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.”
By the time Nick entered his sophomore year, he had shot up from 6-fooot-2 to 6-foot-7. But those fundamentals never faded. Dave made sure of it.
Drawing a charge, Dave told his team, was the greatest play in basketball. You stop a basket. You get a foul on the other team’s player. And you get the ball back.
In practices, Dave ran a defensive drill in which Nick and his teammates had to get four straight stops. Drawing a charge counted as two stops. Dave could almost bet Nick would step up and take a charge if his team needed two stops.
Nothing changed even when Nick became a dominant 6-foot-9 post player as a junior and senior.
“I’m sure there were people that thought I was nuts for having him do that,” Dave said. “It’d be like (the Thunder) telling Serge Ibaka ‘Quit trying to block shots. Just take a charge.’ But he was so good at it. He anticipated well.”
* * *
Maybe you wouldn’t have guessed that a player praised for being so fundamentally sound would credit AAU basketball for turning him into an impact player.
But that’s what Nick Collison says it did.
Collison started on the summer circuit the summer after that heartbreaking state tournament loss. The pain of that defeat turned him into a teenager possessed.
He began playing in national tournaments with his traveling team, the Iowa Martin Bros. They’d go to Chicago on weekends and face much stiffer competition. Athletes unlike any they’d ever seen. Future NBA players like Steven Hunter, Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles.
It opened Collison’s eyes and confirmed to him how much harder he needed to push himself.
In a month, Collison said, his game developed more than it had the previous two years.
Morning weight-lifting sessions at 6:30 became the norm. Pick-up ball with buddies began being played with no fouls called. Collison was toughening himself. He wanted to win a state championship for his dad. Dave had never won one. But Nick also knew he wanted to play in college.
He developed a relentless work ethic that originated from an almost incessant and perhaps irrational fear that he wouldn’t be good enough.
The next two years, Collison led Iowa Falls to back-to-back 26-0 seasons and state titles.
* * *
It’s easy now to forget that Collison wasn’t always a glue guy.
That’s a credit to how well he’s adapted to change throughout his NBA career. But there was a time when Collison was a High School McDonald’s All-American and the Big 12 Player of the Year, as well as the NABC Player of the Year at Kansas.
He moved toward his current role only when a shoulder injury forced him to miss all of what would have been his rookie season in 2003-04.
Suddenly, that fear of failure returned.
He decided then that he needed to do whatever he could to earn minutes. He dedicated himself to becoming a strong screen setter. Ray Allen was Seattle’s star at the time and one of the best shooting guards in the league. Collison made it his mission to spring Allen free for as many open shots as possible.
“It helped me stay on the floor,” Collison said.
It also became good practice for what Collison still does today for Westbrook and Durant.
But back then, Collison still thought like most young players. He based his performance on whether shots went through the basket. It led to inconsistency.
“I kind of came to a point where I just would focus on other parts and doing other parts well, and I felt like if I did that stuff well I felt good about how I played,” he said.
Collison dove in trying to digest the subtleties of the game. He focused on playing the pick and roll. Defensively, he concentrated on getting into his coverage early so ball-handlers couldn’t attack with a head of steam and get the shot they wanted. Offensively, the same angles Dad once taught helped him understand how to direct defenders to the middle, for example, if they’re trying to keep the ball on the sideline.
“The same way Kevin is scoring (and) that’s what he should be doing, I should be doing these things,” Collison said.
Some of Collison’s skills came by way of circumstance.
A severe ankle sprain just before training camp in 2009 sidelined him for all of camp and the Thunder’s first four preseason games. His mobility was limited and his explosiveness had essentially evaporated. It forced Collison to take more charges. He began boxing out more than pursuing rebounds.
“I just remember not feeling very good athletically,” he said. “So I was just trying to figure out ways to do stuff.”
* * *
Collison’s been around long enough to know how quickly things change in pro basketball, and he’s not naïve enough to think he couldn’t have been among those changing addresses.
“Who knows? Sam might have had me in a trade that fell apart last second seven years ago,” he said. “I think by being able to be here so long, too, I’ve been able to find that niche, whereas if I was bouncing around different teams I’d be just another guy.”
Presti’s plan all along was to keep Collison around.
From 2007-09, a two-year span in which the Sonics/Thunder won a combined 43 games, Presti had plenty of private conversations with Collison. He promised his power forward things would get better. He stressed how much he wanted Collison around when they did.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have him arrive when he did,” Presti said. “His fingerprints are all over the success of the organization, and those fingerprints will have a lot of staying power.”
But Collison isn’t done yet.
He wants a championship.
“It’s not necessarily that I always want to be able to tell people I was a champion and show them the ring. I just want to know what it feels like” Collison said. “I want to know what the parties feel like. I want to know what the parade feels like. That’s what I want is just those memories with everybody.”
That includes the people of Oklahoma, the people in the place where Collison landed six years ago and found unexpected but unconditional support as he strives to cap a rare career with something truly special.
“It'd be especially cool to do here because of all the people,” Collison said. “And we’ve been here for so long and we’ve taken it from one of the worst teams in the league now to having a chance. So that’s really all I want to do.”