Bob Lutz

Well-traveled Nickerson ready to coach

Gaylon Nickerson has resurfaced, and at 42 he still looks like he could leap over the head of a defender and dunk a basketball with such force to make a gymnasium shake.

The guy has always been hard to keep track of. He moved to Wichita from Arkansas when he was in high school, helped North win a state championship in 1987, then played at four colleges during a five-year span.

He went overseas to play, was the leading scorer in the Continental Basketball Association in 1996-97 and received his all-too-brief cup of coffee in the NBA, playing in four games combined with the San Antonio Spurs and Washington Bullets.

Nickerson disappeared after his playing career and said he has spent the ensuing years mostly in Arkansas, near his mother, with occasional trips to Wichita.

But he's here now and armed with a plan. He wants to get his college degree — he says he's within just a few hours — and get into coaching. He's tried doing other things over the years, but when he's on those jobs all he can think about is basketball.

The game runs through him, which is strange since the game at times treated Nickerson so badly. So many times, he felt like he was close to an NBA breakthrough. But it never happened and, like so many players who fall just short of their dreams, he has always wondered — what if?

He kicks himself when he thinks about how many schools he attended — Wichita State, Butler Community College, Kansas State and, finally, Northwestern Oklahoma.

He wonders if his agent worked hard enough to find him steady work in the NBA.

Some of the decisions of his youth have stayed with him into adulthood.

But he has a focus now. He thinks he can teach players the right way to play the game. Even though he was one to wow a crowd with his amazing leaping ability and never-ending arsenal of dunks, Nickerson says it's fundamentals that make a basketball player.

He works individually with players, but wants to expand into coaching with a team. He would prefer coaching at the high school level. He's still just "Skip," a nickname his father gave him when he was a kid because, Nickerson said, he was a leader, the "captain of the ship."

"I feel like if I'd have stayed at one school in college, I would have gone farther,'' Nickerson said. "It probably would have been best just to stay at Wichita State for four years.''

The 6-foot-3 Nickerson made his mark with the Shockers, averaging 10 points as a freshman while playing for a sub-par team coached by Mike Cohen.

"He didn't want me to shoot three-pointers,'' Nickerson said of Cohen. "He told me to hold back. I didn't know how to hold back.''

Nickerson gained freedom during the 1990-91 season at Butler, where he played for Randy Smithson and averaged 20.2 points and 5.1 rebounds.

Then it was on to Kansas State, where Nickerson played the 1991-92 season and averaged 9.4 points for a 16-14 team coached by Dana Altman.

Again, he said, he ran into a coach who wouldn't allow him to play his game. Altman, Nickerson said, told him to hold back and allow seniors to flourish.

"He told me to hold back and wait for my senior year,'' Nickerson said.

So he left for Northwestern Oklahoma in Enid, an NAIA school with a strong tradition. He was too good for the competition but had the time of his life, averaging nearly 22 points.

In the 1994 NBA Draft, Nickerson was taken in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks. Three of the biggest names from that draft — Jason Kidd, Grant Hill and Juwan Howard — are still playing.

Nickerson, though, never gained a foothold.

He spent three years in Spain and one in Turkey. He won a championship in the CBA. Basketball brought him more joy than he ever could have imagined, and more pain than he had ever endured.

He has a lifetime full of great stories from his experiences. He's still amazed that he transformed himself from a "kid with really skinny legs" into an NBA-caliber player.

"I wasn't a very good shooter when I got to North, I didn't have a lot of range,'' Nickerson said. "And I couldn't even dunk. I was in the 10th grade, about 6-1 or so, and I couldn't even dunk.''

Embarrassed, Nickerson started training with Barry Sanders, who was a couple years ahead of Nickerson at North. They would run the stairs at Cessna Stadium every morning.

"He was just so humble,'' Nickerson said of Sanders. "And I saw what a strong work ethic he had. I had never worked out the way I was working out with Barry. I'll tell you this, I could take the workout me and Barry did and have a kid dunking in no time.''

Nickerson was the most exciting player in the City League for a time. So quick and fast, and now with what felt like a brand new pair of legs, he unleashed his fury on opponents. No. 23 reminded some of another No. 23, Michael Jordan, who was Nickerson's idol, as well as a few million other aspiring basketball players around the country.

But most of those millions never got to face Jordan up close. Nickerson did. Twice. And they are the highlights of his brief NBA flash, which resulted in four games, 42 minutes, 15 points, five rebounds, one assist, one steal, one blocked shot, one turnover and one foul.

"Two times I played against Mike, both when I was with Sacramento (as a free agent in the 1996-97 preseason), and I had to guard him and he guarded me,'' Nickerson said. "The first time I was called off the bench and told I had to guard Jordan. I got numb all over. Like, 'Wow, what is going on?' It was like a dream.''

Jordan had earlier blocked one of Nickerson's shots, throwing it into the 10th row. It was, Nickerson said, an honor.

"Somebody is shooting free throws and the two of us were at half court and I have all these questions running through my head than I want to ask Jordan,'' Nickerson said. "So I asked him why he had blocked my shot.''

It was, Nickerson admits, a silly question. And it received a quick response.

"He told me he played hard all the time,'' Nickerson said.

In his second encounter with Jordan, Nickerson remembers scoring against his idol. He took a pass from Mitch Richmond and drove to the basket for an up and under shot just before the end of the first half.

Nickerson kept running right into the tunnel, thrilled with his accomplishment. He had scored on Michael Jordan.

"I was jumping up and pumping my fist like we had just won a championship or something,'' Nickerson said. "He caught me there, celebrating. He walked by and just looked at me with this smirk on his face, then he wiped some sweat off of his nose. It was embarrassing.''

Nickerson had a third run-in with Jordan as a member of the Bullets. His mother and other family members were at the game and Jordan was having his way.

"He came down and did this real sweet move on me and on my way back down the floor I looked at my mom and my family and they were clapping,'' Nickerson said. "It's like they were happy Mike scored on me. It kind of messed with me a little.''

Nickerson is so happy when he tells those stories. You can tell how much he misses basketball. His regrets are overwhelmed by his memories.

Now he wants to reach out. He thinks he has something to offer as a coach and mentor.

"As dedicated as I was and as disciplined as I was, I still feel like I could have done more,'' Nickerson said. "I think a lot of kids today are missing self-motivation. They're waiting on somebody to motivate them.''

Nickerson wants to be that somebody. I hope he gets a shot.