Sitting in front of his locker at the Sprint Center on Friday, former Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen couldn’t help but feel old.
He’ll be 28 in a few weeks, so he probably only said it as a half-joke.
But in the six years since he left K-State, he’s played in Italy, Israel, Spain, Croatia and most recently in Russia. He’s traveled internationally more times than he can count, all in search of a career in the NBA that’s eluded him since he went undrafted in 2011.
Now he’s got it. Almost.
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“Getting an opportunity to put on an NBA jersey is just a dream,” he said. “It’s just a blessing.”
Pullen signed three weeks ago with the Philadelphia 76ers, who played and won 119-95 over the Miami Heat in a preseason game at the Sprint Center on Friday. Pullen played about 10 minutes and had a three-point attempt.
Every NBA team must trim its roster to 15 full-time players and two additional players on two-way contracts by Monday. Pullen is hoping to earn one of those spots. The possibility improved when Philly Inquirer reporter Keith Pompey tweeted after the game that the Sixers waived Kris Humphries, Emeka Okafor and James Blackmon Jr.
Such a reality wasn’t the case when he played for the Sixers in the 2012 Summer League. He turned down what he said was an opportunity to develop with the team to chase a better contract overseas.
“Seems like forever ago,” Pullen said. “Makes me feel old. It really was a long time ago.”
Almost as long ago as his career at K-State, where he reached the NCAA Tournament three times and averaged 16 points, two rebounds, three assists and two steals across 135 games (67 starts) from 2007-11.
Pullen couldn’t help waxing nostalgic about that, either. He remembered playing great games here. He remembered the tears he shed in another locker room here when K-State lost the 2010 Big 12 Championship to Kansas.
That time in Manhattan was special, he said. And being back in the area the last few days has brought all the feelings to the surface.
It was easy for him to fall into teasing Sixers teammate and former KU star Joel Embiid when the team traveled to Lawrence for a practice at Allen Fieldhouse on Thursday.
(Embiid, by the way, inspired plenty of noise at Sprint Center. He grabbed seven rebounds, scored five points and made one block in nearly 15 minutes on the court on Friday.)
It was easy for Pullen to joke on Twitter, asking his followers to get him a K-State hoodie he could wear during that practice in exchange for tickets to Friday’s game.
It was easy, too, to fall back into the friendship he’s retained with Heat starter and former K-State teammate Rodney McGruder, who on Thursday found out he’d miss three to six months because of a stress fracture in his leg.
“That brotherhood that we built at Kansas State, it lives on forever,” said McGruder, who played there from 2009-13.
The brotherhood takes form in phone calls and continuous encouragement from Pullen. McGruder also went undrafted when he graduated. He played his next season overseas and then spent time ricocheting around the D-League until he signed a three-year contract with the Heat in July 2016.
Though McGruder is not as well-traveled, he and Pullen have been on an oddly similar path.
“He’s ahead of me right now,” Pullen said. “I tell him all the time, ‘That’s a beautiful thing, man, coming from the D-League,’ I couldn’t be more proud of him. I’ve been around Rod since he was 17 years old, so I’m truly happy for the journey that’s he taken.”
And Pullen is satisfied with how far he’s come, too.
About a year ago, he was getting ready to leave the United States for another season abroad. He had been through the process multiple times, and it inevitably always ended with teary farewells. But saying goodbye to his almost 2-year-old daughter moved him.
“Tough = looking my daughter in the face and telling her papa gotta go bye bye,” he wrote on his Twitter account (JPullz20) on Oct. 4, 2016.
This time around, he’s in the NBA. His daughter, who turns 3 on Oct. 24, is a time zone-traversing phone call and a relatively short flight from Chicago away.
Coming to grips with the realization is enough to make Pullen pause and consider his age.
“There’s always a lot of opportunities (overseas) but at the same time I’m getting older,” Pullen said. “I have a daughter who is getting older. Being in the States is important to me. Being able to form a family … is getting important to me.
“It’s just a blessing the Sixers gave me this opportunity.”