He’s no joke

BUFFALO, N.Y. – He can battle a potential first-round draft pick to a stalemate one minute and casually drop obscure movie references afterward.

Gonzaga center Robert Sacre is 7-feet tall with an equally large personality.

Robert Sacre is quick to joke around off the court but his game is as serious as it gets.
(Rick Stewart / Getty Images)

If Gonzaga (27-6) upsets Syracuse (29-4) in a West Region second-round game Sunday at the HSBC Arena, Sacre is a sure bet to emerge as one of this NCAA tournament’s most popular figures.

“Life’s too short to be upset and unhappy all the time,” Sacre said.

The two sides of Sacre’s personality were on full display Friday as Gonzaga defeated Florida State 67-60 in a first-round game.

Sacre put his emotions on display by screaming or pumping his fist during his matchup with 7-foot-1 center Solomon Alabi. Sacre recorded 13 points and nine rebounds to help Gonzaga outrebound the taller Seminoles. He held Alabi to 13 points and six rebounds.

Sacre put on a different kind of show in the postgame news conference.

After talking about the physical nature of Friday’s game, the British Columbia resident was asked to name his favorite NHL team and to discuss his impressions of Sabres hockey. After Sacre raved about former MVP goalie Dominik Hasek and mentioned that he rooted for the Vancouver Canucks, Gonzaga coach Mark Few fed him another Canada-themed question.

“Who was your favorite curler, while we’re on this subject,” Few asked.

“Leslie Nielsen in ‘Men With Brooms,’ ” Sacre replied in reference to the 2002 film about a reunited curling team.

Sacre’s teammates and coaches have grown accustomed to that kind of witty repartee.

“Rob is a funny, charismatic clown,” Few said, “but when it’s time, Rob’s a warrior.”

Gonzaga needs to see that warrior side of him Sunday.

Syracuse is the top seed in the region and will be playing in front of a partisan crowd. Gonzaga must capitalize on its few potential matchup advantages to have any shot at winning this game.

Gonzaga’s best hope for victory could be exploiting Syracuse’s lack of frontcourt depth, particularly if Orange center Arinze Onuaku is unavailable. Onuaku sat out a first-round victory over Vermont with a strained right quadriceps muscle and the Orange aren’t counting on having him back Sunday, though they haven’t officially ruled him out.

If Sacre can replicate his performance against Florida State, Gonzaga just might return to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season and the sixth time since 1999.

“Syracuse is a great team and we’re going to have to play a near-perfect game to beat them,” sophomore guard Demetri Goodson said, “but if Rob plays like that, we’ll definitely have a chance. He played like a champ.”

This represents the ideal place for Sacre’s potential emergence on the national stage.

He’s a central figure in a game featuring six players with Canadian roots (four from Gonzaga, two from Syracuse) that will tip off about a five-minute drive from the Canadian border. He’s playing in front of a number of Canadian reporters and a sizeable contingent of Canadian fans.

That means plenty to Sacre, who appreciated it when the HSBC Arena played the Canadian national anthem before Friday’s game.

“It just shows that the country’s improving in basketball,” Sacre said. “There’s a lot of talent coming out of the country. I’m very proud of our country.”

Sacre’s emergence as a Division I athlete should come as no surprise. Not only does he have ideal height, he also has ideal bloodlines.

His father, Southern University athletic director Greg LaFleur, played tight end for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts from 1981-86. His mother, Leslie Sacre, played basketball at LSU.

But he wasn’t an immediate success at Gonzaga.

After coming off the bench as a true freshman, Sacre played just five games last season before a stress fracture in his right foot shut him down for the rest of the year. He spent the offseason developing into more of a post scorer as Gonzaga prepared to replace four starters from last year’s team.

The work is starting to pay off.

Although Sacre has struggled with inconsistency for much of the season, he has played better over the last month. He averages 10.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and a team-high 1.9 blocks per game and perhaps has contributed even more off the court.

“He’s probably the best teammate you could ever have,” Goodson said.

Goodson considers Sacre the ideal teammate because of the effort he gives on the court and the sense of humor he provides off it. Whether he’s mocking a teammate’s choice of attire, leading the team in a pep talk or flapping his arms like a bird during pregame introductions, Sacre always finds a way to keep the team loose.

“He’s the king of catch phrases,” junior guard Steven Gray said. “I don’t know where he gets them. He always has these little one-liners he likes to use in any situation he can.”

For example, Gray remembers when he might ask Sacre whether he had done his homework or could pick something up from the store. Sacre’s consistent reply: “We’re in a recession.”

Or there’s the time he saw a Dos Equis commercial and started commenting, “Stay thirsty, my friends,” at every possible opportunity.

Gray admits he can’t believe the same guy who jokes around in the locker room can adopt a completely different attitude once he enters a game.

“He just has that ability to switch personas,” Gray said. “He’s joking around all the time [off the court]. When I see him on the court sometimes, I’m thinking, ‘Who is that? This isn’t the Rob I know.’ He’s an absolute animal when he gets in the games. He’s such a competitor.”

Sacre doesn’t see how that differentiates himself from his teammates. He considers Gonzaga a team full of characters.

“If you met the guys on our team, you’d be like, ‘Where did you find these guys?’ ” Sacre said. “Everyone on the team is just a bunch of clowns. But when it comes to game time, we’re a bunch of competitors. That’s what I love about this squad. No one takes life too seriously.”

Consider Sacre the prime example.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. Follow him on Twitter. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.
Updated Saturday, Mar 20, 2010