Robert Sacre was in ninth grade the first time Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd saw him play basketball.
“What you saw obviously is he had the great body, great energy level but he was pretty raw,” Lloyd said. “And you could see his personality back then.”
In other words, all the things GU followers have witnessed from the 7-foot Canadian in his first four seasons – he redshirted in 2009 with a broken foot after playing in five games – with the Bulldogs.
Roughly a year later, Lloyd was in a Vancouver, B.C., gym, again watching Sacre.
“He scored a basket and he ran up court and put his fingers together and made a letter ‘Z’ on his chest as he ran by where I was sitting,” Lloyd recalled. “Afterward, I said, ‘What was that?’ He said, ‘The sign of the Zags.’ It was all him. I knew we were in pretty good shape.”
Now a senior, Sacre is far more polished on the court and entirely eclectic away from it. He fits comfortably on a list of the program’s intriguing characters during its rise to national prominence – Casey Calvary, Quentin Hall, Zach Gourde, Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison, Jeremy Pargo, Steven Gray, to name a few – and he’s not finished yet.
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Gonzaga hasn’t played an official game and there have only been a few sessions with the media. No matter. Sacre has already performed a spot-on impression of director of basketball operations Jerry Krause, spoken in garbled German to needle teammates Mathis Mönninghoff and Elias Harris and noted that he shaved his head because was bored.
Spend 45 minutes with Sacre and you learn about his two-month-old son, Quinton, his pit bulls Louis and Jackson, his diverse network of friends and his affinity for riding horses and imitation crab meat.
“Meech (Goodson) put me on that,” Sacre said. “I know it’s not real crab, but with melted butter I could eat it all day.”
He lives in an apartment complex he calls a cross-section of Spokane.
“I can honestly say I have friends throughout the whole town,” Sacre said. “At my apartment complex we all talk and hang out, everybody knows each other. All ages.
“I call this place the vortex because once somebody comes here they never get out. If you look at all the Zags that have played here, they all come back.”
Sacre says he’s had the ideal role model for his larger-than-life personality. Grandpa Gervis is in his 70s and lives in Ville Platte, La. Sacre was born in Louisiana before moving to Vancouver roughly at age 7 with his mother, Leslie, a former LSU basketball player. Sacre spent summers in Louisiana with his father Greg, a former LSU and NFL player, and grandparents.
Gervis still works fulltime, still won’t let anybody cut his enormous lawn and never goes on vacation. Gervis’ house rules require Sacre to take out his earrings when entering and grandpa isn’t a big fan of Sacre’s tattoos.
“He’s all talk and he backs it up,” Sacre said. “He doesn’t take crap from anybody, he’s so strong-willed. I envy him. I want to be him when I’m older. He’s the center of attention, always has been and always will be.”
Sacre stops for a moment.
“I’m not going to compliment him because he’ll read this and say, ‘See,’ ” said Sacre, quickly returning to the topic. “I can call him at any moment, even when things might seem to be the worst in the world. He’ll just say, ‘It’s the end of that day, you’re starting a new one.’ ”
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Sacre had no problems adapting to life in Canada. He formed friendships easily and soon took up sports, trying soccer, T-ball, swimming and rugby. When he was 9, he came home from school and asked his mom, “Can I get a basketball hoop?”
Leslie Sacre’s response could probably serve as a handbook for parents with children involved in sports.
“I said, ‘OK, on a couple of conditions,’ ” she said. “I won’t coach you because this has to be your passion and your drive. I will be mom and you need somebody to complain to when the coach frustrates you.
“The other condition was when the game was over he was never to look at stats because it was how the team performed, not the stats, that made the difference. And he was only allowed to talk about the game from when we left the gym to when we got home. Then it was time to talk about real life.”
Real life, for Sacre, revolved around his friends, his family, his pets and eventually basketball.
When the family lived in Louisiana, Sacre routinely brought home stray dogs and asked his parents if he could keep them.
Sacre enjoys horseback riding and the family has a collection of 65 horses – leather, miniature, rocking, spring, etc. His first word wasn’t mom or dad. It was horse.
“He used to tease me, “When I grow up I’m going to ride horses,’ ” Leslie said. “I’d always tell my friends I don’t think he knows that he’s not going to be a jockey.”
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Sacre is a self-described “goof”, but he has a serious and compassionate side.
“I work with people with disabilities and Robert has always looked out for the underdog,” Leslie said. “There was a young man at his high school that looked up to Robert and he was a bit quieter than the other kids. Robert went to the coach to ask if he could be the manager to be part of the group.
“I think the tattoos and the loudness isn’t always who he is. He’s gone to symphonies and he’ll listen to everything from classical music to hip hop. He loves hanging around people and he’s very comfortable meeting anybody. Robert and Steven Gray were very good friends because they liked talking about life and he talks with (ex-Zag Abdullahi) Kuso about a lot of different things.”
“A lot of people are intimidated by me and it makes sense,” he said, “but if you really know me I’m not going to hurt anybody. I consider myself like my dogs. They look scary, they’re kind of intimidating but they’re just big pussycats. That’s what I am.”
Fatherhood has brought about more changes in Sacre – Quinton was born Oct. 4. Sacre tries to see him every day, but it’s getting tougher with the Bulldogs about to embark on the season.
“We’re trying to make sure he has a good environment, make sure we’re positive and we want him to have a good, happy life,” Sacre said. “He’s going to look up to you so you have to be responsible.”
Sacre phoned Leslie from the hospital.
“He told me that he now understands the role I took as a parent and all the responsibilities he was feeling,” Leslie said. “I asked him what life lessons he wanted to teach Quinton. He said, “When things get tough you have to persevere and work through.’ ”
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Lloyd noted Sacre’s ability to balance fun with hard work elevates practice sessions and prompts teammates to compete harder.
“He plays with a high level of intensity when it’s time and he has a good time when it’s not,” head coach Mark Few said. “I love his enthusiasm, his zest for life. He picks us all up when he walks into the gym.”
Sacre has developed better moves in the lane and his ability to run the floor often leads to early post-up opportunities. He’s a presence defensively, blocking 131 shots the last two years, while possessing the agility to cover guards on the perimeter.
His scoring average improved from 10.3 points as a sophomore to 12.5 last season. His rebounds per game climbed from 5.4 to 6.3. His free-throw percentage soared from 62.9 to 82.3.
“He’s come a long way,” Lloyd said. “He has a lot of natural gifts with size, mobility, but he wasn’t blessed with the greatest hands. For a guy to overcome that deficiency, it’s very, very rare. You don’t see many guys make that progress. All credit to Rob, he’s worked so hard year round.”
Leslie sees that her son has developed a deft jump hook, an improved understanding of the game and smoother free-throw stroke. She recalled Robert missing a couple of free throws in a big high school game. That night, Robert couldn’t sleep and the two found a hoop to practice his free throws.
Leslie sees the most growth in her son beyond the court. Sacre, who was diagnosed with a learning disability in second grade, has earned his degree and is working on his Master’s.
“When I brought him to Spokane July 1 five years ago, he was a young man who was pretty immature, a bit of a goof,” she said. “Now I see him and all the lessons he’s learned through being at Gonzaga and he’s much more mature and much more in charge. He knows what he wants out of life and he’s willing to work for it.
“I’m proud of my kid. He’s a nice person to be around.”