By Peter Schwartz
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It shouldn’t be a surprise that Jake Tripucka became a professional athlete. After all, his father played 10 seasons in the NBA and his grandfather played quarterback in the NFL, AFL, and CFL.
As a kid, Jake played football, basketball and baseball, but, as it turned out, he fell in love with lacrosse. The midfielder will begin his first season with the New York Lizards on Saturday when they begin defense of their MLL title against Rochester at Hofstra University on Long Island.
Jake, 25, played at Mountain Lakes High School in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, where he won two state titles before earning a scholarship to Duke University, where he won two national championships.
Not bad for a late bloomer.
“I didn’t start playing until about the sixth grade,” Jake said. “I was doing both baseball and lacrosse at the same time so my poor mother (Janice) had to drive me after school from baseball practice to lacrosse practice and I had to change in the car.”
That was the routine for three years, but when it came time for high school, he had to pick a sport and the choice was lacrosse over baseball.
“I just knew that lacrosse was more like football and basketball, more up-tempo,” Jake said.
But it was a sport that his father was not familiar with.
“I never really watched it,” said Kelly Tripucka, the former 12th overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons and the son of former professional football player Frank Tripucka. “I didn’t know a thing about lacrosse.”
But when his playing career came to an end and his family settled down in Boonton Township, Kelly would eventually have to learn everything about lacrosse. He picked it up pretty quickly.
“It has become my favorite sport,” said Kelly, a former Nets and Knicks analyst who currently serves as a college basketball analyst for Westwood One. “To me, it’s basketball because of the way they fast break, move the ball, set screens, pick, and defend the ball.”
After Jake enjoyed a stellar lacrosse career at Duke with 47 goals, 48 assists, 74 groundballs, and 16 caused turnovers, he was taken by the Hamilton Nationals with the 42nd overall pick in the 2013 MLL Collegiate Draft. Jake would eventually be traded to the Charlotte Hounds and spent his first three seasons playing in the same city where his dad played his final three NBA seasons.
“I loved that he was down in Charlotte to start his career,” Kelly said. “The name down there is still pretty good.”
Jake helped the Hounds reach the MLL championship game during his rookie season in 2013, but Charlotte lost to Chesapeake 10-9. But over the last two years, Jake was a good example of what life is like for many professional lacrosse players as a “weekend warrior.”
He was commuting on weekends to Charlotte or wherever the Hounds were playing because he was living in New York and working in asset management for Lord Abbott in Jersey City, New Jersey.
“You almost dreaded getting on a plane after a full week of work,” Jake said.
He had a full-time job during the week, but was also a professional athlete on weekends. As it turns out, his college teammate and current roommate, Dave Lawson, was doing the same thing. Lawson was playing for the Rochester Rattlers of MLL and was also commuting back and forth from New York City to Rochester.
That was until this past Oct. 8 when Lawson was traded to the Lizards. That got Kelly to thinking that maybe he could orchestrate a deal to get closer to home.
“I had talked to my general manager in Charlotte and said I think it would be a little more convenient playing in New York,” Jake said.
The Hounds obliged and on Nov. 23, Kelly was dealt to the Lizards in exchange for a first round pick in the 2016 Supplemental Draft. In a New York minute, life slowed down for him as he would no longer have to get on an airplane every weekend during the season.
He will carpool with Lawson to the Lizards’ seven home games on Long Island and only have to travel with the team to their seven away games.
“I was very fortunate to have that happen. It makes my life a lot easier,” Jake said.
And it will certainly be a lot more fun for his family, including his father, who will be able to see his son play in person on a regular basis. There was always the annual opportunity to see Jake play against the Lizards at Hofstra, but now Shuart Stadium is Jake’s home playground.
Needless to say, Jake will be very happy to see plenty of familiar faces at his home games for the first time in his professional career.
“My dad will be there this weekend,” he said. “My mom will show up as well. It’s nice to be able to have some family come to a lot more games.”
When the Tripucka family comes to the games, they will be keeping a close eye on No. 6 in a Lizards uniform. But throughout his career, Jake has had uniform No. 7, which is the same number that Kelly wore for the Pistons and Hornets.
“I always liked it,” Jake said. “You always look up to somebody like that. I tried to emulate him and be like him.”
Unfortunately, No. 7 was not available with the Lizards. It was already taken by Lizards goalie Sean Brady, another teammate of Jake’s at Duke. When Jake arrived for training camp, he attempted to make a deal to get the number.
“I tried to negotiate,” he said. “He said he was pretty attached to it. I just took the closest single digit number to it.”
Jake is not that upset about not getting No. 7, because there’s too much excitement about joining the Lizards. Not only is he now playing closer to home, he is also now a member of a team looking for a second straight championship that is loaded with quality players like Paul Rabil, Greg Gurenlian, and Rob Pannell.
“Obviously, playing with those guys makes my job a lot easier,” Jake said. “I just have to find a way not to screw it up because, obviously, they have the blueprint down from winning it last year.”
Based on his track record and what he learned from his father, it’s a safe bet that Jake Tripucka will be a bit hit in New York.
The Lizards play the Rochester Rattlers at 5 p.m. this Saturday at Hofstra University’s Shuart Stadium. For ticket information, please click here.
Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow @JakeTripucka7 and @LizardsLacrosse