Brian and Andy Kamenetzky (pictured above, from left to right) cover professional basketball for RedBullUSA.com. You can find their column here every week.
Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan. Dirk Nowitzki. Paul Pierce. Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili.
What do these players have in common? They're all NBA champions. All-Stars. Recipients of honors ranging from League MVP to NBA Finals MVP to Sixth Man of the Year.
They're also the only players who've been members of their respective franchises longer than Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison.
Yes, Nick Collison.
In a modern NBA where punitive luxury taxes regularly prompt roster makeovers and stars leverage power to force trades, the notion of “Team X for life” has grown increasingly rare. Yet Collison’s only trip out of town over the past 10 seasons was to follow the then-Sonics from Seattle to Oklahoma City. Thunder General Manager Sam Presti performed mental cartwheels in 2011 to concoct a cap-friendly extension so Collison could stick around through 2015. When you consider the Thunder didn't move heaven and earth to keep now-Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden -- albeit at a wildly different price point -- it speaks volumes about how Collison is valued.
“I’ve just been fortunate the way things worked out,” notes Collison during an extended phone interview. “Guys get moved all the time for all sorts of reasons, and I’ve just been able to hang on.”
“Without Nick we wouldn’t be who we are. Just his words, his leadership, his play, how he sacrifices his body. He knows his role. He plays it to a Tee. And he’s tough. He has all the toughness in the world." -- Kevin Durant
So how does a power forward rarely featured on SportsCenter, with nary a double-digit scoring or rebounding average for any season, and zero chance of entering Hall of Fame find himself in the position to potentially spend his entire career with one franchise?
In a word, “charges.”
For the past four seasons running, Collison has led the Thunder in charges taken, and by a sizable margin. According to Synergy, as of this writing, he’s drawn nearly 36 percent of all charges for OKC since the 2009-’10 campaign. He used to regularly take charges in practice until coach Scott Brooks, concerned about the physical toll, put the kibosh on that. (The instinct remains intact, if compromised. Says All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, “Sometimes in practice, Nick won’t fall, but he holds you. I’ll be driving, and he’ll be like, ‘That’s a charge,’ but he doesn’t fall. He lets us know.”)
To be clear, Collison brings more to the table than a willingness to absorb punishment. While not a prolific shooter, he’s proficient from most spots along the floor. Defensively, he makes few mistakes. On both sides of the ball, he’s a solid contributor with a high basketball I.Q. But those charges embody what Collison means to OKC, and how he reinvented himself as the role player’s role player.
But what does “role player” even mean?
“Someone whose role is not to be [a star],” laughs Collison. “But I think everyone has a role. Kevin [Durant] has a role. He has to score. There’s only so many guys on the planet who can score 20 points a game at the highest level. Everyone else, the way basketball is, you have to deal with the other things.
“The NBA is a collection of guys who were scorers at one point. When you get to the NBA, you’re not usually doing those same things. Each team has three or four guys who are trying to break their man down and score. The rest have to figure out other things to do. That’s why it’s hard for a lot of guys to stick.”
"I wasn’t real sure what I was gonna be able to do offensively, because it was a higher level and guys were bigger and more athletic. I was going into it knowing I could play, but not sure exactly where I’d fit in." -- Nick Collison
It’s easy to forget Collison was once celebrated for getting buckets. As a senior at the University of Kansas, he averaged 18.5 ppg and was a first team AP All-American. He left school as (at the time) the all-time leading scorer in Big 12 history. He was a 2003 lottery pick (14th overall). Many folks expected him to put the ball in the basket.
Collison, however, wasn’t completely confident that skill set would translate at the next level.
“I wasn’t real sure what I was gonna be able to do offensively, because it was a higher level and guys were bigger and more athletic. I was going into it knowing I could play, but not sure exactly where I’d fit in. In my mind, the first thing I wanted to do was stick and prove I could play in the league.”
This goal got off to a rough start. After an early training camp injury, Collison underwent surgeries on both shoulders and missed the entire 2003-'04 season. His development fell behind the 8 ball, and when Collison resumed basketball activities, he felt out of rhythm, offensively, especially in the post he once dominated. Rather than force the issue, Collison made a different adjustment. He focused on defense. Rebounding. Pursuing loose balls. Setting screen after screen after screen.
“He’s been here since day one. He’s seen the ups and the downs, the ins and the outs. He does his job every day consistently. He never complains about nothing." --Russell Westbrook
“We had Ray Allen at the time, so we were running a lot of plays trying to get him open,” explains Collison. “I really tried to be a good screener and learn how to do that. I’d set screens (before), but it was never a priority for me to know how to be good at it.
In a weird way, Collison’s injuries may have been a blessing in disguise. While perhaps preventing stardom -- although he doubts that was ever destined -- they laid the blue-collar foundation for a career. But despite sincerely embracing the role, 82 games’ worth of grunt work wasn’t particularly enjoyable at the outset. Collison’s early teams didn’t just lose often. Their records grew progressively worse each season. Sacrificing stats and flesh is difficult when wins aren’t part of the equation, and Collison admits wishing at times for a change of scenery.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Collison. “It’s basketball. It’s a great job. It’s not the real world, but those are still long seasons and kind of dark days. There was definitely a time where if I were to have gotten moved, I would have been happy.”
Still, Collison kept his head down and and plugged away. As the team added future stars, like Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Serge Ibaka, Collison became an example of professionalism for the youngsters to emulate. Any championships won by the Thunder will ultimately be dictated through star power, but Collison’s had a hand in creating OKC’s identity.
“Nobody ever asks me about Nick,” offers Brooks with an amused grin. “He’s one of the team’s favorite players. Our guys love Nick Collison because he does everything that you want from a teammate and never, ever, ever gives you less than maximum effort. He means everything. On the floor, in the locker room, on the bus, in the hotel, just everywhere, he’s a great role model for all of our players to look up to and see, that’s how you have to be an NBA player.
“Every team needs a Nick and we’re not giving him up.”
“He’s the definition of Thunder basketball,” agrees Westbrook. “He’s been here since day one. He’s seen the ups and the downs, the ins and the outs. He does his job every day consistently. He never complains about nothing. He’s one of those class act kind of guys.”
The greatest sign of the respect Collison carries was demonstrated by Durant after a March win over the Los Angeles Clippers. The three-time scoring champ had just concluded his post-game media scrum, a part of the gig most players would decline if given a vote. Thus, the prospect of additional questions isn’t terribly appealing, and media relations reps are always stationed nearby to shoo reporters looking to extend conversations. As I approached Durant and told him I was working on a piece about Collison, I was quickly informed the session was done.
Durant waved off the rep, then said with an eager smile, “I’ll talk about Nick.” That Collison was my focus clearly pleased him.
“Without Nick we wouldn’t be who we are,” praised Durant. “Just his words, his leadership, his play, how he sacrifices his body. He knows his role. He plays it to a T. And he’s tough. He has all the toughness in the world. I’m just honored to play with a player like that, who’s selfless and doesn’t really care about nothing but winning. He makes it easier for everybody.”
“I feel like I have ownership of what’s gone on here,” acknowledges Collison. “Sam’s told me that, too. He talked about it at end the of the season last year. He said I should feel proud of what’s gone on here and how I’ve been able to be a part of building what we have. And he was right. It means a lot to still be here. It feels more rewarding now to have success after having been through those tough years.”
“Me and Nick talk about it all the time,” says Durant. “We’re kind of like the forefathers of this thing. He’s been here longer than me. It’s cool that we’re the only two guys here [from Seattle].”
The rarity of this situation certainly isn’t lost on the big man.
“The NBA is all about finding a place that’s a good fit,” says Collison. "There are probably 200 in the league and 200 guys out of the league that are roughly the same ability. The guys that are in the league for whatever reason found a better spot and that’s kind of how I feel about my career."
He added, “To be able to play my whole career here, that would be great. I also know you really have no idea until those things come up with where you’re gonna be. So who knows? I’m not gonna look too far ahead. But if things could work out where I could be here, I’d be excited about that.”
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