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Nick Ward - Standing tall

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MSU junior center is not done yet it appears

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan State
Ward is sidelined with a hairline fracture
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

When Nick Ward took a seat on Michigan State‘s bench at the beginning of the second half in the Spartans‘ game against the Ohio State Buckeyes a green bandage adorned his left hand. At first it didn‘t seem that serious. He tried to play through the then unknown injury, yet it proved to no avail. Atleast somewhere in the heart of the green and white faithful there probably grew an underlying fear that people may have seen the last of Ward in a Spartan jersey. That this could be the end of his college career. It is a career that has mostly been illustrious, yet also tumultous at times. And a career that luckily did not end on that fateful Sunday night. Not yet.

Hours later a statement by the Michigan State Athletic Department revealed that Ward had a hairline fracture and that he required surgery. He is supposed to miss three to five weeks and should atleast be back when the NCAA Tournament is set to begin in late March. How impactful he can be after his return, nobody knows. How much noise Michigan State can make after already losing fellow junior Josh Langford to a season ending injury is anybody‘s guess. It surely isn‘t how Ward envisioned the latter part of his junior year to unfold, the year that many figure will be his last in college before he leaves to chase his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA. Yet if anyone knows what it means to deal with adversity and how to believe in your dreams even when things don‘t go your way, it is Nick Ward.

A path defined from a very young age

Ever since he was a young kid Nick Ward knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. “Nick always wanted to play in the NBA,” his father Jeff remembers. “It was his dream, I mean it probably is any kid‘s dream who‘s playing basketball.” It surely was Jeff‘s dream when he was a star at Tiffin University in the early nineties. After 2532 points, 1212 rebounds and numerous athletic honors the 6-8, 225 pound post player chose the path of professional basketball. A couple of times he got close to the NBA but never made it to the biggest stage the game has to offer. At times injuries hampered him, other times he opted for a secure paycheck rather than further tryouts. He still starred in countries like Switzerland, Turkey, Japan or the Philippines before a torn patella tendon ended his playing days. Along the way he provided his oldest son with plenty of exposure to the game of basketball. And Nick fell in love with it.

“When he was young he‘d always smile out on the court,” Jeff Ward says of Nick‘s early playing days. “Coaches even asked what it was about. I just told them that he loves to play the game. And very early he chose his path and decided to work toward that goal. As a parent that makes me very proud.” Jeff‘s wife Stephanie agrees with her husband: “He always had a path and I‘m proud of him for that. Whenever he gets something in his head that‘s what he‘s going to do. It‘s a wrap.” Though Nick knew from a young age what he wanted to do, he learned very quickly that the long road toward these goals might be a bumpy one and that things won‘t always go as planned.

He broke a tibia bone his freshman year at Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio and had to miss almost half a year with the injury. What followed was one of his first big learning experiences. “I was in high school, it was the summer and all I wanted to do was have fun,” Nick remembers. “But I couldn‘t do anything and so I just stayed around the house. That‘s when I gained a lot of weight.” Meanwhile other basketball players from the area started to get recognized by major college basketball teams and Nick, watching from afar, took note. “I couldn‘t be envious because that‘s not right and that‘s not how I was raised,” says the 6-9 center. “But I viewed it as a maturation and I realized that I had to work even harder in order to achieve my goals. You just gotta go get it.”

Hard work pays off

When the rehab was done Nick Ward went to work. A foundation was there from the endless hours of practice with his father who even honed Nick‘s guard skills early because nobody knew how tall he would turn out to be. But not everybody believed in the young center who was known by the nickname “Big Puddin” - many considered him too slow, not athletic enough, too much of a plodder. “I‘ve always felt like an underdog,” says Nick himself. “I heard what people were saying and ever since I have a little chip on my shoulder.” It certainly was something that a Hall of Fame college coach by the name of Tom Izzo saw in the Ohio native and he made sure that his parents knew that he would be able to get even more out of young Nick. “He said that he‘s going to be tough and he‘s not going to tell us that he‘s not,” says Stephanie of the talks with Izzo during Nick‘s recruitment. “But he said that he would make sure that they will take care of my son and that‘s all I needed to hear.” Nick agreed with his mother as he said that he “trusted coach Izzo”, something he pointed out wasn‘t always the case with coaches who just told him what he wanted to hear.

In late April 2015 Nick Ward committed to Michigan State, he was the first recruiting get for Izzo and the Spartans that season. Even though a highly decorated four star recruit, he soon almost turned into the forgotten man in what probably amounted to the best recruiting class ever of Tom Izzo‘s long and glorious career. As crazy as it sounds, that happens when you set foot on campus alongside a national top ten prospect in Miles Bridges, a McDonald‘s All American and two time Alabama Gatorade Player of the Year in Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston, Michigan‘s Mr. Basketball and a state champion. Luckily for MSU though, Nick Ward quickly made sure that he got his recognition.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter went down with season ending injuries in the summer, Ward all of a sudden was the only true center left. With a need to quickly integrate himself into the team, he at first did the exact opposite. “Nick is an interesting guy. When he first came here, he didn‘t get along with anybody,” Tom Izzo remembers with a chuckle. “He just was the roughest, toughest guy.” That underdog mentality, the chip on his shoulder, showed. So Izzo and the coaches took the freshman aside and explained to him the value of his teammates and how to go about his business. Nick listened and went on to channel his inner fire for the good of the team and for himself. He lost almost 30 pounds and prepared his already advanced post game for the rigors of everyday college basketball.

Stepping up big as a freshman

And luckily for a depleted MSU team void of size, he proved more than ready to handle the big time. An overtime road win against a talented Minnesota Golden Gophers team became Ward‘s coming out party. With 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks he put the team on his broad shoulders and keyed a dramatic comeback victory. Everything that Nick Ward‘s game is about was visible that night at the “Barn” - the nimble feet, the aggressive nature, the soft touch around the rim, the feel for the post that is so uncommon among young players these days. He added more memorable performances like a 22 point, 9 rebound effort against Wisconsin when MSU was still on the bubble or his 19 points in the first round rout of the Miami Hurricanes in the NCAA Tournament. It is more than fair to say that Michigan State‘s run of consecutive March Madness berths, which is only trailing Duke and Kansas nationally, would have ended that year if Nick Ward wouldn‘t have been as ready as he was. No wonder that Izzo says that he “gained a tremendous amount of respect for Nick that year.”

On a reloaded and healthy team going into the 2017/2018 campaign Nick Ward figured to be a major part but something was amiss, especially at the beginning of the year. Amidst inconsistent, turnover prone offensive outputs and bad defensive efforts Ward‘s minutes dwindled and things reached a low point in an early December road game against Rutgers. Tom Izzo, upset with Ward‘s defensive concentration, benched his sophomore big man and only played him one minute in the second half. Frustrations and emotions boiled over in the postgame locker room where Ward voiced his frustrations. The whole deal was fueled by reporters mentioning a tweet of Ward‘s mother saying “one man‘s trash is another man‘s treasure”. On the surface a controversy was arising that Izzo, Ward and MSU quickly shut down shortly after. The real story though puts a lot of things regarding that incident and the entire way people around a program going about their business in perspective.

“Nick really had an outstanding freshman year but things started to turn a little bit when my wife started to get ill,” Jeff Ward recalls of those fateful weeks. When he arrived in East Lansing for Midnight Madness his wife Stephanie wasn‘t able to make it out of the Sparrow Hotel with stomach pain. When she didn‘t answer his calls from the Breslin Center later on he hurried back to their room only to find his wife curled up and not responsive. She was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with Clostridium difficile infection. Her organ functions went out and if not for an immediate surgery, she could have died that night. Another surgery was needed when she returned to Columbus a month later and things continued to be critical as Stephanie could neither walk or talk. Even though Jeff, who himself had to deal with high blood pressure at the time, and the MSU coaches chose to keep the severity of everything away from Nick to protect him, the sophomore knew something was wrong.

Tough times as a sophomore

He chose to make the four hour drive from East Lansing to Columbus many nights, sometimes after late practices and games. He wanted to be there for his mother even if it interferred with anything he had to do on a basketball court. “I visited every day, you know that‘s my mom, I love her,” says Nick. “That was tough and it made the season tougher than it needed to be.” Considering the situation everything that happened in Piscataway and during that Rutgers game, during that entire season for that matter, becomes rightfully insignificant and gets put in perspective. “When people are sending tweets at you they just see the basketball side of things,” notes Ward. “But we are regular people, too. We go through regular struggles and have real life problems, just like everyone else.” Truer words couldn‘t have been spoken by a usually soft spoken, shy human being. A young man who can give much more than all the things he does on a basketball court.

Luckily Stephanie is one hundred percent healthy again and Nick along with his family could move on. His season never really got on track as MSU stayed short of lofty preseason expectations and was unfairly caught in the middle of the Larry Nassar scandal that rocked the Michigan State community in the spring of 2018. Nick Ward thought about leaving Michigan State and chasing his lifelong dream of playing pro basketball. He tested the NBA draft process in April and in early May but ultimatily chose to return for his junior season. A tough decision if you ask him. “It was really 50/50 and could‘ve gone either way. But I feel I made the right choice,” says Ward himself. Yet after he made it, he was all in for his college team. “Once you decide not to go it can‘t be half in and half out”, says Tom Izzo, who was at Ward‘s side throughout the entire process. “So what Nick did that I was really impressed with is right when he got done he immediately started to work two-a-days.”

Ward changed his diet, worked on his passing ability and developed a fairly reliable midrange jumper. Countless hours of practice with Marshall Repp, the Spartans Strength & Conditioning coach, followed. Among other things he used the feedback from the pro ranks as motivation. “When you are in college you never know what they are thinking”, Ward notes. “But hearing directly from them what you need to do and that you are not far off helps a lot.” He also realized that many of the things the NBA people told him have been the same messages Tom Izzo has been on him for the better part of two years. “Sometimes it helps when somebody else tells you something,” Izzo smiles while praising Ward for all the work he put in over the summer: “Nick really has changed as much as any guy I‘ve had in many many years.”

What‘s next? We will see

Even with all that change Nick Ward‘s NBA potential is still in question. He has shown a better outside shot – he actually is perfect on his three career attempts from downtown – and his stamina has improved a great deal. He showed flashes of better passing during the non conference schedule but still rarely punishes a double team, even though it is a tremendous improvement from his earlier days when he usually would turn the ball over against multiple defenders. Some of his other problems, defending the pick and roll, dealing with long, athletic centers or consistent rebounding, have continued to plague him throughout the year. But even with all his flaws his post presence and elite rim running are almost unrivaled in college basketball and losing him now for some of the deciding weeks of the years is a huge blow to Michigan State.

But if they need any kind of advice on how to deal with the situation, they maybe just have to look at their injured center and how he took the devastating news. Asked how he feels after the surgery he replied “a little dissapointed but I‘ll be fine. I‘m a quick healer and I‘ll be back.” If the NBA doesn‘t work out, Coach Izzo might have a backup plan in place, too. “He has been great with the guys, I call him Coach Ward now,” Izzo laughs with a wink. Even after surgery one thing is apparent, Nick Ward‘s enthusiastic smile still sits on his face. That smile which high school coaches already have asked his father about way back in the day. The smile that has been such a big part of Michigan State for the last two and a half years.

And luckily, we atleast should see that smile once more at the end of the season. If not beyond… you‘ll never really know...