We’re deep in the throes of March and the NCAA Tournament is on our doorstep. Thinking about what to write on this week, I just kept thinking about Thunder players and their relationships with the tournament. Russ’ trip to the Final Four. Durant trying to pull an ’03 Carmelo with Rick Barnes pulling the always shaky Texas basketball strings. But when it comes to the Thunder and college ball, it starts and ends with Nick Collison.
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There are only a few college basketball games I really remember watching. I remember watching Aaron McGee and Hollis Price give Salim Stoudamire and Luke Walton buckets in the Sweet 16 in 2002.I remember driving to Memphis on a whim with my friend Parker Ellis to see Blake Griffin hand Syracuse an ungodly 30 and 14 in 2009, somehow managing to graze his head on the backboard in the process. I remember sitting in my college house with something like eight other dudes watching UCONN and Syracuse bang it out for six overtimes in what is still the coolest game I’ve ever seen. Eric Devendorf on a scorer’s table popping his jersey at the Garden, thinking he’d won it. AJ Price and Johnny Flynn going bucket for bucket. Fans everywhere trying to decide which coach they disliked more. Walk-ons deciding championships.
The game that sticks in my mind the most, though, for whatever reason, is a January 2003 game between Kansas and Texas. We’ll get back to that.
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Nick Collison is my favorite basketball player. He has been since I saw him play in his Kansas days. In the way that all little kids desperately try to find something relatable within the games of their heroes, I thought I could see my future basketball self in Collison: a tall, pretty skinny white guy who just played hard.
Later on that year my dad and I drove the three and a half hours up to the city to see this new Goliath of a building called the Ford Center and watch some first round NCAA tournament games. Arizona State played Cal in the first game of the day — I was real excited to watch Ike Diogu play, which looking back on now could not possibly feel weirder — and the nightcap was Kansas-Utah State.
Kansas would go on to lose to Syracuse, Carmelo Anthony, and Hakim Warrick’s arms in the national championship game, but for a while that night it looked like they wouldn’t make it out of the first round. In a game defined by the Jayhawks doing their all to usual no-show against a no-name, the only Kansas players that played well were Keith “What Happened To You?” Langford and Collison. Langford diced up Utah State and poured in 22 and Collison steady handed his way to 18 and 7. I remember being so excited to get to watch him play and my Dad doing that thing Dads do when they’re watching a game with their son where they hype up the guys they feel play ball the “right” way.
“Watch how he gets rebounding position on the weak side.”
“See how he does his work before he catches the ball?”
Stuff like that. But I was already sold on Collison.
It was a Big Monday game back when those really mattered. January 27, 2003. Phog Allen. This was one of those barometer games you get in January where you see how salty certain teams actually are. Ones where afterward, Linda Cohn and Dave Revsine hop on SportsCenter and tell you the game had a real “tournament” feel to it. Kansas won by three, 90-87 and Collison wore James Thomas and his tall socks out. He had him at least 20 and 20. I want to say it was 25 and 24, but that might be wrong. I looked all over for the box score but couldn’t find it. Shouts out to the collective ghosts of Brian Boddicker, Brad Buckman, Sydmill Harris, and Brandon Mouton.
Dick Vitale called the game. He was beside himself with joy over Collison’s play. Gave him only the second standing ovation he’s ever given a player. The first was David Robinson. Always hard to fully understand Vitale when he gets to rambling but from what I gathered that night Robinson had gone for 50 at Navy and Vitale’s joneses got away from him.
It was after that Texas game when I decided that this guy would be my favorite player.
This current Thunder team is frustrating because they keep showing you signs that they can be dominant, only to lose to someone like Dallas. With the exception of a fully healthy Russ and Durant, most all the “others” — or whatever dumb name people try to give bench players that don’t make All-Star teams — have thus far been riddled with inconsistency. All of them have had roller coaster years. Reggie, Lamb, Adams, whomever. You’re not entirely sure what you’re going to get when they get to the arena that night. That isn’t the case with Collison.
Collison is the super model of consistency. He is the MVP of the “Guys who just come out and do their job” squad. I generally think it’s highly annoying when people speak in the abstract about certain vets that don’t produce but provide “leadership” and “stability” and “professionalism”, but when a guy comes out and is consistently one of the top plus/minus guys in the league and runs a two man game with all the precision of a Swiss watch, then I’m on board. Nick Collison is the tide.