Half a country apart, Nick Collison
and Luke Ridnour
were living out parallel childhoods. Small-town natives, they found their calling in basketball. Sons of high-school coaches they played for, they developed into gym rats from a young age, never far from a basketball court. But their games were not small-town, and they went off to play for high-profile, successful college programs. Collison reached the Final Four, Ridnour was a game away. And now, at 22 years of age, the parallel tracks for Collison and Ridnour have intersected at the NBA Draft, as both were selected in the first round by the Seattle SuperSonics.
For Collison, home is Iowa Falls, in central Iowa. “It was a great place to grow up,” Collison said today at a press conference to introduce the newest Sonics to the Seattle media. To a slightly bemused group of reporters, Collison recounted the city’s highlights – one movie theater, a McDonald’s, a Wal-Mart, a Subway and two grocery stores. It was the perfect breeding ground for an athlete – by Collison’s count, seven Division I players have come from his county.
Collison was pleased to be selected by the Sonics last Thursday.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
Collison grew up to play for his father, Dave, at Iowa Falls High School. Playing in Class 2A, Collison’s teams – including his freshman squad – went 101-1, losing only in the state tournament his sophomore year. “He was a great dad to have,” Collison recalls, “because he would teach me anything I wanted, but he didn’t push it on me too hard like a lot of dads do. He let me develop my own love for the game.” Collison blossomed into a top prospect, eventually choosing Kansas over the local University of Iowa. In four years at Kansas, Collison developed into a First-team All-American his senior season, finishing second in the KU record books in scoring, third in rebounds and second in blocked shots.
In the very northwest corner of the state of Washington and the country, Ridnour was growing up in a similarly small town, Blaine, population 4,000 (give or take). Inspired by the movie “Pistol” and his idol, Pete Maravich, Ridnour became inseparable from his basketball. Using his father’s keys, he developed into “the ultimate gym rat,” as described by Collison’s Coach, Roy Williams. “There's not a lot else to do,” Ridnour told the Oregon Daily Emerald. He too quickly developed into a top recruit under the tutelage of his father, Rob, winning two Class 2A Washington Championships for Blaine High School. Despite his small-town roots, Ridnour was a big-time recruit for this state, joining just a handful of others to represent Washington in the McDonald’s All-American game.
Ridnour chose the University of Oregon over Gonzaga and the University of Washington, and started from his first game with the Ducks. After a strong freshman effort, he became a star on an Oregon team that won the Pac-10’s regular-season title and advanced to the regional finals in the NCAAs as a sophomore. After guard Freddie Jones graduated, Ridnour was the man for the Ducks last year. He led the Pac-10 in assists and finished second in steals and scoring, winning Pac-10 MVP.
The tracks intersected once in college. Kansas and Oregon met in a much-hyped non-conference game early last season. The Ducks, with Ridnour scoring 25 points, handing out nine assists and grabbing seven rebounds. The tracks separated again there. Kansas sailed through the NCAA Tournament all the way to the championship game where, despite Collison’s 19 points and 21 rebounds, they lost his final game. After taking Oregon on his back to the Pac-10 championship, ending up tournament MVP on the strength of 19 point and eight assist averages and a game-winning score against Arizona State, Ridnour saw his team lose in the first round of the tournament to Utah.
Then it was on to the NBA for both players, Collison after exhausting his college eligibility and Ridnour after foregoing his senior season for the chance to be a first-round draft pick. They met up occasionally on the workout circuit (working out together for the Suns) and at the Chicago pre-draft camp, never imagining they’d be teammates before the month was over. “Not really,” Collison said when asked if he thought about the possibility. “You’re working out with so many teams, so many different scenarios, you don’t really get into that too much.”
Thursday night, Collison and Ridnour were thousands of miles apart again. Collison was in New York in the “green room”, awaiting his opportunity to go on stage, shake Commissioner David Stern’s hand and put on his new team’s cap. Ridnour was back home in Blaine with family and friends, more uncertain about where he would go, with mock drafts projecting him anywhere from 11 to 18. Everything worked out that night, say both players. “I’m very excited to be here in an organization like the Sonics,” Ridnour said in his opening statement. Collison followed by saying, “I’m also very excited. This is a great place, a great organization and a great team.” Later, Collison elaborated on that, saying, “Coach (Nate) McMillan’s a good young coach, I think they’ve got very good young players. There’s a chance to be good a lot faster than some of the other teams that were picking, plus the opportunity to play.”
Ridnour has known his way around a basketball court from a young age.
The Sonics were equally pleased to have them. In Seattle, Collison and Ridnour fit right into the team’s bigger picture of assembling a team filled with quality citizens who know how to play the game the right way. Sonics Chairman Howard Schultz addressed the off-the-court side at today’s press conference, saying, “Both of these guys represent the kind of character, integrity and work ethic that we believe has become the signature of the Sonics the last couple of years.” General Manager Rick Sund echoed his comments about the player’s games. “I said this before, we got guys who know how to play, we got guys from solid programs, we got guys that stayed in school – one four years, one three years – they’re coach’s kids, so they’ve grown up around basketball.”
Sund also spoke to the importance of drafting the sons of coaches. “I’m sure that their fathers were in situations where, along their paths, they had guys complaining about playing time, complaining about sharing the ball, so they know all of those facets that a coach goes through,” Sund said. “That’s great for Nate.” Collison agreed with that sentiment, noting, “The thing you pick up most is what not to be, because dad’s always coming home talking about kids are lazy, kids are selfish, the problem with this kid doing this. You just pick it up. You know what not to be.”
A key part of both Collison’s and Ridnour’s backgrounds is winning. Both won a pair of state titles in high school, and both enjoyed success at the collegiate level. They’re looking for that same result in the pros. “I think we have the opportunity to be very successful,” Collison said. “I have a tough time losing, so hopefully it won’t happen very much.”
They also shared great coaching – first from their fathers, then in college. Collison was tutored by the legendary Williams, while Oregon Coach Ernie Kent is one of today’s best young coaches, as evidenced by his selection as coach of the USA’s Junior Men’s World Championship team. Both players expect to get that same kind of coaching with the Sonics. “He was really easy to talk to,” Collison recalled of his first impressions of McMillan. “Being so young and a former player, I think he’s a great coach to work with.” Ridnour, who followed the Sonics growing up, was asked to describe his memory of McMillan as a player. After a brief pause to choose his words carefully, he replied, “He was real competitive and he used to lock people up (defensively).” “Those are minutes right there,” McMillan replied, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
So far, the tracks have taken Collison and Ridnour to successful parallel careers. Now, the tracks intersect at the NBA level, and while the path can’t completely be predicted, it appears that only success lies at the end of the tracks.