JACKSONVILLE, Ill. • Assessing the value of one man's 15 minutes of fame is an impossible undertaking. In the case of Illinois College and Jacob Tucker's curious tale, it's worthy of consideration.
The night the Carlyle, Ill., native won the NCAA dunk contest at the Final Four was an attention-drawing moment for one of the state's oldest colleges, right up there with alumnus William Jennings Bryan's three failed presidential attempts.
Tucker, however, got the victory parade and a trip to the U.S. Capitol.
The individual rewards came swiftly. But determining the payoff for the private liberal arts school with fewer than 1,000 students and a Division III athletics program is more of a guessing game.
There's the immediacy of the exposure.
"I'm sure close to a million people have now heard about Illinois College that never had,'' basketball coach Mike Worrell said.
There's the short term of applicant interest.
"We could feel the ripple effects for probably a good two years,'' said vice president for enrollment Stephanie Elpers.
And, president Axel Steuer hopes, the everlasting aspect of increased awareness.
"People ask, 'Where's Illinois College?' '' Steuer said. "I won't have to answer that anymore.''
So, how did a former skateboarder and basketball hater, who stands 5 feet 11, vault himself and his college to fame so quickly?
Tucker first dunked as a 5-7 freshman at Carlyle High School, one year after he was barely able to touch the bottom of the backboard. He had spent the previous summer glued to his skateboard, just as he had for years.
"I wasn't going to play my freshman year, but the varsity coach would take me out of class just to talk to me about playing,'' he said. "I said, 'No chance. I don't even like basketball.' But I changed my mind the day before tryouts. I didn't like it until my junior year, when I actually started trying.''
Tucker humored coaches his first year and missed most of his sophomore season because of a bout with pneumonia. But when he finally decided basketball wasn't so bad, he blossomed and led Carlyle to the state tournament as a senior.
He finished eighth in a state dunk contest as a junior and won two competitions as a senior. Despite his size and other limitations, he was good enough to gain the interest of area D-III programs and landed at Illinois College.
Worrell immediately installed a play to set up dunks for his freshman phenom. Steuer, the college president, didn't discover Tucker's talent until two years ago when he was asked to stand near the basket during festivities on the first night of practice.
"Coach looked around and looked worried,'' Steuer said. "I couldn't see what was going on behind me, then Jacob dribbled, jumped over me and dunked.''
Tucker played out his career, averaging 14.8 points as a senior and leading the team in rebounding with 7.1 a game. He had 30 dunks in the Blueboys' 24 games last season. But he remained mired in the obscurity of the All-Midwest Conference until the making of a video in the Illinois College gym.
Produced with the help of friends, Tucker posted the 2-minute, 14-second clip on YouTube for the sake of providing the NCAA dunk contest sponsor with proof of his ability.
"I never practiced those dunks,'' he said. "Once I started making the video, my friends would help me come up with ideas, and I'd get them on the first or second try. Two or three took awhile to get. Everything else I got on the first or second try. Nothing is doctored.''
The two that took some extra work to execute: a dunk where he takes the ball behind his back and one where he goes between his legs while doing a 360-degree spin.
Within one week the video had received more than 1 million views and has since topped 4 million. Ultimately, it was the catalyst that helped him win a vote-off to become the final participant in the contest, which featured seven others, none shorter than 6-3.
Tucker admits that he hasn't had his much-discussed vertical leap measured since high school. He said the summer before his senior year at Carlyle, he was at 43 inches. Vertical jump is usually measured from a standing position.
With a running start, Tucker can now jump at least 50 inches. He knows this because at his apex he can reach eyebrow level on the rim.
"I'm jumping better than I ever have and probably will continue to see how much higher I can get the next few years,'' he said. "I'm not at my peak.''
Tucker attributes recent increases in his leap to an altered workout routine. He also has been aided by his understanding of muscle functions learned while majoring in exercise science.
He has combined natural ability with classwork to better himself athletically. At the same time, he probably has improved his chances of making a career as a personal trainer.
But Tucker had to deal with a lot of doubters before winning the NCAA contest. Some questioned whether the video had been doctored, a claim he rebutted.
"If I was sitting here watching someone that's 5-11 doing that, I'd say it's not real. How is that possible?'' he said. "I do understand. But I've never seen it that way. Height has never played a part in my mind that I can or can't do this.''
His unedited performance on ESPN was proof. In the first round, he was successful on his second attempt at the between-the-legs dunk and earned a perfect score of 50 from the judges.
And although he missed two attempts at the between-the-legs 360 in the final round, he finished with a reverse dunk while sailing over the head of Illinois College point guard Nathan Kohler.
He beat North Carolina-Asheville's John Williams to win the championship.
"His last dunk was really nice, and he should have got a higher score,'' Tucker said. "The dunk I did was probably better. I think I would have won regardless.''
Tucker's 'cool factor'
The contest was Tucker's dream come true and a free commercial on ESPN for Illinois College. He wore the school's jersey, and commentators repeatedly mentioned the college and its location.
From 9 to 10 p.m. that night, the college's website received 11,428 hits compared to 454 in the same time slot a week earlier.
Elpers, the vice president for enrollment, worked at Butler during the 2009-10 school year and saw the impact a trip to the Final Four had on the university and its application pool. Although Tucker's achievement was not on such a grand a scale, she said it could make a difference.
"Any sort of national attention gives you a front porch view of the college,'' she said. "There's a 'cool factor' to what Jacob did that reflects well on the college as a whole.''
Tucker felt the impact immediately. He returned to campus and rode on a fire truck during the parade, which was followed by a rally and two hours of autographs.
He was honored at the Illinois state capitol and invited to Washington as a guest of U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria. While visiting, he did a private dunk exhibition in the congressional gym.
He has been invited to throw out the first pitch at a Chicago White Sox game and hopes to get a similar invitation from the Cardinals. He will perform in a dunk contest in New York's Central Park, and the school is fielding dozens of other inquiries, including one from a Hollywood talent agency.
Meanwhile, the college and community are basking in the glow of the moment. Congratulatory signs were plastered around Jacksonville for Tucker's return. He was given the traditional key to the city.
Steuer said he is happy to have an athlete bring attention to the school. He already has a slogan floating around his mind: "Great things can happen at small colleges.''
"We want people to ask about the college, then we can talk about the academic programs and the kind of education we offer along with our history,'' he said. "It's a great conversation starter.''
Tucker, meanwhile, does not expect the contest will alter his life. He will attend dunk contests or exhibitions when invited but said he will spurn any feelers from leagues in Europe or elsewhere. Numerous agents have contacted him about signing, but he cringes at that idea.
Before the fame, he had an agreement to become a personal trainer in Jacksonville. He probably will be used as the face of Illinois College for some time, but he seems willing to have his 15 minutes end.
"I love basketball, but it's not everything to me,'' he said. "I have a lot of options I can go into, so I'm ready to move on to the next stage of my life.''