.”
Everyone will do so Friday ... when Kurtz is introduced with the UF starting lineup.
From watching practice. To folding laundry. To running scout team. To mop-up minutes. To starter. Even if just for a game or two.
What’s next, the NBA?
“That’s another fantasy,” Kurtz said. “I'm not going to get greedy. One’s already come true.”