A lucky break and a young man's desire to lift up a program
gave rise to a legend
By Tom Missel
Jeff Massey was incredulous. He grabbed two hours of shut-eye in his car, to safely finish the drive to a 6 a.m. practice, to see this guy?
Ambling down the hall at Father Michael Goetz Secondary School in Mississauga, Ont., dressed in his Catholic school white shirt and navy pants, was this 6-foot-9,
“He just didn’t look like a basketball player — skinny, hunched over, his feet going sideways,” said Massey, an SBU men’s basketball assistant since Mark Schmidt was hired in 2007. “I said, ‘Coach, are you sure? Him?’ He said, ‘Yeah,
Massey didn’t have to wait long.
“Someone went to shoot, and from almost out of nowhere, he caught the ball on the top of the (backboard) square,” Massey recalled.
“I was like, ‘Wow.’ From then on, he’s blocking shot after shot after shot. I called Mark right away.”
The frustration of spending two months trying to reach Andrew Nicholson by phone suddenly melted away. (Only later did Massey find out that Nicholson had stepped on his cell phone with “his big size 18s” and had no access to voicemail for weeks.)
A week later, Schmidt and Massey attended another Goetz practice.
“I said the same thing: ‘Him?’ And then he started playing and I got goose bumps,” said Schmidt. “It was magical some of the things he could do.”
Schmidt, Nicholson and his dad went to a classroom to talk after practice. For a guy who wears his emotions on both sleeves, Schmidt had a hard time containing his excitement.
“His dad said, ‘Coach, you have to relax. You’re too excited,’” Schmidt said. “I said, ‘Fabian, your son is really talented.’ I knew we had a hidden gem.”
Hidden gem? In this day and age of colleges scouting prodigies in middle school? How was this possible?
• • •
On March 14, 1970, a Ford backed into St. Bonaventure’s Cadillac and hearts sank across Bona Nation. All-American Bob Lanier hobbled to the sideline with a serious knee injury late in the Bonnies’ East Regional final win over Villanova, all but crushing the team’s hopes in the Final Four.
Thirty-seven years later, the basketball gods paid the Bonnies back for the decades-long angst Villanova guard Chris Ford caused that day in Columbia, S.C.
Colmaleen Nicholson had just dropped off her only child at his dad’s house when her phone rang a few minutes later. Andrew was halfway to Toronto’s Hoopdome for summer practice with Grassroots Canada — a premier travel team about to leave for a tourney in Las Vegas — when he called from his dad’s car. “Mom, I can’t put any weight on my ankle,” Andrew told her.
Running late for practice, Andrew sprinted down the stairs at his dad’s house and fell. Colmaleen, an emergency room trauma nurse, knew immediately when she returned home that Andrew’s ankle was seriously injured.
“It was so swollen,” she recalled of the severe sprain. “I knew it wasn’t good.”
In hindsight, she knows something else: “The injury was fate. He was destined to come to St. Bonaventure. I truly believe that.”
Schmidt isn’t ashamed to call it luck.
“All he had to do on that summer tour was go out and dunk on someone once, and we’re done,” he admitted. “We wouldn’t have stood a chance.”
But Andrew’s injury, as lucky as it might have been to keep the Dukes and Kentuckys from crossing the Peace Bridge, was only one element in a “chain reaction that made everything work,” Massey said.
Andrew didn’t fly under the radar; he wasn’t on the radar. He only started playing organized basketball as a sophomore in high school. Baseball was his first love. “But when I grew,” he said, “my strike zone got too big.”
Staying north of the border didn’t hurt.
“When we got Andrew, that was just before Canada started sending all its best talent to prep schools in the states, so it was perfect timing,” Massey said. “And he was a great student, so academics weren’t an issue at all. The hardest part was convincing him to leave.”
His mom took care of that. “He wanted to stay home and go to school in Canada,” Colmaleen said, “but I told him to go to America because there was more opportunity there. They don’t have full scholarships in Canada (for athletes).”
To the Nicholsons, the opportunity was simply this: a chance to get a degree. Basketball was just the means to make that possible. Education was 1 and 1A in the equation.
• • •
Despite more than 25 years in college basketball, Schmidt conceded it “didn’t take a rocket scientist to know this kid could be really good.” But the basketball coach couldn’t have known the kid preferred to be a scientist.
“Since he’s been 7 years old, he’s wanted to be a scientist or a surgeon,” Colmaleen said.
“Chemistry was his first love. He just loved to mix things up. He almost blew my kitchen up mixing baking soda with something,” she said.
Attracted by the embrace of the coaching staff and the proximity of Olean to Mississauga, the family decided to visit campus the weekend of Oct. 12, 2007, when Bob Lanier returned home to have the new Reilly Center court dedicated to him on the opening weekend of basketball practice.
Though amazed at “how packed the place was,” Andrew was more impressed with what was rising from the earth at the west end of campus — the William F. Walsh Science Center. (The building was dedicated his first week on campus, in August 2008.)
“That new science building was really the big sell,” Schmidt said. “Usually, at this level, it’s about the basketball piece first. Not for him.”
A new science building. Rabid fans. Coaches my family like. Just three hours from home. Where do I sign?
UB, Niagara, Duquesne, and Cornell were among the many schools now interested, but it was too late. “I went home and threw out the letters from all the other colleges,” Andrew said. “I didn’t visit anyplace else.”
At the time Andrew committed, the news barely made a ripple in college basketball waters.
“To the recruiting people, to the magazines, Andrew was a throw-in in our recruiting class — Davenport, Simmons and some kid from Canada,” Schmidt said. “They had no idea. And to be honest, we had no idea he’d be this good.”
They didn’t need much time to recognize his remarkable potential. Game two of his freshman year was at Marist.
“I remember watching that game on my computer, and after seeing the way he played, being really upset that I wasn’t there in person,” said athletic director Steve Watson. “That’s when I first saw his extraordinary skill level in a game.”
Andrew had 13 points (eight on dunks) and five blocked shots in a 23-point win.
Six days later, in the first start of his career, he scored 15 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five shots in an overtime win at Rutgers to help the Bonnies claim the four-game Garden State Challenge.
He was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week six times and was a slam-dunk choice as the conference’s Rookie of the Year. By the end of the season, Schmidt felt obliged to be bluntly honest with the Nicholsons.
“His mum, dad and Andrew were in my office,” Schmidt said. “I said, ‘Andrew, I want you to graduate with your chemistry degree. I know how important that is to you and your family, and I admire that. But if you do what you’re supposed to do … you could be an NBA player.’ They all looked at me like I was crazy. They had no idea.”
The Nicholsons were skeptical, but when Schmidt told them, “My job is to make sure he earns his degree and maximizes his ability in the classroom and on the court,” they were comforted.
“Coach Schmidt, Coach Massey, the whole St. Bonaventure family makes me very comfortable,” his mom said. “I trusted that they were doing what was best for Andrew.”
• • •
As a sophomore, Andrew dropped chemistry as his major — only to switch to an equally rigorous program: physics. The big advantage was that all the lab work in physics is concentrated in Experimental Physics, instead of being spread out across several chemistry courses, said his adviser, Dr. Jerry Kiefer.
Still, the commitment needed to do well in two such demanding programs — physics and Division I basketball — require him to be “very, very, very good at time management,” Andrew said. But, Kiefer said, “He seems to have managed everything just fine. He’s a conscientious student.”
On the court, coaches marvel not only at Andrew’s natural gifts, but his remarkable ability to retain everything they teach him.
“From day one, he’s been a coachable kid,” said fifth-year assistant Dave Moore, who works with the Bonnies’ big men. “But what’s most impressive is how fast he picks stuff up. You can show him a move one time, and he has it down. It’s effortless.”
That ability to process information so rapidly and translate it to success on the court has NBA scouts drooling.
“For being on no one’s radar a couple years ago, they are really intrigued by his rapid improvement,” said Adrian Wojnarowski, ’91, NBA columnist for Yahoo!Sports. “His incredible footwork around the basket, his touch, how well coached he is, how hard he plays having to carry so much of the load — there were a couple of teams (drafting) in the 20s (of the first round) who told me they’d have looked long and hard at him had he been in the last draft.”
In a stronger 2012 draft class, preseason projections have Andrew going anywhere from the middle of the first round to early in the second. He’d be the first Bonnie drafted by the NBA since the Bullets picked Barry Mungar in the fourth round in 1986. (The NBA has only two rounds now.)
The biggest commitment Andrew needed to make to pique the interest of NBA scouts was in the weight room. He couldn’t bench press 100 lbs. when he came to Bonaventure. “I only had two 10s on each side (85 lbs. total with the bar),” he said. “I had never touched a weight before I came here.”
Darryn Fiske, head strength and conditioning coach, took one look at Andrew’s enormous hands and knew why. He couldn’t grasp the barbell properly so they spent $300 on an oversized barbell. Andrew now bench presses more than 300 lbs.
He’ll carry even more weight on his shoulders this season as the linchpin of a team with expectations no one could have imagined five years ago, when the Bonnies were completing their fifth straight season of winning fewer than 10 games. In Andrew’s first three seasons, the team won 15, 15 and 16 games, each time easily exceeding preseason predictions. But they are underdogs no more, picked as high as fourth in the 14-team conference.
• • •
Andrew was named to the A-10 second team his sophomore year, the first team after his junior year, and is a co-favorite to win league player of the year this season. The third-leading returning scorer in the nation, he’s on the preseason Wooden and Naismith award lists and, barring injury, will likely finish as the second-leading scorer in SBU history.
“We can’t put everything on him, but he can handle the pressure,” Schmidt said. “He won’t get overwhelmed with the circumstances, with the big stage. He’s much more mature than the average kid.”
In many ways, he’s nothing but the average kid, a good student and well-liked classmate who genuinely loves the entire college experience and never considered leaving school a year early to enter the NBA Draft.
“Most importantly, I wanted to get my degree on time,” Andrew said. “It’s the best four years of your life, something you’ll never get back. Why would I want to leave?”
As awestruck as the coaches are by the basketball phenom who blossomed before their eyes these last four years, they are equally impressed by the person he is and how he’s handled his ascension to stardom.
“Other guys of his ability, you have to take them by the hand,” Schmidt said. “But we don’t have to worry about him going to class, coming to practice, in the community. I can’t imagine a big-time player being more low maintenance than him.”
Massey was more emphatic: “He’s no maintenance. … He’s a great, great person, totally aside from basketball. If you just met him for the first time, and then walked away and picked up a paper and read about him, you’d have never thought it was the same guy getting all this attention. He’s really grounded.”
The coaches aren’t taking credit for that. “He’s so humble and unassuming,” Moore said. “That comes from his mom and dad. They’ve raised a great young man.”
Andrew has often called his mom, asking if he could bring teammates home with him so they didn’t have to spend a holiday alone.
“As an emergency room nurse, he sees me looking out for other people all the time so I think he picked that up,” Colmaleen said. “It was so touching when Ogo (Adegboye’s) family called to thank me for their son not having to spend Christmas alone. It’s never been a problem to share our home.”
• • •
Seemingly devoid of ego, Andrew would rather credit teammates than trumpet his accomplishments.
“He’s so rare for guys of his ability, most of whom have been spoiled by the system — the AAU culture and the travel teams and the recruiting process,” Wojnarowski said. “They get very jaded, a great sense of entitlement because there has always been an adult there giving them something.”
Wojnarowski saw firsthand what kind of person Andrew is this summer when his 8-year-old son, Ben, landed on Andrew’s team at Schmidt’s basketball camp.
“What impressed me was that by the end of the first day, he knew every kid’s name, and there were 10 or 11 of them,” Wojnarowski said. “He wasn’t just there because he had to be. When Ben’s team won the championship, they were jumping all over Andrew. He was having as much fun with them as they did with him.”
When the camp concluded, Andrew gave each player on his team hand-written evaluations. Wojnarowski said, “I don’t think he’s well-liked or respected just because he’s the best player (there) since Bob Lanier.”
Defenders of Price, Sanders, Hagan, Hollis, Belcher, Jones, Vanterpool, Winn, Bremer or Green might bristle at the assertion, but Wojnarowski doesn’t think there’s much debate.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “If you told Syracuse and Duke and Carolina and Georgetown they could have a draft of Bona players since 1970, every single one would take Nicholson first. He’s clearly the best pro prospect since Bob. He could start for any program in the country, and I don’t think we’ve had a guy like that since Lanier.”
More significantly, he said, Andrew “wipes away the stain” of the academic scandal that rocked the basketball program and the university in 2003.
“If you could have built a player in the lab and said this is what St. Bonaventure needs to help restore itself, not just athletically but academically, you’d have built Andrew,” Wojnarowski said. “He’s the ultimate student-athlete.”
Dr. Denny Wilkins, journalism professor and faculty athletics representative, has watched Andrew grow from a shy, reserved freshman to a team leader.
Andrew soon realized this fall that freshman Youssou Ndoye from Senegal was an 83-inch fish out of water. Andrew told Ndoye he didn’t have to abandon his culture, simply incorporate another one, Wilkins said. Andrew serves as Ndoye’s mentor, on and off the court, “like a big brother,” Schmidt said.
“I saw him the other day and said, ‘You know, Andrew, a lot people are going to remember you only for basketball, but not me,’” Wilkins said. “He looked puzzled and I said, ‘What I’ll remember most is what a good person you are.’ And he got this big grin on his face.’”
Schmidt had a sense early on how great this gift was that had fallen down the stairs and into his lap.
“He told me, as a freshman, that he wanted to leave a legacy of rebuilding the program,” Schmidt said. “For an 18-year-old kid to say that is amazing.”
Of course, he didn’t just say it. He did it.