Whenever the Gators have a comfortable lead in the final minutes, it’s common for coach Billy Donovan to give the nod down the bench to Kurtz. As he walks from his seat on the end of the bench to the scorer’s table, the Florida players, and even some assistant coaches, hold up their signal for “Jake The Snake” Kurtz.
With their middle finger and pointer finger bent above the rest to simulate the fangs of a snake, the Florida bench starts to cheer on its walk-on. Assistant coach John Pelphrey, grinning ear-to-ear, was the first one to do the signal during Wednesday’s blowout win over Georgia.
It’s always a joyous occasion on the bench when Kurtz gets the call. It means the Gators have a big lead, but they also get to watch one of the team’s most respected players get on the floor.
“Jake comes into practice with a great mindset,” Florida forward Casey Prather said. “He’s always trying to help. I was just happy for him to get some shots.”
Kurtz checked in with the four Florida freshmen — Michael Frazier II, Dillon Graham, Braxton Ogbueze and DeVon Walker — with 3:11 left in the game. It looked like it would turn out the way Kurtz’s other appearances have — making it into the stat sheet but with zeros across his line.
That changed when Kurtz caught the ball right in front of the Florida bench. He pump faked from behind the three-point line, causing the Georgia defender to leave his feet and go for the block. Kurtz put the ball on the floor and went to the basket. The Georgia defense rotated late and only one player got close to Kurtz. The layup served as the sophomore’s fifth and sixth points of the season.
But he wasn’t done.
On the next possession, Kurtz caught a pass behind the three-point line at the top of the key. There wasn’t any hesitation after that. The sophomore launched a deep three-pointer that went in and sent the Florida bench into a celebration bigger than at any point during the game.
On his way down the court, even the humble Kurtz couldn’t fight a smile. A quick look at his teammates on the Florida bench made the smile even bigger.
“I looked over a little bit and they were going nuts,” the soft-spoken Jacob Kurtz said. “It was a good sight to see.”
It almost didn’t happen for Kurtz. He played at Hagerty High School and led the team with 13 points and nine rebounds per game during his senior year under Josh Kohn. Through Kohn, Kurtz got connected with Larry Shyatt, who was a Florida assistant at the time. Kurtz knew he wasn’t good enough to expect a scholarship from the Gators, but once Kurtz was accepted into school at Florida, he just wanted to be around the program.
Kurtz started going to practice at the start of the 2010-11 season, but he didn’t step foot on the floor. He sat on the mezzanine level of the practice facility, overlooking the practice court and watching the team every day. He would sit there from the time the team hit the court until the time they left. Most of the players and coaches didn’t even know what he was doing. Truth is, Kurtz didn’t always know exactly what he was doing either. He just wanted to be around the game.
“I’ve never seen, since I became a college coach, a college student come sit at practice every day from start to finish,” Donovan said. “I’d look up there every day, and he’d be up there. I’m like, ‘why is this guy up here?’ He just wanted to watch practice and sit there. He’s a great kid.”
One of the Florida managers quit during the middle of the 2010-11 season, and they needed to find a replacement as fast as possible. The first thought was to ask the student who had been sitting and watching every day of practice. Kurtz was already spending the extended time at the practice facility, so it was worth a shot to ask him if he would be interested.
He spent a few days around the team and managers before deciding to join them. He did laundry and the normal chores every team manager did. When the Gators were shorthanded during practice or needed another body on the floor, Kurtz would often get the call.
Those around the program during that season recall stories of Kurtz blocking Erik Murphy’s shot a few times in one practice.
“Geez, he’s not too bad,” Donovan recalled thinking after seeing Kurtz in practice.
When former walk-on Kyle McClanahan left Florida to play at Rollins College, Kurtz took his spot and joined the team as a walk-on for 2011-12 season.
“I give him a tremendous amount of credit because he’s a bright kid, but he’s also very driven,” Donovan said. “He has gone about it in a very respectful way. When you’re around someone like that, you want to go out of your way to help him realize different things he’d like to accomplish in his life.
“He’s one of the smartest kids on our team in terms of understanding what we’re doing. I love having him a part of our team and being around him.”
The life of a walk-on player is rarely glorious. That’s what made Wednesday night so special for Kurtz. It was just five points in one game, which would have made him the third-leading scorer for Georgia, but it meant so much more than just two baskets. It was a chance for all the hard work to pay off in the uniform he always wanted to play in.
“I love every minute of it,” Kurtz said. “It’s a dream come true to be playing here. I look forward to going to practice and putting on the jersey everyday.
“Just being out there, putting on that jersey every day and being a part of Florida basketball makes it worth it every day.”