March 15, 2005 Tuesday
Underestimated, he goes overseas;
Drew Nicholas: The former Terp hopes his stay in Italy's professional league will lead to a chance to make the NBA.
BYLINE: Greg Abel, SPECIAL TO THE SUN
SECTION: SPORTS; Pg. 1D
LENGTH: 1483 words
ROME - On the same blustery late February evening that the University of Maryland men's basketball team battled North Carolina in front of nearly 18,000 fans at Comcast Center, former Terrapins shooting guard Drew Nicholas took the court in Rome, six time zones and 4,500 miles away. His team, Basket Livorno, had traveled three hours by bus to the Ancient City to take on Lottomatica Roma, a team led by former UCLA star Tyus Edney.
As March Madness approaches in the United States, fans in Rome likely had little idea that they were about to watch two players who created two of the most famous moments in recent NCAA tournament history. Ten years ago, Edney's baseline-to-baseline dash and lay-in against Missouri saved UCLA's championship season; and Terps fans will never forget Nicholas' running, fadeaway three-pointer at the buzzer to give Maryland a dramatic first-round win over UNC-Wilmington in 2003.
These days, Nicholas, 23, is a rising star in European basketball, leading the well-regarded Italian League in scoring at 23 points a game.
By tip-off in Rome, fans filled the seats of the Palazetto Dello Sport to near capacity. But in this soccer-obsessed city, that meant a crowd just shy of 3,000 in a cozy, loud venue that American fans would more closely associate with minor league hockey than pro basketball. The seats, benches actually, had no back rests; the concession stands featured popcorn, sodas and Twix bars; and the halftime show consisted of a shoot-around by the team's teenage ball boys.
Still, with the boisterous Roman fans cheering, jeering, singing, whistling and waving flags, the game had plenty of energy and drama. On the court, Nicholas got off to a slow start, but ultimately found his game with an array of pull-up jumpers, drives and three-pointers, including a buzzer-beater at the end of the first half. To the dismay of the local fans, Livorno pulled away to win, 75-63, eliciting a shower of crumpled cans and programs onto the court.
Nicholas led all scorers with 18 points.
Initially overlooked by NBA scouts and top European clubs, Nicholas continues to surprise by putting up big numbers against formidable international competition. Much like his senior season at Maryland, when Nicholas emerged from Juan Dixon's shadow to average nearly 18 points per game, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard is proving all over again that he's much more than a role player.
"I've always had to be the patient one," he said. "I didn't start in high school until my junior year. I didn't start at Maryland until my senior year. But I've always said, `If you give me the minutes, the points will come.'"
Lounging in the lobby of the well-appointed Hotel Degli Aranci in Rome the night before the game, Nicholas discussed his decision to go overseas to earn a living, the pursuit of his ultimate dream to make it in the NBA, and the many challenges and surprises he's faced on and off the court in Italy. Since leaving College Park two years ago, he's added about 10 pounds of muscle, a basketball-and-crucifix tattoo on his right shoulder, and a proficiency in Italian strong enough to converse with just about anyone, as long as they don't speak too fast.
Although Nicholas has gained an appreciation for Italian culture and cuisine, he's become a regular at an American military base near his home to pick up the, uh, essentials.
"Gotta have my Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Chips Ahoy," he said.
The Long Island native said he's on the phone "all the time" with friends and family back home, and nearly every month, a visitor comes to stay for a few days.
More than anything, however, Nicholas makes it clear that he's in Italy to work, and he takes his job seriously. After going undrafted in 2003 and playing sparingly in the NBA Summer League with Orlando, the sixth man for Maryland's 2002 national championship team evaluated his options and decided to get his passport ready.
"I knew that I didn't want to stay around and do the CBA or NBDL thing because frankly, there's just no money there," he said. "So the next option for me was coming over here."
"Over here" initially meant a job with a second division, or "A2," Italian club, Fabriano, making less than six figures but plenty for a single guy with no expenses. American players overseas don't pay much taxes and typically receive a free, furnished apartment and car. In Fabriano, a small town about 100 miles north of Rome, Nicholas had little to do other than work out and play basketball.
"No one there spoke English," he said. "Nobody. And the nearest McDonald's was like, 45 minutes away."
Sustained by the fact that he was playing basketball for a living and motivated to prove everyone wrong who underestimated him, Nicholas went out and averaged 28 points a game. He also learned a few things about living on his own.
Maryland coach Gary Williams has kept an eye on Nicholas' progress.
"Drew got to play against Juan Dixon in practice every day and became a very hard worker," Williams said. "He's one of those guys that gradually got really good, and he's obviously continued to improve."
Nicholas' performance for Fabriano brought attention from Livorno, a team that plays in "A1," the top Italian league. Saddled by a limited budget, general manager Claudio Crippa told Nicholas that the team's only goal this season was to avoid a demotion to A2 - the fate of the bottom two teams in the league.
Livorno offered Nicholas a nice bump in salary, plus bonus incentives and perks, including a spacious two-bedroom apartment and car. Perhaps most enticing, Crippa told Nicholas he'd have the green light to shoot and score as much as possible.
Nicholas jumped at the chance to star, and has done so game after game.
On Sunday night, in a win over Lauretana, Nicholas scored 35, including 25 in the first half. On March 6, Livorno hosted Benetton Treviso, one of the most successful franchises in European basketball, which entered the game with a league-best 20-3 record. Before a packed home crowd of 8,000, Nicholas scored 30 points, including five three-pointers to lead Livorno to a 76-71 upset.
In no small part due to Nicholas' play, Livorno is fighting for a playoff spot this season with a 12-13 record after going 11-23 last year.
"Drew is the perfect player for Europe because at this point in his life, he needs to be on the court," said Crippa, a 15-year veteran of European basketball.
"Maybe he could be a 12th man on an NBA team, but why? You want to play? European basketball is perfect."
His agent, Doug Neustadt of Virginia-based Octagon, said Nicholas' stock is on the rise.
"Drew doesn't care that he wasn't a McDonald's All-American, or that he wasn't drafted. Every step along the way people have knocked him, and every step of the way he's been successful by putting up numbers, working hard, and being a factor in helping his team win."
How it works
Most professional teams in Europe carry two or three American players, with a maximum of four per team from countries outside of the continent. On Livorno, for example, Nicholas has two American teammates: small forward Preston Shumpert, a 6-foot-7 sharpshooter from Syracuse, and Aloysius Anagonye, a muscular, 6-8 power forward from Michigan State. The remainder of the team is made up of Italians and other Europeans.
The American trio averages 52 of the team's 82 points per game.
"The Americans typically make the most money and carry the most responsibility," said Neustadt, who specializes in finding jobs for American players overseas.
The Italian League season runs from October through April. Each of the 18 teams plays a 34-game regular season consisting of home and away dates against each other, mostly on Sunday nights.
Next year, Nicholas figures he's unlikely to return to Livorno because he first wants to give the NBA Summer League a shot, and then anticipates offers from higher-profile teams in Italy or Spain.
The ultimate goal
With the recent dethroning of USA Basketball in the Summer Olympics and the increasing popularity and success of international players in the NBA, more NBA general managers view success in Europe with respect.
Every year, the NBA plucks away a few Italian League stars, such as Manu Ginobili, an Argentine who played three years in Italy before joining the San Antonio Spurs.
So Nicholas, who won't turn 24 until May, hopes the big numbers he's putting up will persuade NBA general managers to at least take a closer look. And if the call from "the League" never comes, Nicholas has certainly found a comfort zone overseas.
"You know, a lot of people never thought I would even get to this point," he said. "People are always saying, `OK, fine, he's done it here, but can he do it at the next level?' Like right now, I'm sure there are people saying, `Maybe he's not good enough for the NBA.' It all ties back into waiting my turn and being patient. Things will happen for the right reasons."
LOAD-DATE: March 15, 2005