Leading the Nation as American basketball sensation Andre bounces back with Ballincollig

Leading the Nation as American basketball sensation Andre bounces back with Ballincollig
Picture: Larry Cummins

DIAL back to 2013 and the sky was the limit for Andre Nation.

Though he was still a freshman, the 6' 5” Tampa Bay native had made his mark in the NCAA tournament for the best college players in America. James Maddison were eliminated in the second round of 'March Madness' at the hands of the Indiana Hoosiers and but only after Nation dropped 24 points.

Indiana is a storied college programme, in a basketball-obsessed region as depicted in the 1986 film Hoosiers starring Gene Hackman, and that season they were led by Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller. That pair were subsequently taken as the second and fourth picks in the NBA draft and Oladipo is now an elite performer in the league after switching from Oklahoma City Thunder to the Indiana Pacers.

For Nation to hang tough in that company highlights how talented he is and why he's been an electrifying presence for Tradehouse Central Ballincollig in Division 1. They're 11 matches unbeaten in the Southern Conference to date, with Nation averaging 42 points per game. His power, pace, reach and explosive athleticism mean he's worth checking out even if you're not a basketball aficionado.

The 25-year-old had big boots to fill replacing last season's National Cup final MVP Cameron Clark in the line-up but has seamlessly slotted in on the hardwood in Ballincollig Community School alongside their spiritual leader Ciarán O'Sullivan. 

Nation with Ed Burke, the manager of sponsor Tradehouse Central. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Nation with Ed Burke, the manager of sponsor Tradehouse Central. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Yet he's only on Leeside after losing his way Stateside. After failing to capitalise on his big chance with James Maddison he's fully focused on his last chance to fulfil his potential.

“Victor Olidipo and Zeller were top-five NBA picks. To do well against them and score 24 points against them... that was big.

“The off-season stuff caught up with me and I could never bounce back from that. I was dealing with things the wrong way. Instead of growing up and thinking of the bigger picture I was living for right now.” 

He was suspended for the first half of his sophomore year but still made an 'all-third' team on the back of 13 games when he returned. Unfortunately, he got suspended again in his junior year.

“When I came back after that it was shaky. I didn't have a good relationship with the coach and next thing you know I was called into the office and we had to part ways.

“I was 12 to 14 hours drive from Florida and I didn't have any family close to me to whip me back into shape. They can talk to you on the phone but it's just not the same. You hang up the phone and go back to making the wrong choices.

“College was one of the greatest times of my life but one of the darkest times of my life. I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and I'm here now.

“I don't care if I was playing in Division 5. Just to play competitive basketball is what I always dreamed of.” 

After the nadir of being released by James Maddison, Nation was drifting. A way back into basketball came courtesy of a coaching gig for the girls' team at Harrisonburg High School in Virginia.

“Coach Mark Neofotis and Demont Perry... they changed my life around. Mark got me away from Tampa and welcomed me into his home and got me coaching, to help pay my rent and keep me involved in the game.

“Coaching those girls at high school made me want to play again. It brought back the love. I was in the gym every day so I was working out every day.

I was kind of a big star in that area from college. A lot of people would have known who I was.

“The easy work was playing basketball. I was doing that since I was five years old and I'm 25 now but Mark helped resurrect my life because I was going down the wrong path and with the wrong crowd. I kept being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

It was definitely a case of the being in the right place when Ballincollig came calling. That was through Don Burgess, who had a connection with Ballincollig coaching stalwart Francis O'Sullivan.

“Coach Don asked me was I still trying to play. A couple of weeks had passed but Francis rang Don and told him he was looking for a guy. Don told him how I was working with the kids and set it up. 

"A day later Sully (Kieran O'Sullivan, Francis' brother and Ballincollig head coach) called me and 'boom', they sent the contract over, I signed it and away we went. 

Nation scores against WIT Vikings. Picture: Larry Cummins
Nation scores against WIT Vikings. Picture: Larry Cummins

“I love playing in Ballincollig because I'm working with the O'Sullivans. Kieran, Daniel, Ciarán, Francis is a huge factor in the club. They're brilliant basketball minds and we've young guys like Dylan (Corkery) and Pa (McSweeney) and a vet like Ian McLaughlin, they all bring it every day at practice.

“Coming to Ballincollig is one of the top three best things that have ever happened to me, along with going to college and becoming an uncle. My niece Jaylen, who is six in December, is the heart and soul of the family.” 

He's a basketball behemoth now but he started out with a football.

Not the Gaelic kind of course but Tradehouse Central Ballincollig's top-scorer had an early grá for soccer and, as his father hails from Dallas and introduced him to the Cowboys team featuring Emmet Smitt and Troy Aikman, American football too.

"Soccer was the first sport I ever played. I lived in Alabama for a bit when my dad was serving in Korea, we were close to my mom's home place but my cousins played soccer so I just followed along. I loved soccer too actually. I was a forward, faster than all the kids and scored a lot of goals, so I just kicked it ahead of me and ran on.

"I played (American) football up until eighth grade, about 13, and I loved it. I was a receiver and I loved it more than basketball then. I loved the art of basketball though, the poetry of motion, the skill work, and that took over."

Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers have his sworn allegiance. 

TWO OF THE GREATS: Kobe Bryant backs in on LeBron James. Picture: Harry How/Getty Images
TWO OF THE GREATS: Kobe Bryant backs in on LeBron James. Picture: Harry How/Getty Images

"I'm not a Miami Heat fan. Not a hometown fan at all. The first basketballer I saw score a basket was Kobe Bryant in 1997 or '98. He was still a young boy then and he became my favourite player and I'm a huge Lakers fan.

"I don't have Kobe's killer mentality. If I had that it would be a different story. His basketball smarts are just crazy."

Having competed against NBA players Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller in college, Nation knows what it takes at the elite level though he's more of a traditionalist in an era when Steph Curry and James Harden are dominating. 

"I love two-way players like Kwahi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, LeBron and Kevin Durant. Kyrie Irving as well.

"I don't like how the game has changed with so many shots beyond the three-point line. I grew up with old-school basketball, getting to the rim, backdoor cutting. 

"Everything now is gone to dribble, dribble, dribble, shoot the three. That's not what I like watching. Curry isn't one of my favourites but I respect him as an icon and the fact he has changed the NBA."

Nation, at 6' 5", can dunk the ball and protect the paint at the other end but also has slick handles, a protect of being a late developer.

"I didn't hit my growth spurt until my sophomore year. Overnight I woke up and my refrigerator was six foot but suddenly I was looking over it when the day before I was looking into it."

As well as inspiring the next generation of Ballincollig basketballers with his soaring slam-dunks and stylish side-steps, Nation is giving back in coaching terms too. He often falls in with Nicky Bohane assisting with various teams from U10s upwards.

“I love being in the gym around basketball. I love helping out with coach Nicky. 

"It's great to help kids because youth is our future. I don't want to change the whole world but if I can help one person and down the road, they can do the same then the cycle goes on.” 

Meanwhile, the games are coming thick and fast for the Division 1 unit. Nation's 48-point haul ensured they came back from 15 down against rival Fr Mathew's while they survived an away trip to Killarney too.

“The game in Killarney was great. I was really up for that. Nicky and Colman (O'Flynn, the club chairman) got the drums out for that and to play in front of 800 people made it a big stage and the more watching the better. The atmosphere was crazy and it was wild how loud the Ballincollig fans were.” 

Ireland might not seem like the most sensible place for someone trying to keep on track, but he has put that phase of his life behind him. 

“I'm in a good place in my life. I partied hard, I partied all night long, I partied before games. I've done everything you could think of. I'm totally focused this season to make sure I get the best situation I can next year.

"If there's a team thing I'm there. I'm a firm believer in team camaraderie. Otherwise, I stick to the straight and narrow because I've used up my chances. I've taken everything as a lesson instead of a loss."

And the lessons learned in the US have translated into brilliant buckets in the Irish league.

Andre Nation, Ballincollig, leaps over Deon Baker Jnr and Luke O'Mahony, Fr Mathew's. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Andre Nation, Ballincollig, leaps over Deon Baker Jnr and Luke O'Mahony, Fr Mathew's. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

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