The news that former Iowa State basketball star Jackson Vroman passed away on Monday was a hard pill to swallow for Cyclone fans.
Vroman was one of the best centers to play for the Cyclones in recent years, averaging 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds in his brilliant two-year (2002-03, 2003-04) career in Ames. He was also a career 55.8 percent shooter from the field.
The two things I remember most about Jackson was his free spirit, and his incredible motor. He was one of the most interesting characters to put on a Cyclone uniform, and one tough competitor. When it came to game time, Vroman was “All In.”
Vroman was a nomad in his childhood. His father, Brett, played basketball at UCLA and UNLV before a long professional hoops career in all regions of the world. Jackson lived in Europe and spent time in Alaska, California and Utah.
Vroman was primarily a soccer player and didn’t get into basketball until his senior year in high school. At 6-10 and lightly recruited, Vroman attended Snow Community College in Utah to give hoops a try.
It was at Snow CC where former Iowa State head coach Larry Eustachy saw an unfinished product who never took a play off. Eustachy offered him a scholarship on the spot.
“He’s my type of guy,” Eustachy said about Vroman in a Des Moines Register article. “He’s relentless. He doesn’t know the meaning of quit. I was told about this guy who never really played in high school, but was a hard-playing guy. That’s my type of guy.”
Vroman’s high-energy style and relentless effort on the boards made him an instant favorite of Cyclone Nation. He was also flamboyant, which helped his legend grow further. He grew his hair long and dyed it pitch black in his first season. Soon members of Cyclone Alley donned wigs to mimic his style and called the group “Vromie’s Homies.”
Every rebound was his. That was how I recollect my two years covering Vroman. I never saw a player tip rebounds to keep the ball alive in order to secure it better than Vroman.
He was the first Cyclone in 24 years to lead the conference in rebounding when he topped the Big 12 on the boards in 2003-04 at 9.6 rpg.
And he was tough. Man, was he tough. He never wanted to come out of a game, even when he lost a tooth.
“During a game he was hit in the mouth,” said Vic Miller, Iowa State’s longtime athletics trainer for men’s basketball. “He ran to me, spit out his tooth, and hustled back on defense to complete the play. The legend grew from there.”
One of my favorite memories of Vroman was the play he made in the now famous “John Neal Game” vs. Iowa during the 2003-04 season. Neal, a seldom-used walk-on, became the hero of the contest when he buried a pair of 3-pointers down the stretch to help the Cyclones rally to beat Iowa, 84-76.
Neal’s second 3-pointer with 2:02 left in the game tore the roof off of Hilton Coliseum and gave the Cyclones a 76-70 lead. The play was instigated by Vroman.
Curtis Stinson missed a tear-drop and Vroman fought off three Hawkeyes to grab the carom. Without hesitation, Vroman bulleted a pass to Neal in the corner before the defense could get set up. Neal nailed the trey and the game was virtually over.
After the game I met with assistant coach Bob Sundvold.
“That was the play of game,” Sundvold told me. “How he got the rebound in the first place was incredible. Then to have the intellect to know where the shooter was after he got the ball, only the good ones can do that.”
People forget that the 2003-04 Cyclone squad was very good. Vroman, as a senior, earned Third-Team All-Big 12 honors that season while averaging 13.9 points and 9.6 rebounds. The Cyclones lost just one game in Hilton Coliseum (17-1) with their only blemish coming to Final Four-bound Oklahoma State.
Iowa State ended the season at 20-13 and advanced to the NIT semifinals.
Vroman continued to improve offensively throughout his career at ISU. His soccer background made his footwork sound and he developed nifty post moves with the help of being ambidextrous.
Some of his memorable games included a 20-point, 18-rebound performance vs. Colorado and a 17-point, 19-rebound outing at Kansas. In his final game as a Cyclone, he grabbed 20 rebounds vs. Rutgers in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
If there was one deficiency in Vroman’s arsenal it was his free-throw shooting. As a career 51.2 percent foul shooter, he never felt comfortable at the charity stripe.
The last play of his ISU career basically summed up his comedic nature and his woes at the line.
With the Cyclones down 83-81 with 0:52 seconds left to Rutgers, Vroman grabbed his 20th board in traffic and went down to the ground after being fouled.
He didn’t get up.
Miller ran onto the court to see what was wrong.
“I go out there and I asked him if it is a cramp,” Miller said. “All Vroman said was, ‘There is no way I am shooting these free throws.’ I then started to assist him like he was having cramps. Wayne (Morgan) and the referee came out to see what was wrong and the referee decided a replacement was needed to shoot his free throws. That story always makes me laugh.”