If Walter Gretzky had been a free-throw junkie, this would have been his dreamscape: a made-over backyard with a basketball hoop in it; painted lines on a cushioned court and a surrounding fence with a kid-sized gap in it.
It was a kindly neighbour who suggested they take out a few fence boards so the boys could squeeze through and retrieve the ball whenever it ricocheted over. That worked for a time and then the ball stopped landing in the neighbour’s yard. The boys got better the more they played. The more they played, the harder they pushed one another.
Peter, the oldest, would take his 200-plus shots per day then Nik, three years younger, would take that and more until one day he found himself the shooting guard for the University of Michigan Wolverines with a spot in the NCAA championship Final Four. Him; the Mississauga squirt who stood 5-foot-5 and vowed to be 6-foot-6 because that’s what it would take for him to be special, a big-time hoops player.
And that’s exactly what Nik Stauskas has become.
At 19, in his freshman year, he is the ace up Michigan’s sleeve, a clutch three-point marksman who grew up a la hockey’s Great One, perfecting his skills on a backyard surface under his father’s watch. It’s a true north story with one foot in the past, the other in the present; a tale of boy finds game, only it’s not hockey.
Basketball is a sport Stauskas and thousands of other young Canadians have embraced thanks to a confluence of events – the NBA’s 18-year presence in Canada, Steve Nash’s unfailing popularity, the fact more Canadians are getting the opportunity to play at U.S. universities and are succeeding like never before.
It’s all of that, insists Leo Rautins, the Toronto-born former NBA player and head coach of the Canadian men’s national team, and yet it’s also as simple as a kid pretending to be Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Shooting a ball over and over, morning to evening, summer through winter, until he got so good he rarely ever clanked one off the rim and into the neighbour’s yard.
“I saw Nik when he was in high school [in Mississauga] four years ago,” Rautins says. “To me, he had the talent. If he just worked on his game he’d have all the opportunities he needed. He’s worked on his game. You can see the improvement in Nik in this season alone.”
The NCAA tournament, which opened with much talk about its Canadian content, moves to semi-final action Saturday, with Louisville playing Wichita State and Michigan tangling with Syracuse. Twenty-nine Canadians started the trip; four remain (Stauskas, Noel Jones of Syracuse, Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins of Wichita State. Wiggins is the older brother of high-school phenom Andrew).
Of the northern imports in the Final Four, Stauskas is best positioned to star. He gets plenty of court time, benefits from a strong complement of teammates and has a way of getting open and making the shots that matter. He proved that in last weekend’s romp over Florida going six for six from three-point range en route to a 22-point total. He capped that by completing a term paper on U.S. history on the flight back to Michigan.
“My shot felt good,” he said earlier this week in his limited media sessions. “So I was just letting them fly. Being a shooter, you never get down on yourself when you’re missing shots. Keep shooting.”
Stauskas’s back story is he didn’t like soccer, never played hockey and first started playing house-league basketball with Ausra, the Toronto sports club for kids of Lithuanian descent. As his two sons got older, Paul Stauskas, who had played basketball in high school with Rautins, figured it was time to do something with the backyard. He fancied a putting green; most of the neighbours had swimming pools. The decision was made to go with a basketball court, which soon sparked endless battles for Stauskas supremacy.
“If it wasn’t for my wife and I the boys would have kept playing all night,” says Paul Stauskas, a computer consultant by trade. “We’d tell them, ‘Five minutes [to 11 p.m. curfew], you’re done.’ We asked the neighbours when we built it, ‘Would you mind?’ We have new neighbours now. They don’t know who Nik is.”
Brother Peter recalls that as much as he loved basketball, his brother loved it more.
“Every winter, he’d be out there shovelling the backyard to play. I’d be playing video games. Every day he woke up, until he went to sleep, he was thinking about basketball. It was like an addiction,” Peter says. “I’d get upset because he was smaller and not as fast, not as strong and he’d beat me with some crazy shot.”
Two Nik Stauskas anecdotes worth telling: his dad coached him for a time, including one year at Mississauga’s Loyola Catholic Secondary School. That was the season the regular coach had to bow out for family reasons. The school let Paul take over as a volunteer provided there was a full-time staffer present. Nik canvassed the school and got his Grade 10 French teacher to commit. She’d sit in the gym during practices and mark assignments while Paul coached the team.
The other Stauskas item has to do with his size: always the runt, Nik gained eight inches in height in a two-year span. Where that spurt came from, no one is sure.
“He always told us he was going to be 6-foot-6,” says Peter, a computer-science major at Waterloo. “He’d say, ‘I’m going to be bigger than you.’ I was 6 foot in Grade 5 and he kept saying it. No one else in our family is taller than 6 feet. Our honest opinion is he willed himself to grow.”
After two years of prep schooling in the Northeastern United States, Stauskas was recruited by Michigan, where he got off to a flying start, playing well in the 2012 NIT Season Tip-Off tournament and earning Big Ten freshman-of-the-week honours. After that, it was a familiar story: the more he played, the better he shot; the more he shot, the more fans he made. Michigan backers dubbed him the Canadian Mamba, a play on Kobe’s Black Mamba handle. They brought a Canadian flag to home games, only it featured a blue Maple Leaf on a maize background. Wolverine colours. Pundits called him the most underrated freshman in America.
Others see him as part of something really special.
“This is the first generation of kids like Nik who are growing up with the NBA in Canada,” says Dan MacKenzie, vice-president and general manager of NBA Canada, who notes the growth of youth basketball in this country has surpassed soccer and hockey since 2010. “Imagine where the next generation will be. There won’t just be eight Canadians in the NBA [as there are now]. It’ll be a lot more common.”
Until then, there’s a semi-final to win for a go at the NCAA title. If he gets the chance, you just know Stauskas will be setting up the way he always did in his backyard, eyes on the net, a flick of the wrist, smooth on the follow through.
He shoots. He scores.
Canadian got game, and it’s not hockey.