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November 5, 2012

Why Austin Nichols to Memphis Was No Real Surprise


Media types and bloggers all over the country today are saying that they were 'shocked', 'stunned' or 'surprised' by the announcement that Austin Nichols was committing to his hometown Memphis Tigers.

My only question is this: why?

I'll get back to that later.

But my own personal coverage of Austin Nichols will get to continue for a while longer. And that's just as well to me, because Nichols is a breath of fresh air. He's hard-nosed and hard-working, yet humble and respectful. I'll never forget the first time I had the pleasure of interviewing him.

It was the first time a member of the media had ever requested an interview with the lad, yet even then, he showed incredible savvy. His answers were thoughtful and insightful, and he didn't seem very nervous or reserved. He was under control, which impressed me.

I actually interviewed Nichols and Johnathan Williams, III at the same time that afternoon. It also marked the first time that I met and interviewed Austin's dad, Mark Nichols. It was just over three years ago, and it's become an open dialog that continues to this day and promises to continue well into the indefinite future.

Austin Nichols told me back then that he was amazed that anyone would want him to play ball for them in college.

"I get letters from a few schools, including Memphis," he told me. "Really, if a Division II school offered me a scholarship, I'd be happy. But my dream is for Memphis to offer me. Just getting a letter from them is awesome for now."

"Austin was about the worst player in this city when he was an eighth-grader," Mark Nichols told me just a few months ago. "I never dreamed it would turn out like this (with so many of the best schools in the country offering Austin scholarships)."

In truth though, Austin, despite going through an awkward, gangly stage as he completed a growth spurt that pushed him out to 6'7", has never been anywhere close to the worst player in Memphis or Shelby County. He played on a team coached by the late Lorenzen Wright which finished in 7th place in the 7th grade nationals, not the feat of a terrible player.

But such is the humility of the Austin clan. They don't take anything for granted. And Austin rather prefers to let his play on the court speak for him.

That's why his father Mark became his "mouthpiece," and spoke more and more on his son's behalf as the recruiting process grew to a fever pitch rarely seen. It's not that Austin couldn't speak for himself, and it certainly wasn't because Mark Nichols was controlling the recruiting process.

"I think the best fit might actually have been Duke," Nichols said on the radio show "Talk Back Live! with Bob & Josh," AM 730 Yahoo! Radio in Memphis this afternoon. "But it was Austin's decision and he was comfortable with Memphis. I let him make his own decision and I'm just here to support him, no matter what, like any good father should."

As the good father, Mark Nichols has been there to deflect as much pressure as possible away from Austin, trying to allow his son to have some semblance of a childhood despite being such a high level basketball recruit. And he often helped me put that unique pressure into perspective.

"You know, most people don't think about this, but kids like Austin have given up their childhoods to play basketball," Mark told me back in March, when Nichols the Younger was about to travel to Germany for the Albert Schweitzer tournament. "They have training, practices, games. In the summer they have AAU. So I try to let Austin just be a kid sometimes when he gets a chance."

Mark Nichols and I have shared a lot of private moments over the past 3+ years, and he's told me many, many things that I knew intuitively couldn't be shared. He very rarely felt the need to say to me, 'This is off the record, right?' because I established early on that sometimes, we could just talk and he could vent if he felt like it.

And he took me up on that offer more than once.

So now, we get to why it was not at all a surprise to me that Austin selected to stay home and play for Memphis.

It was those confidential talks, talks which will go with me--unrepeated--to my grave, that led me to understand that Austin really, really loved his hometown, and the thought of playing with the word "Memphis" on his chest. And I learned of reservations that both father and son had about various schools.

I knew that his father would likely have chosen 2 other schools (Duke, Vanderbilt) over Memphis if the decision were his. . . but it wasn't.

All Austin Nichols really needed to know was that staying home to play ball for Memphis wasn't a mistake. He became convinced that he could play basketball at the highest level without leaving Shelby County, so why go anywhere else?

So now, he is relieved, but not ready to stop grinding. He's going to enjoy not having the pressure of intense scrutiny over his college decision, but he knows he has work to do.

"I have practice from 2:00 till 6:00 today," he said when explaining why he wouldn't be granting any more interviews today (Monday). "I'm eating lunch now with some friends and just trying to relax."

Time for relaxation will be over when his Briarcrest Saints go about the business of preparing for a Tennessee I-AA (Private Schools, Large) state championship.

"We've got a really good core coming back," he told me back in June. "Don (Donnovan Spralls) is healthy, (Chris) Hodges is our best perimeter scorer. And we got a transfer from North Dakota, a 6'2" point guard named Gus Grann. So I like my team, I think we'll be pretty good."

So forgive me if nothing Austin Nichols does is a surprise. If he wins a state title, I won't be surprised. Winning his division's Mr. Basketball certainly won't shock me. Making it to the NBA someday is certainly within reach.

But no, deciding to stay at home and play for Memphis is not a surprise, not if you truly bothered to follow his recruitment. I guess it's just easier to regurgitate rumor and innuendo sometimes but that's a story for another day. . .


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