January 15 was another typical game for Fort Hays State University guard Craig Nicholson. The junior was fresh off an All-American season and in full form for the Tigers home contest against the Central Oklahoma Bronchos.
The athletic shot-caller from Wichita already had dropped 16 points, including 8-of-9 shooting from the free throw line. With just over 15 minutes to play, the MIAA’s top assist man found Royce Williams for a 3-pointer to give the Tigers an eight-point lead.
It was the final stat recorded in his junior year.
With 14:16 to play, Nicholson looked up and saw the shot clock winding closer and closer to zero. He drove the lane with hopes of putting up a shot, but the ball was stripped as he jumped from the floor at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“For some reason when I was coming down I was looking at the whole thing happen, and I just saw it come down wrong — I’ve fell so many times — and I just knew that didn’t look right,” Nicholson said.
The Tigers’ emotional and statistical leader watched as his own left foot landed awkwardly on the floor, immediately cringing in severe pain and pounding his fists against the hardwood. But for the shifty 5-8 guard who makes the simplest layups look like art, he knew there was no getting up from this.
“I didn’t even try getting back up and I just looked straight for the trainer and I said, ‘Yeah, this isn’t right.’ All I could do was start screaming. Because I fall so much, people expect me to get back up, so I just had to scream. Really I couldn’t feel nothing, it was just like get me outta here because something ain’t right.”
Nicholson’s season came to an abrupt ending with a fractured fibula. Trainers immediately rushed onto the floor, put his left leg into an air cast and stretchered him off.
He underwent surgery just five days later and, as he puts it, “I know my leg’s stronger than it’s ever gonna be now because I’ve got metal in my leg.”
With the Tigers forced to play 13 games without Nicholson, who still received Honorable Mention All-MIAA honors despite his injury, the Tigers finished fourth in the league but were bounced in the first round of the MIAA tournament.
For Mark Johnson, the head coach of the Tigers, the injury derailed the plans of being able to rely on Nicholson for 35 to 38 minutes per game. With having a player capable of performing as much and as long as he was able to, Johnson said he did not want to use a scholarship on a point guard who would play no more than five minutes per game for the next two seasons. As a result, the Tigers had to move pieces around to get by the rest of the season and made it difficult for Johnson’s shooters to get shots or ever get back into the rhythm the offense had with Nicholson at the helm.
“Going into his junior and senior year, you’re expecting even bigger things than he’d already done, which is pretty impressive,” Johnson said. “It just put is in a position of trying to play the rest of the year without a point guard, which is always a challenge.”
Nicholson spent nearly 10 weeks on crutches and was told he would miss between six and eight months with great chances of returning.
With preseason drills nearly one month complete for the Tigers, Nicholson hopes to be near peak performance by the time his squad begins preparation for the upcoming season.
“Three weeks ago I would tell you I was at 60 percent. Last week I was at 75,” Nicholson said. “I’m just trying to get around 90 percent when official practice starts.”
The support Nicholson received during his road to recovery was a bit overwhelming for the one the league’s, and nation’s, top scorers and assist machines. His teammates added “CN3” on the back of their warm-ups and his notifications on Twitter blew up for days wishing him well.
“I didn’t think I had an affect on the community like I did when I got hurt,” Nicholson said. “It meant a lot to me because I was down and then everybody when they see me, they were making sure I was OK and telling me to keep my head up. … I can’t thank them enough for it.”
The positive feeling from the bodies surrounding him could only help keep him so positive, though. It did not take long for trading in a spot in the starting lineup for a spot at the end of the bench to take a toll on him.
“I think it was the first game I watched,” Nicholson said. “I was hurt and I was like, ‘This sucks, I don’t know how I’m gonna do this the rest of the season.’ It sucked. I’m not used to sitting and just watching them play. It was horrible. I hope I never have to go through that again.”
Nicholson still does rehab on a daily basis, which has forced the senior to learn patience and positivity. He does not want to be the player who returns as a serviceable starter, but be the leader and the floor general the team needs him to be.
“Pretty much every time I see somebody, it’s ‘Hey, how you doin? You ready to go?’ I just know it’s my last year and I just wanna go out with a successful season with my guys,” Nichols said. “I just don’t wanna go out there and not be the same as I was when I came into this program.”
With Johnson unsure on the setback or potential comeback in store for his All-American, now was the chance to bring in the guards the Tigers did not have when Nicholson went down. On top of two returners, Johnson brought four freshmen and three transfers on board in the backcourt, fielding a squad with 10 of its 16 members being freshmen or sophomores. The incoming group gives Johnson confidence in his team’s basketball ability and it is Nicholson he wants them to lean on to learn what it takes to compete at the top of one of the nation’s best basketball conferences and battle for a spot in the national playoffs.
“He’s been through the battles here at Fort Hays, knows what the league’s about, knows what we expect as a coaching staff,” Johnson said. “Anytime you have a really good player — your best player — and then a guy who’s a good guy that everybody can respect, not only as a player but as a person, they’re really going to want to cling to that person and figure out what he’s doing and how he does things. I think that’s what Craig is … and those freshman want to get to know what he’s doing.”
While continuing to be the guy to show the team’s inexperienced players the ropes, Nicholson hopes to not only return to the form that helped him reach career number of more than 15 points and seven assists per game. Even an All-American has something more to prove.
“I just hope for me I can continue to be the leader for the team that they need me to be out there and just be the floor general that they need outta me. … I know we have the right pieces to do, we just gotta be able to put it all together,” Nicholson said. “I feel like this lit a fire under me, just ready to get back out there. I always stay motivated. This is just another thing to keep a chip on my shoulder because I know a lot of people are thinking I’m not gonna be the same player I was before I was hurt or I’m not gonna be as quick. I’m just ready to go and show people they’re wrong.”