Role player equals role model

Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma City Thunder Nick Collison and his parents, Judy and Dave, look to the rafters on Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

Nick Collison has always been that guy.

The one who doesn’t need acknowledgement or rewards to tout his hard work.

In his 15-year career with Oklahoma City, Collison averaged a pedestrian six points and five rebounds.

So why, you ask, was he the first player in Thunder history to have his jersey retired?

It’s simple, really.

He did the things that nobody liked to do or wanted to do, and was always a consummate teammate in the process.

The first four clips of his highlight video on Wednesday night defined his career.

It started with Collison taking a hard charge, followed by a picture-perfect pass to a teammate.

The next two were about sacrifice. Diving on the floor for a loose ball.

And finally, his sacrifice as he walked to the sidelines with blood dripping from his head.

A true competitor. A true selfless player.

Collison didn’t come from a big town. In 1999, during his senior year at Iowa Falls, the community’s population was 5,218. Fast forward to 2019, and it’s grown by 20 people.

As Collison said in one of his many interviews recently, “I came from a town with only five stoplights.”

He didn’t hide his small-town values, or boast about his accomplishments in high school or college. Quite the contrary. He wore that modesty on his sleeve.

Those values, first and foremost, came from his upbringing. Since he stepped on the court in Iowa Falls under his father and head coach, Dave, he knew what it would take to make it as a player who couldn’t jump out of the gym and didn’t necessarily have a professional skill set.

While at Iowa Falls and Kansas, Collison flourished. He was always at the top of the scoring charts and earned both McDonald’s All-American honors as a prep and NCAA All-American status as a collegian.

Once he reached the NBA, though, Collison knew he was going to have to adapt to play with the bigger stronger athletes.

“I had to change some things to be able to play in the league,” Collison said. “I wanted to do whatever had to be done to help the team.”

In a money-hungry profession with a lot of selfish personas, Collison dedicated himself to being about the game in its purest form.

When I talked to Nick a couple of days before his jersey was retired, I could hear the sincerity in his voice. He believed every word he spoke about why he stayed true to himself and his roots during a long professional career.

Collison was humble and appreciative. Instead of chasing a paycheck, Collison was chasing dreams — the dream of being the best version of himself, both professionally and personally.

Sticking with the team through thick and thin — from the basement and the move from Seattle to Oklahoma City all the way to the NBA Finals — showed his loyalty and worth to the organization.

The people who knew Nick best believed more than anyone that Wednesday’s ceremony was perfectly fitting. Those who didn’t focused too much on the statistics and not enough on the man.

Collison’s impact was deeper than points and titles. That’s why he’s the first native Iowan to have his jersey retired in the NBA. He was always about “us” and “we” — not “them” or “me.”

Collison gave us a blueprint for being a great teammate, a good person and a positive role model.

Congratulations, Mr. Thunder. Staying true to yourself paid off, and now, young players can follow your in your footsteps.

Chris Johnson is the Assistant Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @ChrisJohnson_17

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