When Cleveland’s boys basketball team opens the N.C. High School Athletic Association boys basketball playoffs on Tuesday at Northern Nash, the first seat on the Rams’ bench will be open. On it will be a towel with the initials “JJ.”
It’s a tribute to the late John Jacobs, who had been the Rams’ head basketball coach since 2011. Jacobs died of cancer at age 49 on Oct. 24, just six days before the first day of basketball practice.
“This is not how I wanted to be a head coach again,” said Jeff Davis, Cleveland’s interim head coach. Jacobs had been Davis’ assistant at Princeton High, and Davis had planned on being Jacobs’ assistant this year. “But I think, if anything, it’s an honor to follow him, so I hope we can do him justice.”
Rough at first
Cleveland players who knew Jacobs best like to tell stories about his taking the bus on a “victory lap” around a rival school after a big win. Or getting the team ugly Christmas socks to wear in the school’s holiday tournament, which now bears his name.
And they’ll tell you that Jacobs was tough as nails and that he yelled at them lot – a point that players now bring up with smiles.
When his health began taking a downward turn, players didn’t know how severe it was. Jacobs, a community native, had been diagnosed with melanoma on the bottom of his foot that had gone undetected for more than a year.
At Jacobs’ memorial service, players learned just how weak the cancer had made him, and yet he kept teaching until August and coaching until early October. They always knew he cared about them, but they didn’t know all that he had overcome just to show up.
“You started to see it over the course of last year but you didn’t really expect to see him pass,” sophomore Zach Matthews said. “Somebody that strong, somebody that everybody has respect for. He was going to beat it, he was going to come back.”
When Jacobs told senior Josh Marlowe he’d be coaching from a wheelchair, Marlowe believed it.
“He didn’t have to (keep coaching),” Marlowe said. “He could’ve easily said ‘I’ve got cancer’ and done something else with his life.”
Davis, who began helping at Cleveland during the summer, knew he had to manage his team differently than he otherwise would, because he had only been with them for a short period of time and doesn’t see them during the day because he teaches at Cleveland Middle.
“I know them better now than when the year started, but there were times where I felt like I really needed to get on them, but I didn’t know if I had built up enough political capital with them to do that,” Davis said. “Coaching is all psychology. There’s been times I really wanted to scream at them, but can I do that yet? ... I’ll be glad when I get an offseason to get to know them better.”
On Jan. 30, Davis said getting this year’s team to the playoffs, with all that they’ve been through, would be “a tremendous accomplishment.”
“Kids are so resilient,” Davis said. “But I know at the time it happened – I know some of them, when you’re that age you haven’t had anyone die that you’re close to – so I know that was probably really tough for some of them. They’ve done about the best they can do.”
The Rams were tied for last place and had tough games ahead. But the Rams went from being out of the playoffs with three games left to winning all three and locking up third place in the Greater Neuse River 3A Conference. The Rams also won two conference tournament games, knocking off second-seeded East Wake before falling in the title game to Clayton.
The playoffs are now here for Cleveland (11-14), the No. 31 seed in the East bracket. The Rams will visit No. 2 Northern Nash (23-1) at 7 p.m.
“I remember hearing the things saying how hard coach Jacobs fought and the things that he would do that he didn’t ever tell us about,” sophomore Zach Matthews said. “The way he came out here every day just to be around us, to coach us, and so we took that toughness to our game and to practice and the little things like hurting and fighting through pain.”
Senior Houston Harrison, whose jersey number of 12 took on new meaning after Jacobs passed – it was the number Jacobs wore as a star athlete at Smithfield-Selma before playing college football at UNC – said the team wasn’t going to give up after a 1-7 start.
“I feel like seeing (Jacobs fight) helped us too,” Harrison said. “We know we can push through a lot of things, that we can keep going, we can work hard. Because if he can do it, I’m pretty sure we can all do it too.”
Davis hopes the image of their former coach will stay with this team long after this year ends.
“These kids that saw him come, and be the shape he was in, and still come to work and still coach, I think there’s kids who are going to get out of bed and go to work when they’re my age because they saw John do it,” Davis said. “The biggest lesson of his, I believe, is work ethic and doing your job even when you don’t feel like it.