Creighton sophomore forward Jacob Epperson vividly remembers his first time driving to La Lumiere School.
His parents, aunt, uncle, and he made the trip up from his aunt and uncle’s house in Indianapolis in the summer of 2016. As they made their way west on Highway 20, they saw a small, white sign sticking out of the ground before Wilhelm Road with “La Lumiere School” and an arrow printed onto it in black. If not for this, it’s easy to miss the turn.
A right turn onto Wilhelm and the street narrows into what’s hardly a two-lane road, surrounded closely with tall trees and plenty of wilderness. The drive goes from a four-lane state highway onto this back road for about a mile-and-a-half before a navy blue sign directs people to the main entrance to La Lumiere’s secluded campus.
“When we were traveling through, my family joked how this is probably where they bury the dead bodies and stuff like that,” Epperson laughed. “Just because of all the trees and fields and swamps, you know? Like, great. Thanks, guys. That makes me feel a lot better about going to school here now.”
Epperson’s move to La Lumiere for his senior year wasn’t just some easy three-hour trip up from Indianapolis. While his aunt and uncle lived there, he came far from the state, country or even hemisphere.
Epperson grew up in Australia.
His father, Kenneth Epperson, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, where basketball is a religion of sorts. He grew up playing the sport and went on to have a highly-successful college career at Toledo, where he still leads the school in career points (2,016), field goals (786) and rebounds (960).
Kenneth got the opportunity to play professionally in Australia in 1986 following his illustrious college career. It was there he met his wife, Katherine. The two rose Jacob and his two sisters, Brittney and Amelia, in Australia, where Jacob’s love for basketball grew immensely.
The lanky, 6-foot-11 sharp-shooter was looking for a way to progress his career and play college ball in the U.S. He found out about AUSA Hoops – an AAU basketball team that takes Australians to the States during the summer to compete against some of the best teams in the U.S.
“It’s hard to get looked at over (in Australia),” Jacob said. “But AUSA Hoops have some tryouts for the program in Australia and put a couple of squads together to bring over to the U.S. to get looked at.”
Epperson made the team and traveled with them over to the U.S. the summer after his junior year of high school at Maribyrnong College. AUSA Hoops didn’t stay in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or any large city. Rather, the team stayed at La Lumiere’s campus in rural La Porte for the summer of 2016. It was then Jacob and his family saw just how remote an area the school is in, with that one, little white sign pointing in its direction.
A summer of competitive AAU basketball followed. He showcased his ability to stretch the floor and protect the rim as a near-7-footer – something just about any collegiate program would be thrilled to have. A few offers came his way, but nothing significant. His grades weren’t where they needed to be to receive top-tier offers.
But one school caught his eye – the one he’d been staying at the entire summer. Jacob concluded that attending La Lumiere for his senior year was the best decision for his future. He wanted to enroll in an institution with both athletic and academic acclaim, and La Lumiere was just that.
“I knew I needed to get my schooling straight,” Jacob said. “I knew either way, I was probably going to have to do another year of school (before playing in college). So, luckily, LaLu came and hit me up and offered me to come play there. I took it right away. Once I got there, they helped me with my schoolwork and honestly, it was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
Jacob’s grades and basketball game drastically improved while at La Lu, opening up far more doors than would have been previously available. Through winning a 2017 high school national championship with future NBA players Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Jordan Poole, among other highly-touted recruits, he received plenty of help along the recruitment process from guys who have been through it their entire prep careers.
Power Five schools like Purdue, Illinois and Utah came knocking, but Epperson decided a rising Big East team in Creighton was the best fit for both his basketball and academic progression. Just like his favorite player, Dirk Nowitzki, who Jacob reps No. 41 for, he wanted to go somewhere that appreciated a sharp-shooting big man. That combined with the fast-paced style of play, team camaraderie and the staff’s coaching style made committing to Creighton an easy decision.
“(Then-La Lumiere coach Shane Heirman) said Creighton loves guys that can shoot,” Jacob said. “And I figured, well, I like shooting. I saw what they did with (former-Creighton and current NBA G-League forward) Justin Patton. He’s a big 7-footer like me. I figured I could kind of mold my game around his and I’d fit well at Creighton.”
Since arriving at Creighton, Jacob’s had a tumultuous career. After shooting nearly 70 percent from the field and going 4-for-4 from 3-point range as a reserve his freshman year, he was excited for an extended role this season.
In the middle of that transition came one of the greater accomplishments of his life: making the 2017-18 Dean’s List and Big East All-Academic team.
“LaLu really helped me get my academics back on track and kind of get into that frame of mind that school is important,” Epperson said. “Basketball’s been my entire life so far, but I need something to fall back on for life after basketball.”
With the highs of playing an impactful role and seeing success in the classroom, however, come the lows. Midway through his sophomore year, Jacob wasn’t sure exactly what was wrong with his leg. It was aching him enough to get an X-ray. The doctors came back with bad news: He had to have patella realignment surgery on his right knee.
The doctors sawed Jacob’s tibia into a V-shape and moved it to the left, where they put in two screws. Then, they attached a cadaver hamstring to the outside side of his patella and pulled it through so the patella could come back toward the middle of his body and back into place.
It’s an injury Jacob was originally planning on playing through, but constant limping and unbalanced running caused a stress reaction in his back. When he went in to see the doctors, they said one of the screws in his knee was bent. So, out come the old two screws and in come four new ones in a whole new surgery that sidelined him for the remainder of what ended up being a medical red-shirt season.
Amid Jacob’s rehabilitation journey, he was practicing with zero restrictions or pain Oct. 24 of 2019 – his third year at Creighton and redshirt sophomore season. Epperson set a screen and rolled to the basket. A pass found his hands and as he went to jump in the air, his right tibia snapped and tore through his skin, resulting in a compound fracture.
“Yeah, I was in quite a bit of pain,” he said. “In 2019 alone, I had my first surgery in January and the other one in March. So, yeah, I’ve been keeping busy rehabbing the past year.”
While he still isn’t running or jumping, Jacob’s glad he has a copious amount of time to rehab for the 2020-21 season. There was a distant possibility of being available for postseason play, but he and the coaches decided it’s best not to rush him back and ensure a healthy junior and senior season.
Injuries and other various setbacks give athletes time to reflect on moments in their life, whether positive or negative. The past 15 months have Epperson reminiscing on how every decision he’s made, small or large, has led him to where he is now: Achieving academic success, playing basketball at a top-tier program and receiving medical attention from a program and staff that’s fully-committed to him.
“Without (La Lumiere), I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said. “I would’ve probably had to take the other route of going to community college and then hopefully get picked up from there. Then if I got hurt in community college like I did at Creighton, schools would disregard me. I’m lucky the way it panned out, honestly.”