Mike Nilson: Still Walking On

Mike Nilson forsaked a full ride to Idaho State, walked on at Gonzaga, was humbled by Dan Fitzgerald, but never gave up and gradually worked his way into the starting rotation to earn WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Zags Hoops caught up with Mike while vacationing in Montana.

ZH: Tell us about your recruitment out of high school and why you ultimately chose to walk on at Gonzaga.

MN: Coming out of high school I didn't have many Division I schools looking at me. I had my heart set on playing for the UW, but they weren't interested. My second choice was Gonzaga, but they didn't have any scholarships to give. The only Division I school that offered me a scholarship was Idaho St., but it didn't feel right when I went on my recruiting visit. I decided to come check out Gonzaga on my own and drove over to Spokane. I stayed at Fred Crowell's house (NBC) and played one afternoon with the team. Monson watched the scrimmage and thought I would be a good fit with the program. I decided to walk on, with the understanding that if I proved myself, I could earn a scholarship.

ZH: Fitz was head coach then. Do you have a humorous Fitz anecdote to share with us?

MN: Well, being a redshirt freshman, I don't even know if Fitz knew who I was. It was a big culture shock coming from high school where my coaches were like a second father and friend. I remember the first time my coach came over to watch a practice. I was so nervous. Fitz was explaining a drill and for some reason I happened to be standing on the court. He looked at the rest of the gym and said, "What the hell is he doing on the court? I don't even want him in the gym!" And then he called a senior in to run the drill. I wanted to hide. That was a big time ego check. He definitely made me a lot tougher.

ZH: What was it like not to get that scholarship after your first year? Which was more important to you back then, the scholarship or helping the team as much as you could?

MN: It was the most devastating thing that has ever happened to me. I remember when I found out. I listened to the words and just tried to hold back the tears until I left the room. It was really difficult to stay after giving my all and believing that I had earned the scholarship. But, sticking around was the best decision I ever made. I don't know if I could pick between helping the team and getting a scholarship, because to me, they went hand in hand.

ZH: If you were to write "A Guide to Walking on at Gonzaga," how would the first paragraph read?

MN: Don't do it unless you are willing to live with the fact that you can give your best, and you still might not get a scholarship. You can't go into it thinking that if you play well, you'll get a ride after 1 or 2 years. Not that it won't happen, but if that is your only motivation, then you could miss the real experience of being part of something bigger than yourself. When I walked on, it was almost like another era. Now, it seems like it is a much tougher road to earn a scholarship.

ZH: So Dan Monson took over, followed by Mark Few. Can you compare and contrast the two, in your opinion, of course?

MN: [laughs] Monson is a lot bigger, Fewie has more hair, and they both run a tight program that knows how to win.

ZH: Did playing tough defense come naturally to you, or was it something you had to learn and work on? And do you ever wish you were more of an offensive threat?

MN: Defense was definitely something I had to learn and work hard on, but I think what came naturally was being a blue collar guy. I felt comfortable, and more importantly good, about doing dirty work and all the little things it takes to win. What has been hard for me this year is being more of a scorer. I am learning that you have to be a different kind of tough to be able to put the ball in the basket when things are tough.

ZH: Tell us about your most memorable game at Gonzaga, maybe a game that none of us fans would think of.

MN: It would have to be the first game I really played well. It was my sophomore year and we were playing Whitman at home. My best friend from Seattle was over to watch the game and I had my first double digit scoring game (one of the few) with 16pts, and 2 dunks. That was the first time I had felt good about my basketball since I entered GU. Before that game I was barely playing a minute a game. After that, inch by inch I fought my way into the starting lineup.

ZH: Where were you when the team piled on top of Casey after beating Florida in the 1999 Sweet Sixteen?

MN: I was at the bottom of the pile with the fellas. That was definitly my favorite memory of my career. Being with the team and having my family there to share it with me.

ZH: What did Coach Monson say in the locker room after that tough loss to UConn where the Zags came so close to the Final Four?

MN: He told us how proud he was, and then we all shared tears because we knew that this same team would never put on the Zag uniform together again.

ZH: Were you able to watch any Gonzaga games in Europe this season, and if so, how do you think this 2002 team compared with the 1999 team?

MN: Unfortunatley, they didn't televise any games in Germany. But I was able to follow them on the internet and they made me proud to be a Zag. I'm sure if the breaks had gone their way, they could have done what the '99 team did, and more.

ZH: Has the style of play changed under Mark Few from Fitz and Monson, and if so, how in your opinion?

MN: I think Mark gave our team more freedom than the coaches in the past. Monson's and Few's style are very similar with thier "basic" passing game offense, while Fitz was more into the structured "flex" offense.

ZH: Was kneeling down and kissing the center court logo during your Senior Night spontaneous or something you had planned? You must've known that would never be forgotten by Zag fans.

MN: I was trying to think of a way I could show everyone how much Gonzaga ball meant to me. I hope zag fans will never forget it, because I will definitely never forget them.

ZH: Share your feelings when you blew out your Achilles your senior season.

MN: Bitter sweet. It could have been the worst thing to happen to me, but it ended up being the best. Missing the NCAA's was heartbreaking, but taking the year off away from hoops made me realize how good I had it. It gave me the love back and made me really appreciate my health.

ZH: How did you end up playing ball in Europe? Do you enjoy it and how long will you continue your pro career before hanging up your shoes?

MN: Ryan Floyd hooked me up with the job. He was playing for ART Duesseldorf in Germany, and told me how great it was. After he hurt his knee, they had me come over and replace him for the last 8 games of the season. It went well and I returned with Ryan for this past season. I loved it and am going to play as long as my wife and I are having fun.

ZH: What do you see Mike Nilson doing ten years from now? Coaching at the college level?

MN: No coaching. I felt way too helpless sitting on the sidelines while I was hurt. I think ball ends when I can't play anymore. Hopefully in ten years I'll be raising my heathy kids with my wife Rhiannon. That's what will make me the happiest.

ZH: Share what a typical game is like in Germany. Do the teams pack the gyms? Are the fans crazy? Any funny stories to tell?

MN: In the league I was playing in, it was more like a high school game. They were small gyms with rowdy fans. The refs are horrible, but most of the time I managed to stay out of foul trouble... (Why couldn't I do that at Gonzaga?) Funny stories... Well, it took me awhile to get used to the refs. My first game, I fouled out twice. I think that is a German record. I fouled out, and a couple minutes later they found a way to give the foul to somebody else. They put me back in the game, and 30 seconds later I fouled out the second time.[laughs]

ZH: Finally, you're a family man now. Tell us about your wife, how you met, what she does, and your future goals and dreams as husband and wife.

MN: My wife is wonderful. We met my sophomore year through the basketball manager, Aaron Hill (Hobus). She was a cheerleader at Gonzaga so it worked out well that she could come to all the tournament games. She worked at the International School in Duesseldorf this past year and has her degree in Journalism. You might have read some of her awesome articles in The Inlander last year. Our goal right now is to have fun seeing the world, and eventually have a big family.

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