Gonzaga center Robert Sacre is big presence, bigger personality
Gonzaga coach Mark Few on senior center Robert Sacre: "Rob's one of the all-time historical figures in this program. He's got a unique personality. He's touched all of us deeply. I'll never coach another guy like him."
Seattle Times staff reporter
NCAA first round: Gonzaga vs. West Virginia @ Pittsburgh, 4:20 p.m., TNT
Come with us for a moment and consider the world of Gonzaga's towering center, Robert Sacre, where nobody is a stranger and every situation is a rollicking opportunity to deliver a punch line.
Sacre, in a TV interview, about his diminutive coach, Mark Few: "If I had to give coach Few a Christmas present, I'd want to give him some little elf shoes."
Sacre, deadpanning on camera in the Gonzaga locker room, needling a freshman teammate: "I'm sorry for Kevin Pangos' interview. He needs to work on it."
Sacre, and his description for Few on the occasions the coach is wearing a plaid shirt: "John Denver." Says Few, "He wasn't even alive when John Denver was singing."
Sacre, completing a video-board message one night at the McCarthey Athletic Center with a nod to the popular Dos Equis commercials: "Stay thirsty, my friends."
Sacre, when KHQ/IMG's Greg Heister tells him at the close of a senior-night interview that it's all been a pleasure: "Wish I could say the same."
He wasn't always this way. Oh, he was big — 23 inches at birth, 3 feet 6 at 2 years old, 6-7 in eighth grade — but his personality wasn't always so. His mom, Leslie, of North Vancouver, B.C., recalls her only child "staying in his room, playing with his toys very quietly."
But then the effect of two big, supportive families took hold. There was Leslie Sacre's in Western Canada, and that of Robert's dad, Greg LaFleur, an NFL tight end with the Eagles, Colts and Cardinals from 1981 to '86. When Robert was in second grade, his mother moved him to Canada.
Soon, amid all the aunts, uncles and cousins, a bigger-than-life personality developed.
"There was a lot of laughter raising Robert," Leslie says. "He always manages to find the good out of every situation. He was a good kid, for the most part, due to the fact he does have a very strong, supportive family."
She had a rule: Punishment for indiscretions would be decreased if he owned up first. He could live with it, saying, "Yep, you're right, I messed up. You caught me."
"Or," Leslie recalled, "he'd say, 'You're going to get a phone call from the teacher.' "
Pretty early, it was apparent that big described not only Sacre's frame, but his heart. Leslie works for a company that arranges group homes for people with disabilities, and that window has always been a part of his life. She recalls a sweet moment in Louisiana when he was perhaps 2, sitting on a glider next to an elderly gentleman with a mental handicap, chatting away happily.
Sacre has worked in soup kitchens and has seen how the other half lives. Maybe that's how he developed an ease around people, all people.
The times Few will remember are the ones when they get the call from a hospital, asking if he or a Gonzaga player could be with a cancer patient with days to live.
"I'm usually a mess," he says. "It's tough to figure out what to say or do. You do your best to get through it. (Rob) just rolls up there, whether it's adults or kids, and he's laughing or joking for an hour. That person totally forgets what their plight is.
"To me, that's the greatest gift you could possibly have."
Leslie isn't surprised to hear that. They were driving once through a tough side of Vancouver and a high school teammate of Sacre was lamenting his lack of playing time.
"You might not be getting any playing time," Sacre told him, "but these people don't know where they're going to eat or sleep tonight."
Leslie, who is 6-2, played basketball at Louisiana State, but didn't want to push the game on her son. He tried other sports and at one point as a kid, gave the trumpet a shot.
"When he quit," she says, "the band instructor sent me a thank-you note. Robert adores music, but he was not focused."
At Handsworth Secondary School, Sacre began to put up big numbers, and Northwest schools took notice. He and his mom took a swing of unofficial visits to the Oregon schools, Washington and Gonzaga. On the way home, Sacre woke up going over Snoqualmie Pass and blurted, "That's it, it's over. I'm going to be a Zag."
At Gonzaga, he has started 109 games, averaged in the 10- to 12-point range, improved his rebounding incrementally and his foul shooting by leaps and bounds. He has a jeweler's touch at the free-throw line, shooting .794 the past two seasons. The next step is to be quicker and more decisive with post moves, starting Thursday night in Pittsburgh against West Virginia.
"I like his leadership, I like his toughness," says one pro scout who sees him as a possible reserve center in the NBA. "He'll bang around. (But) he doesn't affect the game defensively. He doesn't block a lot of shots (45) in a league that doesn't have a lot of big guys."
Along the way, Sacre has picked up two things in abundance — tattoos and pets. Leslie begrudged him his first tat at 19 — "Sacre," with a fleur-de-lis to honor his father's name. He'd been talking about it since the eighth grade, and she accompanied him.
He kept wanting to add to his collection. "Robert, seriously, not another one," his mother would say. She figures he has 10 or 20. No, mom, he says it's 19 or 20. In fact, he told The New York Times a couple of years ago that Few "tells me I look like I'm in prison."
He has a couple of dogs, reflecting a love that began early.
"He has the softest spot for animals," Leslie says. "We had three dogs. He kept bringing other dogs home."
Last week, walking onto the court after a timeout in the second half of the WCC finals loss to Saint Mary's, Sacre began clapping. Not once, not twice, maybe 75 or 100 times. Why? Only he would know.
"Rob's one of the all-time historical figures in this program," says Few. "He's got a unique personality. He's touched all of us deeply.
"I'll never coach another guy like him."
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org