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Oklahoma City Thunder: How Nick Collison became the quintessential role player

by Darnell Mayberry Published: March 29, 2014

Way back when he cared what a stat sheet showed next to his name, Nick Collison kept a certain one posted above his bedroom door.

He highlighted his line. Looked at it each time he left the room.

Three points, it read.

Field goals: 1-for-6. Free throws: 1-for-2. Fouls: five.

It was from his sophomore year at Iowa Falls High. His first season on the varsity ended in heartbreak, a three-point loss in the first round of the state tournament. Collison spent the contest getting schooled by a bigger, stronger and more physical post player, and that box score became a daily reminder of the type of beating he vowed to never again take.

“I was just so embarrassed by how I played. I felt like I let everybody down,” Collison said. “It was a big moment for me. It totally changed my outlook. That’s when I started to get real serious about basketball and just did everything I could do.”

The player you see today was born on that spring day 17 years ago.

Collison is now a workhorse for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He used early lessons to forge his path to the NBA, where he’s become the quintessential role player, a glue guy with true grit.

Teammates trust him. Coaches cherish him. General managers long to land someone just like him.

It’s why Collison is one of only eight players who have spent the past 10 seasons with the same franchise. Six of the other seven are multi-time All-Stars, which makes Collison an even rarer breed, a prototypical role player with staying power.

He’s survived relocation and rebuilding, five coaches and two general managers, injuries, aging, losing, winning and a lockout.

“I know it’s really rare for somebody to be able to stick that long,” Collison said. “And now, to be successful at the end part of it, too, to build up to being a really good team at the end, that’s how I would want it to go.”

Collison means more to the Thunder than most fans know. Thunder general manager Sam Presti calls Collison a founding member, putting him in the same class as perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With his commitment to the team on the court, on practice days and game nights, as well as the everyday example he sets as a community leader, Collison has helped Oklahoma City build its brand, establish an identity and create a culture.

Quite simply, Collison is setting the standard today for what a Thunder role player should look like tomorrow.

“He represents the type of player that we want to ultimately have our organization embody,” Presti said.

It’s not only Collison’s knack for drawing charges or setting textbook screens to free open shooters that has endeared him to Oklahoma City and made him a fan favorite. It’s not just his penchant for pulling down rebounds or his willingness to dive on the floor for loose balls. But it’s also the selfless attitude and blue-collar approach he brings to work every day.

Whether he plays five minutes or 35, Collison can be counted on to give his best effort. And to never complain.

Inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, that mentality is admired and appreciated, and it’s generally acknowledged with a roar whenever Collison provides one of his patented hustle plays.

“I feel like they really appreciate what I do, and I know that’s rare for a player like me,” Collison said of his home fans. “A role player like me who averages four (points) and four (rebounds) or whatever it is, no one really thinks twice about him. But I know that I have kind of a special place here. So I really appreciate that.”

* * *

Dave Collison doesn’t care for the phrase “role player.” He considers it a backhanded compliment to his son.

“When I look at him I think he’s such a team player,” Dave said. “I like that word better. Because everybody’s got a role. I think he feels like his role, or his job, is to help the team win. And that’s what he tries to do, whatever it is.”

Dave knows better than anyone.

As a longtime prep coach in Iowa, Dave Collison coached Nick in his final three years of high school. Before that, Dave introduced Nick to everything he eventually would love about the game.

Nick’s basketball jones began as a water boy for his dad’s teams. He loved being around the action. Even mimicked what the big boys did — including taking charges.

When he was about 7, Nick started watching game film with dad.

“He always wanted to know why things happened,” Dave said. “Why you did what you did.”

There were nights when a frustrated Dave would come home and complain to his wife about a rough day, a poor practice here, a ragged game there. Invariably, Nick would be listening. He instinctively picked up on the importance of playing with effort, of playing unselfishly. If a guy is open, pass it to him, Nick learned. If you’re playing defense, get down in a stance.

Nick needed those nights to learn right from wrong in the basketball sense. To learn what coaches coveted.

“You’d see what you don’t want to be as a player, or you’d see what you do want to be as a player,” Nick said.

* * *

Nick Collison might not have had much choice in the type of player and person he’d become.

The small Iowa towns he grew up in, first Fort Dodge before the family moved to Iowa Falls, force-fed him humility. The way Nick remembers it, you got made fun of if you had expensive clothes.

“If you were a young kid and you were cocky and you were showing off or whatever, people would kind of make fun of you for that,” Nick remembered. “So I've never really tried to show off.”

Basketball in Iowa was every bit as no-nonsense.

“A lot of coaches in Iowa, because we don't get a lot of incredible athletes, in order for us to be successful we had to be able to execute,” Dave Collison said.

Dave resisted the temptation to coach his son all four years of high school. Instead, he stuck Nick on the freshman team and in the hands of a coach named Randy Fiscus in part to help sharpen Nick’s fundamentals. Fiscus was a tough coach, much tougher on Nick than Dave ever was or wanted to be.

“We were taught how to play a certain way early and were expected to play that way,” Nick said. “And if you didn't, you heard about it.”

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by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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