A Rookie No More
The young men who enter the NBA these days are advised by the league as to what to expect from the transition into the world of a professional athlete. Incoming rookies attend an orientation in New York where they are briefed about the many changes that will occur in their day-to-day existence and the pitfalls to avoid in social and financial dealings.
Nothing, however, could have prepared Suns guard Casey Jacobsen for last season’s roller coaster that was his first year in Phoenix. While his play had the typical ups and downs expected of a player adjusting to the pace and intensity of the pro game, life away from the court must have seemed faster than a three-on-one break, and at times, more intense than taking a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Weeks before the start of his first professional training camp last October, Casey’s mother, Becky, was diagnosed with cancer. She would hold on long enough to see Casey play in the NBA and attend his wedding to college sweetheart, Brittney, immediately following the season, but succumbed to the disease shortly after.
If this is news to even the most die-hard Suns fan, it is by design. Although he touched on his mother's illness in his online journal and mentioned his girlfriend from time to time, Casey preferred to keep his personal struggles and triumphs of the past season within his family circle.
“I kind of like to keep my personal life as private as I can,” confided the California native. “I don’t mind Suns fans or basketball fans in general knowing about my life, but I try to keep some of the things private. I didn’t want any more distractions than there already is during a basketball season.”
As he prepares for his second season with the Suns and his first as a married man, it seems as though the events of the last 12 months are beginning to sink in. He is facing the adjustments in his life with the dignity and class Becky would expect and admire.
A Basketball Family
Casey Jacobsen grew up the third of four boys in what can only be described as a basketball family. Oldest brother Adam played collegiate ball at Pacific University and is currently an assistant coach there. Brother number two, Brock, who played for the University of San Diego, is an assistant coach at Glendora (CA) High School where youngest brother Derek is a player, and their father, Von, played for San Diego State.
It was Casey, however, who rose to national prominence at Glendora High, amassing a school-record 3,284 points, including a personal-best 53 points in a game his junior year, and ultimately placing him second on California’s all-time high school scoring list.
Casey’s mother, meanwhile, became a basketball enthusiast, chauffeur, cook and cleaner. In other words, Becky Jacobsen was a fulltime, stay-at-home mom.
“She was never my coach,” Casey recalls, “but she was my friend and someone I confided in about basketball. She was a homemaker for my entire childhood and that was a sacrifice. Four boys playing basketball on different teams going all over the place and my mom was always there. She was so smart, she could have been doing all kinds of things, yet she chose to raise four boys and she did an amazing job.”
Casey went on to play basketball and major in communications at Stanford. Mike McDonald, the Cardinal’s starting point guard at the time, introduced him to Brittney after the pretty co-ed caught Casey’s eye in a freshman class called Communication in Children. But before the two of them could start dating with any seriousness, there was one detail that needed to be worked out.
“She had a boyfriend at the time,” Casey remembers with a grin. “It was a little complicated. He did not go to Stanford, so it was a long-distance relationship. He was a football player, big guy, and he definitely could have beaten me up (laughs). But it didn’t take me long to pry her from that relationship.”
It didn’t take took long for him to figure out that Brittney could be “the one” for him, either. Casey realized within their first year together that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, and they continued dating throughout his three years at Stanford, where he became the first basketball player in school history to earn All-American First Team honors.
“I knew after a short time being with her that I wanted to marry her but it was just a matter of timing,” he said. “I didn’t want to get married if I didn’t have a job and couldn’t support myself and another person.”
That support came in the form of his first professional basketball contract after being selected by the Suns with the 22nd pick in last summer’s NBA Draft. Both his parents and Brittney accompanied him to Phoenix for the press conference introducing Casey and fellow draft pick, Amaré Stoudemire, and the entire family was excited to see him start his career in the Valley of the Suns.
Casey began his rookie season with the Suns still coming to grips with the severity and consequences of his mother’s illness while trying to decide the proper course and timetable to propose marriage to Brittney and set a date to for the wedding.
Instead of wallowing in the details of his personal life though, Casey looked to the game of basketball as a means to get away, if only temporarily, from the stress of the two life-changing developments taking shape off the court. Escaping was easy in the early portion of the season. He was playing well, and as a result, was getting consistent, regular playing time.
“Basketball was a nice escape for me,” admits Casey. “To be honest, I forgot a lot about my challenges and problems off the basketball court when I was on the court.”
It had been three months since he had last seen his mother and as a December 20 game against the Clippers at the Staples Center in Los Angeles approached, Casey worked with Suns Vice President of Basketball Communications Julie Fie to ensure that Becky had wheelchair priority seating to see her son play professional basketball for the first time.
“That meant a lot to me,” he says. “She never let a day go by when I would talk to her on the phone without telling me how proud she was of my career and where I was at. Her seeing me play at the professional level was something special for me because my mom’s not going to be around for the rest of my career, and she definitely had a big influence on the person I am, as well as a basketball player.”
The Suns had a couple of off days during the week of Christmas and the Jacobsens met at their family home in Glendora to celebrate the holidays.
“We were opening presents in our pajamas Christmas morning,” Casey related. “I excused myself from the room and went and changed into a suit as fast as I could. I had my dad give Brittney a present that was from me, but she thought it was from my dad. She opened it and it was an empty ring box.
“I was in the other room looking through the little opening in the door and as she was opening the present I walked in the door. I had the ring in my hand and I proposed in front of my family. To do it in front of my mom and dad and my brothers was a nice feeling.”
As the long NBA season wore on, the pressures intensified for Casey both on and off the court. A reduction in playing time resulted from inconsistent play and throughout the second half of the season, he was uncertain how, or even if, he would be used from game to game.
“It was very tough,” he recalls. “I wasn’t playing well and I wasn’t playing a lot. Then throw in the fact that I proposed halfway through the season. My mom had been sick throughout this whole time and, of course, that always weighed on my mind, as well."
The Suns' drive toward postseason play further complicated an already unstable situation for the 22-year-old rookie. An uncertain finishing date to the season turned all wedding plans tentative and with Casey’s mind focused on the grueling schedule and raised intensity of play as the playoffs approached, it left him unable to contribute to the particulars of the planning process.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he admits. “Brittney did most of the work. She took on the hard things. We didn’t know how long my mom could fight her disease so that was another thing that pushed along the wedding planning. I wanted to make sure that she was at my wedding.”
The Suns were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs after giving the eventual-champion Spurs a run for their money in a six-game series. The next day, Casey sat down with Brittney and the rest of the family and began putting all the wedding pieces together. Everything was in place. A caterer had been hired, the flowers had been ordered and all that was left to do was set a date and exchange vows.
Somehow, all the details were handled and everything was ready to go. Four weeks later, Casey and Brittney were married in a small service in Maui, Hawaii.
“I’m definitely glad we did it because that was the last thing my mom got to do before she passed away.”
Now three months after becoming husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Casey Jacobsen are enjoying married life and have bought a home in the Valley. Casey’s dad, a carpenter by trade, has been enlisted to help with some minor renovations.
Von and Becky Jacobsen were married over 30 years ago and Casey worries about the adjustment period for his father after losing what was such a major part of his life for so long. Among his sons, only Derek is still living at home, which often leaves Von alone in a large amount of space filled with over three decades of memories.
“I can only imagine how stressful it would be to not come home to your wife of 30 years," Casey says. "They were really good friends. They were a great team and rarely ever fought. They just worked really well together and raised us great, and I’m sure that’s a hard thing for him.”
Coming home to Brittney while he continues to deal with the death of his mother has been a blessing for Casey. She knows what it is like to lose a parent after the passing of her father 14 years ago, and has provided invaluable understanding and support for her new husband this summer as he and his family go through the mourning process.
“She’s been dealing with that in her life for a while,” Casey confided. “She knows how I’m feeling and how I’m going to feel. It’s nice to have her support, her strength and her experience in a rough time like that, so I’ve appreciated that.”
Whatever obstacles lie ahead, Casey will be able to look at the past year as a learning experience that will help him better handle the challenges that life will throw at him in the future.
“Sometimes it was a little overwhelming,” he admits. “But that’s life. I’m not complaining. I think I laid down a nice foundation and I hope to play in the NBA for a long time. I felt like last season made me a better person, there's no doubt about it. It definitely was the most challenging year I've ever had personally and career-wise. Dealing with the challenges of the past year is only going to make those next ones, hopefully, a little bit easier to deal with."