The game of basketball has shown him the world. After 15 years as a professional, and 10 of those in Oklahoma City, Nick Collison is ready to see less of the road and more of home.
With the intention to spend more time with his daughter and his family, Collison announced that he is retiring from the NBA after finishing up his 15th season with the Thunder organization.
“I've had a lot of really good people around me,” Collison said. “I've worked hard at it, too, and things have gone my way. I'm very thankful for the career I've had.”
Around town, Collison earned the moniker Mr. Thunder, a nickname given to him by Thunder Assistant General Manager Troy Weaver, who encouraged the team to carry themselves more like the well-respected, longtime NBA forward. At the practice facility however, Collison goes by “Dirty”, a nickname coined by assistant coach Mark Bryant.
“He means I do the dirty work and it’s not always pretty, but kind of like a basketball version of a janitor,” Collison said. “If you got to dive on the floor you got to do it or if you got to set a screen you do it or if you got to do a hard foul that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Alongside 119 teammates in 15 seasons, under six head coaches and two general managers, Collison has put in the work every day. He set screens, took charges, found cutters on backdoor bounce passes, took hard fouls and knocked down open jump shots.
The son of a high school basketball coach in Iowa Falls, Iowa, Collison played an entire career with small-town grit, an appropriate fear of the challenge of each competitive moment and a reverence for the game he grew up loving. As a kid, Collison lived and died by his father Dave’s teams. He cried when they lost. His primary dream was to one day be a senior, representing his high school in the state tournament. A full ride to a blue-blood college program and an impressive NBA career seemed like impossibilities.
Collison began to get recruited by Missouri Valley Conference schools, and even Iowa and Iowa State were interested. A random happenstance opened the door to interest from then-University of Kansas head coach Roy Williams.
In the early 2000’s a prominent Jayhawk and future NBA player, Raef Lafrentz, began dating a girl from Iowa Falls, whose brother turned out to be a friend of Collison’s. One thing led to another, and Lafrentz arranged to get Collison some recruit tickets to a game in Lawrence. A Jayhawks assistant dropped by Collison’s high school practice later that year, was understandably impressed and from then on Kansas was in the driver’s seat.
Four years later, Collison had compiled one of the most illustrious college careers of the era, helping lead the Jayhawks to two Final Fours while going toe to toe with the best in the country. He competed for USA Basketball, and had the chance to represent his country in the Dominican Republic, Portugal and other destinations this young Iowan never dreamed of visiting. Growing up, vacations were drives to Kansas City to catch a Royals game. Collison wasn’t exactly used flights to Europe and the Caribbean.
At the 2003 NBA Draft, Collison and his family waited anxiously at Madison Square Garden, knowing that with the 12th pick the Seattle Supersonics were a distinct possibility. That’s precisely where he ended up, and the Collison family suddenly had 28 more United States cities as possible road trip destinations to see Nick play. They sacrificed and made time to follow him around during his teen years and collegiate career, and that didn’t stop once he hit the pros. While other lottery picks hosted massive parties in Manhattan that night, the Collisons, true to their roots, opted for a low-key dinner at a restaurant across from their hotel.
Collison’s actual NBA career started with a full stop. Doctors identified an issue with both of his shoulders that required surgery, which derailed his entire first season. It was a lonely existence in Seattle that year, but with the moral support from teammates and longtime Thunder director of basketball operations Marc St. Yves, Collison persevered and learned what it meant for basketball to be his full-time job.
That relentlessness and work ethic paid off, because Collison played all 82 games in his true rookie year, and proceeded to become more and more effective as a player over the next three seasons in Seattle, albeit on teams with poor records. In 2007-08, the last season in Seattle, Collison averaged career-highs with 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds, but he wasn’t truly fulfilled until things got rolling in Oklahoma City.
The first year in town was tough. He wasn’t exactly thrilled to be uprooted from his house in Seattle and dropped into a brand-new situation, on an incredibly young team that started 3-29. But the signs of something brighter were there, and the worth the Thunder derived from each day came from the work. Alongside budding superstars and serious role players, Collison and his teammates grinded and drastically improved, erupting for 50 wins in just the second Oklahoma City season.
“We know the correction is to go back to work and put in the work and I think that comes from our history,” Collison said. “That’s how we built some success so we know that’s the only way to do it, is get back to work.”
Collison was a major contributor during the ensuing seasons, which included eight playoff appearances, four runs to the Western Conference Finals and a trip to the NBA Finals. In the back half of his prime from ages 30-34, Collison was a central piece to the Thunder puzzle – a super reserve whose impact on the scoreboard was often greater than the one on his line in the box score. He never averaged more than 22 minutes or 6 points per game in that golden age for himself and the Thunder, but he was always a steadying force.
“When this Thunder thing came together I really found my niche and found ways that I could really impact winning,” Collison said. “I realized that and totally bought into not worrying about my stats, not worrying about how many shots I was getting.”
“It wasn’t all out of being unselfish,” Collison added. “It was like, this is the best way for me in my career right now - to really embrace this.”
He defended Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and Zach Randolph with an unbelievable amount of perseverance and toughness, going to battle with the NBA’s most talented big men in crucial playoff situations year-in and year-out. He got bloodied and bruised, broke ribs and clawed for every inch of space in the paint.
On offense, Collison’s dribble hand-off, two-man game helped create playmaking opportunities in the Thunder’s second unit. It was a key feature that helped the scoreboard move forward and ensured that the Thunder starters had an even bigger lead than when they initially checked out of the game.
In his twilight years with the Thunder, Collison jokingly referred to himself as a team dad, responsible for the development of younger big men like Steven Adams and Dakari Johnson. His willingness to do whatever he could to help the team win, regardless of the prominence of his own role, was Collison’s defining quality, and it’s one that shone through to Russell Westbrook and the fans just the same.
“I found a role with the team. I started to play well in my lane,” Collison said. “I just always recognized the value of that, having a role with a team and a good team, a team that was trying to win. I never felt the need to try go anywhere else.”
In the Thunder’s final home game of the 2017-18 season, with Collison’s impending retirement in the back of his mind, Westbrook called on the crowd to recognize what the consummate professional has done for this city and team.
Through his relationship to Oklahoma City’s Special Care facility, his affinity for taking families on Homeland shopping sprees and even the time when he personally delivered a basketball hoop to a needy family, Collison has put all of himself into being an Oklahoman, as a citizen. The fans have recognized all of that, along with his ethos as a gritty, do-what-it-takes player, and showered him with their love and affection at every opportunity.
“The fans are great to me,” Collison said. “I appreciate the cheers when I get into the game I think they appreciate what I’ve done over the years. I know it’s rare to have that type of connection, to have a career that lasted so long and people get to know you.”
His time with the Thunder helped him create a new place to call home, a chance to visit all of the other NBA cities countless times and to travel as far as Turkey, Spain, the United Kingdom, Mexico and New Zealand, but now Collison has made the choice to hang up the jersey. He’ll keep doing what he’s done. He’ll be the best version of himself, the one that makes the people around him better, with the type of attitude and commitment that deserves be honored.
Watch: Thanks, Mr. Thunder