It was snowing when he pulled into the driveway of his parent's home in Maywood, Ill., a suburb about 15 miles west of Chicago, shortly after 1 p.m. on Tuesday. True to form, Jacob Pullen, who had a game-high 18 points in a 90-76 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff in Manhattan the night before, put down his bags and napped on the couch. But first, he phoned his mother, Charlotte. "Hey mom, I'm home," he said. She replied, "Good. Go to the barbershop."
Jacob Pullen, whose beard has taken on a life of its own as Kansas State's junior guard continues to lead the 12th-ranked Wildcats along a season earmarked by conquests and dripping with good vibes, didn't go to the barbershop, of course. Once lukewarm at the prospect of keeping the facial hair that spans from his sideburns and meets below his chin -- sure, it was a different look, but not one he intended to keep this long -- the beard has grown on him.
"I kind of like it now," he said.
Pullen loves Christmas. He hasn't missed one with his family in his 20 years. But he believed this one might be different. He'd heard his mother's warnings after games, how she said she was going to shave his face while he slept in his bed. He joked that he might wear a mask. He wondered if he might get a razor in his stocking. Most recently after a game at Alabama, she warned him about the beard again.
Jamar Samuels, Jacob's roommate and teammate, intervened.
"You can't do that, Mrs. Pullen!" he said. "They have T-shirts that say, 'Fear the Beard!'"
"I'm not afraid of anything," Charlotte said, "especially a beard."
It's believed to be a good-luck charm. As Pullen's beard grows, so too does the Wildcats' success. Yet it's Pullen's shooting touch that's been responsible for his 20.0 points per game, which ranks second in the Big 12 Conference and has helped to carry K-State, 11-1, to eight straight wins and its highest ranking since 1973.
K-State coach Frank Martin said there are two seasons. There's the season before Christmas. Then there's the season after Christmas. Players traveled home Tuesday morning. They will return to Bramlage Coliseum at 9 p.m. on Saturday. They will run until they throw up. Then they will return on Sunday to begin preparing for Cleveland State, 4-9, on Tuesday in Manhattan.
In the 12 games prior to Christmas break, it's hard to argue that Pullen wasn't anything but one of the hottest players in the Big 12 -- if not the hottest. Nobody in the league has scored more points (Pullen has 240). Nobody has made more 3-pointers (Pullen has 34). Nobody has made more free throws (Pullen has 70).
Pullen ranks in the top 15 in many other categories, including a 45.6-percent shooting percentage (12th), 43.6-percent 3-point percentage (fourth), 82.4-percent free throw percentage (sixth), 2.8 3-pointers per game (second), 3.5 assists (11th), 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio (12th) and 1.5 steals (14th).
In the last three games, the 6-foot, 200-pound Pullen has made 9 of 16 two-point field-goal attempts and 16 of 25 3-pointers, a remarkable 64.0 percent from behind the arc. Martin has had good long-range shooters in his previous two seasons at K-State. In particular, he pointed to Cartier Martin and Michael Beasley. But during his hottest three-game stretch, Cartier Martin made 12 of 25 3-pointers; Beasley went 6-for-8.
Pullen needs just 51 3-pointers to join Steve Henson and Askia Jones as the only players in school history to record 1,000 points, 200 3-pointers, 250 assists and 100 steals in a career.
"Hopefully, I'll live in Kansas State history forever," Pullen has repeated, most recently coming after an 18-point, three 3-pointer performance on Monday against UAPB. It marked just the second time in the last eight games that Pullen failed to reach 20 points and came two nights after he scored a season-high 30 points in a 87-74 win over Alabama -- the latest of six top-100 RPI teams the Wildcats have beaten this season.
It didn't matter to Pullen that he didn't soar for 20 points against the winless Lions, though.
"I was just happy with the win, you know," Pullen said. "If points mattered to me, you would've seen me out there gunning up shots."
Pullen said the game before Christmas break is the one that everybody hates. That's because there's only one thing on players' minds.
"You just want to get it over with," he said. "You want to get home and see your family."
Ah, family. One of the first people Pullen saw in Maywood was Sergio Brown, a safety at Notre Dame, who is as close as anything to being a brother. Best friends since age 2, Brown, whose family lives just four houses down, came over to Pullen's house shortly after he arrived on Tuesday. They went out for a little bit and when they returned, they found Charlotte shoveling the driveway.
"Jerome (Jacob's father) was working late, so I started on the driveway and when Jacob and Sergio got back, they saw me out there and said, 'Go on inside and we'll do the driveway,'" Charlotte said. "I'm smart like that. I waited until I saw them coming before I pulled out the shovel."
Once inside, Jacob and Sergio sat in the basement and watched unbeaten No. 2 Texas race to a 79-68 win over No. 9 Michigan State. They begged Charlotte to make them their favorite -- beef and chicken enchiladas.
"I don't know if I'm going to make that," Charlotte said, as Jacob, in the background yelled, "Twenty-four enchiladas!"
"Actually, I'm going to cook it," Charlotte whispered into the phone. "I just don't want to tell them."
These days, surprises are sometimes hard to come by during the Christmas season. Every Christmas Eve, Charlotte prepares a non-traditional meal, and cakes and pies for Jerome and their four children -- Katrina, 33; Jennifer, 26; Joseph, 23, and Jacob -- to go along with about 20-30 other visiting family members. Charlotte puts food in the basement "for those people who just have to watch the game and can't come up to the kitchen -- you know guys, it's whatever game is on." She also puts food in the kitchen for the rest of the family.
Oh, but Christmases remain special. Seventy-seven-year-old Grandma Leola and 76-year-old Grandma Raymell, who haven't seen Jacob since August before he left to play basketball in Europe, will be there. So will Byron, a cousin, whose youngest son, two-year-old Brice, reminds Jerome and Charlotte so much of Jacob.
"We say he's like Jake because he has a lot of 'energy,' as we used to call it," Charlotte said. "They slept over here one night maybe a month ago and the boys were in the basement and you heard, 'Uncle Jerome, Brice keeps turning up the TV and pulling this and that down!' Before you knew it, Jerome said, 'Jacob -- no, Brice! Get upstairs!' He reminds us so much of Jake. He's always running through the house, terrorizing. But he's a joy, he really is."
"Brice is the baddest one. He terrorizes people," Jacob said. "They just call him 'Jake.' I can't wait to see him."
The days of baking Christmas cookies with the children are gone. The children are usually off with their girlfriend or boyfriend during the day before they return home and settle in for the Christmas Eve feast. Afterward, the family always gathers around and puts the star on the Christmas tree. Then they take a family photo. Then they open one present -- usually Christmas pajamas.
"You know, it means more than anybody will probably ever know to have all four of my children at home, laughing, talking, exchanging gifts," Charlotte said. "It's always such a joy."
Then on Christmas Day, the Pullen family loads up and heads to each grandmother's home in Chicago for a traditional turkey-and-stuffing dinner.
"I'm a family person," Jacob said. "I love to be around my family. I look forward to it a lot."
That holds true even though Jacob knows his two biggest critics -- Joseph and Byron -- will be waiting to pounce.
"No matter how many points or assists I might have, there's always something bad about the game: who I didn't guard, a play I might have messed up," Jacob said. "They remember. We'll be talking basketball a lot. We'll probably watch a lot of NBA on TV. There's a lot of basketball at home.
"But those are my biggest critics, those two."
"You've got that right," Charlotte said. "I even have to tell them sometimes, 'Can't you say something nice? Jake just had 30 points.' They'll say, 'Well, he should've had more assists.' They never give him a break. I've never heard Joe or Byron say to him, 'You know what, you had a good game.' I feel like if I don't tell him he had a good game, nobody around here is going to say something. They really want to push him hard because, you know, that's what big brothers do."
"Even though they won't tell him," she reiterated, "they do tell me that Jake did well."
Jacob hopes to deliver K-State its first Big 12 Championship. He wants to make a push in the NCAA Tournament. He wants to guide the Wildcats to their first Final Four since 1963-64.
"Hopefully, we can get to the Final Four," Jacob said. "Then they'll shut up to me about basketball."
For Christmas, Jacob hopes for a new iPhone. Last week, he cracked the screen on his iPhone when it fell from his lap and hit the ground as he was leaving his car. "The screen just shattered," he said.
He's gotten plenty use out of his phone lately. It makes his mother proud. While Martin lauds Pullen's maturity as a leader for a team that continues to inch toward the program's first 13-1 start since 1959, Charlotte has noticed her youngest son grow in many other ways as well. She credits it to Pullen's coaches. She credits it the K-State program. Most of all, she credits it to her son.
"When Jake first went to Kansas State and was living in the dorms as a freshman," she said, "I'd get a call from Frank, 'Talk to him, Charlotte. Make sure he's getting up and getting to class on time. We need him to be focused.' We'd come into town and talk to him about things. It's a lot different being on your own at such a young age. I've seen his grades improve and definitely everybody can see his commitment to the team improve. I've seen his maturity in how he carries himself, how he has grown into not only being very K-State oriented but in being very committed to the family.
"He calls his little nephews just seeing how everybody is doing. He's very conscious of other people's feelings. He understands his time is limited but he's not selfish with it. He's very giving. I tell you, he's a way better money manager now than three years ago. We were always like, 'Jake, you're supposed to check the balance and only spend what's there, not what you think might be in there.' He's very good at those things now. His grandmothers love that they can count on him to call every week. They brag in church, 'No matter how busy my grandson is, he always calls me on Sunday.' Those are the kinds of things where only once you have matured do you understand how important they are to someone else.
"That's only 15 minutes of his time, but it really means a lot to the people around him."
Time flies, but some things such as phone calls remain precious. Christmas memories remain precious, too, like the time 11-year-old Jacob received an Allen Iverson reversible jersey. He practically wore it non-stop for months. When Charlotte tried to wash it, he folded it and hid it under his pillow at night, pleading, "But Mom, only one side of the jersey is actually dirty." She'd sneak into his room, wash it, then return it to its hiding place later that night.
"So, at least it'd be clean a couple of days out of the week," she said.
These days, there's something pretty precious to Jacob. And it's not only precious to Jacob, but to the K-State basketball team and its fans as a whole.
Which brings Charlotte back to the beard.
"I'm very serious about not liking the beard!" she said, raising her voice on the phone to catch the ear of Jacob nearby. "I just wanted Jake to hear that part."
Then she softens to a whisper again.
"You know, he's a really nice guy," she said. "He's not into other stuff. If he wants to grow a beard to express himself…"
"I guess I can live with it. Do I prefer a shave? Yes, but I could really live with it."
Well, there are many reasons.
First, Charlotte loves her son's passion for K-State. (Unbeknownst to her, all of Jacob's Christmas gifts to his family were sweaters, T-shirts and hats bearing the Powercat.)
"It makes me beam with pride that Jake wants to be a part of K-State forever and to be committed to a program and believe in a program," she said. "You have all four of your kids at the dinner table and you're saying all of these things to them -- 'Do the best you can, be the best person you can,' -- and you never know if it's all sinking in. But to hear him say, 'I want to be the best player K-State ever had,' makes me think between the cereal and cookies he was listening.
"He really does love Kansas State."
Charlotte also loves her son's focus, his selflessness and desire to ensure everybody's involved in his statistics. She loves the family atmosphere among the Wildcats. She loves the coaches. She loves Manhattan. She loves the fans.
"When Coach Bob Huggins left and Frank Martin took the head coaching job, he came into our home and talked to us about staying committed to K-State," she said. "How did he put it? He said, 'Mrs. Pullen, I'm going to promise you that he's going to get a good education, he's going to play ball and he's going to get a nice pair of sneakers. That's all I'm going to promise you.'
"We're happy for Jake but we're just really pleased with how things are going at Kansas State. You couldn't ask for a better program. I'll be really honest with you, when he first left, we didn't want for him to go too far away. We knew academically, he could handle things because he's a very smart guy. But it's a lot being away from home and us not being able to see him every week. The Kansas State family has just been phenomenal and has really eased my mind."
So, because of the adoring cheers that K-State fans have given Jacob through 79 games, including 60 starts, Charlotte is more than willing to reciprocate by offering the same token to the Wildcat Nation. It's the gift of love.
"Kansas State fans are probably the best fans I've ever seen," she said. "Before Jake went to Kansas State, we went around to a lot of different schools. You know, there are fans from high school and fans at other schools, but nothing compares to the love Kansas State fans have for their team. Even years when we weren't highly ranked or publicized, Kansas State fans were always behind my son. I really appreciate that."
"So, as for the beard? I might not shave it because I don't want Kansas State fans to be disappointed in me," she giggled. "They are the best fans."
To K-State loyalists salivating over the next opportunity to see Charlotte's son play -- his beard intact and alongside teammates that have helped to make every K-State game a can't-miss event -- that news, her gift to let Jacob keep the beard, the sign of a son's growth, the sign of a mother's love, is better than any homemade enchilada.
They suspect it might be a gift that'll keep on giving the rest of the season.