VOL. 131 | NO. 235 | Thursday, November 24, 2016
The Press Box
Austin Nichols Story Didn’t Have to End This Way
By Don Wade
Right before the 2014-2015 University of Memphis basketball season, forward Austin Nichols said this: “Our chemistry is better this year and I say that all positive. Nothing against the guards last year, we’re just jelling better together this year.”
In that moment, there was reason to believe. The Tigers had been to four straight NCAA Tournaments under coach Josh Pastner and seniors Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford had been part of the backcourt for all of them. In the 2013-14 season, so had seniors Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon.
Those guards were dubbed the “Four Kings,” but at times the season felt like an episode of “Game of Thrones.”
Still, that Tigers team won 24 games – including one in the NCAA Tournament. But in their second NCAA game, Virginia defeated the Tigers 78-60 and the game got away early, some players essentially quitting and Pastner rendered helpless.
Nichols got hurt late the next season, Memphis missed the postseason, and the native son transferred to Virginia – of all places – amid negative publicity for all involved parties.
Questions at the time: Did Nichols keep Memphis in the dark? Did Memphis err in initially playing hardball with Nichols and his family? Did the family err in playing hardball with the university?
So much for good chemistry.
While Nichols sat out a year because of the transfer, the Tigers had another ho-hum season, missed the postseason again, and nearly lost all of a contractual payment from the Grizzlies because of low attendance.
Fans fretted over Pastner’s buyout, and then Georgia Tech rescued Memphis, the Tigers hired Tubby Smith, and everyone moved on.
This week, with the Tigers in Niceville, Florida, for the Emerald Coast Classic, the possibility of a Memphis-Nichols reunion loomed. Depending how Memphis and Virginia did in their games on Friday, Nov. 25, they could meet the next day.
But Nichols won’t be there. Several days ago, Virginia coach Tony Bennett dismissed Nichols from the team. Earlier, Bennett had suspended Nichols for the first game of the season for what the coach termed a “violation of team rules.”
Turns out, it was the beginning and end of his career with the Cavaliers.
Bennett, in addressing Nichols’ dismissal, said: “We always talk about there (being) a standard we have – certainly showing compassion and grace – but there’s also accountability and truth that comes with every situation.
“I love Austin,” Bennett added. “My hope is that this will be a turning point for him, and he’ll take the right steps.”
I won’t engage in specific speculation about why Austin Nichols is no longer part of Virginia’s team. But I will say if you read back through Bennett’s quotes and apply a little common sense, you can make an educated guess. At minimum, you can surmise that Nichols made bad choices and did not heed the warning that was that one-game suspension.
Like Dedric Lawson last season, Nichols was once the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, the 6-9 Nichols led the team in scoring (13.3 points per game), blocks (3.4) and minutes (29.5) and was first-team All-AAC.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were considering Nichols’ ultimate upside here and the idea that an NBA career would follow.
No doubt, the Austin Nichols story could have been one of the best in the history of the Memphis program. And then there was a chance it could have been a successful two-chapter story.
Not perfect, mind you, but all in all more than respectable.
Instead, the story ends with a question that lingers as a dull ache after the young discover that yes, they too, grow old:
What might have been?
Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.