Feb. 19, 2013
When Army senior Jason Pancoe opened his white envelope on branch night, it might have been the most obvious news of anyone in the Class of 2013. For a three-time Patriot League Academic All-Star and West Point dean’s list student, a career in military intelligence seems quite logical.
“When an infantry unit goes out on a mission, a military intelligence officer’s job is to paint the picture of the battlefield and then allow them to go out and execute their mission,” Pancoe explained. “Whatever type of information they need – weather, human intelligence, any type of signal intelligence or imagery intelligence, we compile that and paint a picture so an infantry unit can plan accordingly.”
Not only have his good grades and excellent military training prepared him for his future assignments, but Pancoe’s skills as a basketball player are suited perfectly to his upcoming career. As a point guard and distributor, the Ladera Ranch, Calif., native has been “painting the picture” of the court in order to allow his teammates to succeed for years.
“When I was in high school, we won the state championship and I averaged 4.5 points per game as a senior,” Pancoe said. “Our best player, Klay Thompson, is the starting two-guard for the Golden State Warriors now. My role was to get us into the offense, get people the ball and be that calming influence.”
Pancoe arrived at West Point and with veterans such as Josh Miller and Marcus Nelson already established, began his career as a shooting guard in order to take advantage of his three-point accuracy. He played in 18 games as a plebe, but averaged just more than three minutes per game.
“When I was a freshman, I was just happy to be here,” Pancoe remembered. “I realized that physically, I wasn’t at the place where I deserved to play. I took my licks in practice. I still feel to this day that the best players will play. At that point, I don’t think I deserved to. That year I knew I had to get better and stronger and there would be some opportunities my sophomore year if I earned them.”
In addition to his perspective and attitude, Pancoe’s developmental first year was aided by the Class of 2010 which graduated as one of the most successful groups in recent Army basketball history. While often times beating him up in practice, the seniors showed their leadership ability by also encouraging the youngsters.
“That was the best situation,” Pancoe said. “There was such a strong core of leadership, and those guys were so close. A lot of times a group like that might tend to look inward and worry about themselves and what they were going to do as seniors, but they couldn’t have done a better job of reaching out and being mentors to us. Eric Zastoupil, John Sizemore, Chris Walker, Cleveland Richard, Josh Miller, you can go down the whole list – those guys were great to me. The majority of the help I needed was on the court. Even those guys pushing me in practice helped. They would put their arm around me and tell me to keep working. Especially being so far from home, that support system really made my development possible. It really made me excited to be here as opposed to just going through the motions.”
His perseverance paid off. Early during the preparation for the 2010-11 season, head coach Zach Spiker made a decision that would change the course of Pancoe’s career. Having not recruited Pancoe, Spiker wasn’t aware of his high school pedigree as a point guard, but still inserted him into that role during a preseason scrimmage.
“As a sophomore, I got thrown into a scrimmage, and I tried to do the things that I normally would do,” he recalled. “I didn’t try to play outside of my talent level. I tried to be solid with the basketball and not turn it over, and I think at the time that was maybe what our team needed. Fortunately, I was able to play well in some spots. I have confidence in my ability to handle the basketball and get everyone involved. I think that’s what I do best, and I think Coach really wanted to make the transition to a team that really moved the ball and forced people to guard.”
That sophomore season in which he started 18 games and knocked down 39 three-pointers to go along with 71 assists proved to be the most productive of Pancoe’s West Point tenure. A string of head injuries forced him to miss half the 2011-12 season, and despite practicing in head gear, a fifth concussion on the third day of 2012-13 preseason practice ended his playing career.
“It’s more of a precautionary thing,” Pancoe said. “I’ve talked to the doctors at Walter Reed, and they told me they would put the decision whether or not to play in my hands. Obviously, as a 23-year-old kid who has been playing basketball his whole life I want to play, but after I talked it over with the medical staff and coaches here in a lot of ways it was good that they took the decision out of my hands. It made me focus on things that are more important down the line. First, my military career is right around the corner, and then I have the whole rest of my life. I still have the opportunity to be around the program and the guys, which is really all that matters.”
Pancoe has been more than a casual observer during his absence from the court. He can be found on the floor at every practice and on the bench during every game, encouraging his teammates and providing an extra set of eyes for the coaching staff. Pancoe’s continued involvement with the program has been even more important this season given Army’s large group of freshmen. The plebes have played a vital role on the court, and Pancoe has done his best to make sure they are up to speed off the court as well.
“It’s different since I’m not playing and am in more of a player-coach role,” Pancoe explained about his mentoring style. “It’s interesting because those guys are so talented and have such an important role that I tried to shepherd them in a way that I feel is necessary. There isn’t a whole lot I can teach them from a basketball standpoint. When it comes to stuff down the hill, I try to challenge them a little bit and push them to step out of their comfort zone as a cadet. I want to make sure they’re working hard in the classroom and making an extra effort, especially as plebes because I think that makes such a big difference on a daily basis.”
Pancoe’s newfound viewpoint from the sidelines will have a lasting impact on his future. While he is fully committed to pursuing his military career, Pancoe has found a calling that may keep him involved in the game he loves for years to come.
“We’ve talked about my future and coaching is something I probably want to do,” Pancoe said. “Coach Spiker wanted me to get some experience about what it’s like being a coach so now I know that this is awesome and I want to do this. Hopefully down the road, I’ll have some opportunities to see if I can make this into something that I’m pretty serious about.”
While his playing career may have ended prematurely, Pancoe has no regrets about his chosen path.
“Even though cadets can be cynical at times there is such a pride about the way in which people go about their daily business,” he said. “There is a pride about being part of this institution and pride about being able to serve in the military. Probably 99 percent of the athletes that come here aren’t looking to play professionally. We wanted an opportunity to play for a high level program at an institution that will reward us and provide us with the chance to do something special.”