Basketball’s Blue-Collar Cult Hero

(Darrell Walker/Icon Sportswire)

Three months after our Abrams stormed towards Baghdad, four years before the first iPhone barely touched the shelves, 12 picks into the greatest draft class of the century, Nick Collison found the home he’d never leave. Where the kids now living in the main quarters chipped in for an annex all his own, just off the old three-season porch. A place for more cerebral things, and youngins gathered for tales set aflight on whiskey and wild hand gestures. He’ll likely die there in his sleep, beneath a family quilt, months-old Economist fallen on a smile.

We should all be so lucky. Nick Collison has lived a basketball life fulfilled, surrounded by doting family in a city he’s earned the key to no fewer than five times, for deeds like welding a makeshift manhole from the hatch of his ’73 Chevy to halt a flood-heaving sewer, or rescuing a gull from a smoking telephone poll. What’s done is done with conviction, whether it’s a new roof or discount steaks on the Weber.

Or, more to the point, setting screens so brutal they collapse your organs into black holes.

***

Thirteen years this man has been a Sonic-Thunder, a length of tenure only one other player from his draft class can claim (some guy named Wade). In that time, Nick Collison has called Vitaly Potapenko “comrade,” Chucky Atkins “sir,” and Dion Waiters “IT’S A SIDE-SCREEN DIPSHIT.” He’s never averaged more than 29 minutes, 9.8 points, or a PER of 15—literally exactly the league average—in a single season. His career high is, I don’t know, probably 22. Ask him to scale an Oklahoma City phonebook, he might kick it open to Zane’s Septic and Drywalling. You’d be forgiven for wondering, as I have, whether Collison is still collecting cashable checks, or if the front office simply “fixed the glitch.”

One can, of course, retort with any number of clichéd qualifiers. Collison is the classic glue-guy, the high-character vet, the leader-by-example. The knows-his-role, take-one-for-the-team mate paragon of what we should all want our young sportsters to be. Marshaled with the demonstrative flair of a feudal portrait, perhaps, but a leader nonetheless.

It’s a fine sentiment, for sure, albeit draped in Mayberry white. But it can’t be the lone reason—or even the main one—for Collison’s staying power. Any ownership willing to uproot a team as entrenched and treasured as those Sonics, to unearth it from bedrocks of jersey-clad bones and whore it out for earthquake oil 2,000 miles away, can’t be all that smitten by intangibles. There must, surely, be something in Collison most of us can’t or won’t see. Some white-hot inner flame camouflaged from our eyes by the melatonin void above. A love for placing the little things with such a delicate touch the greater mosaic eventually becomes impossible to miss.

Weak-side flashes and blocks a 35-year-old cattle rancher shouldn’t be able to make; that poor opposing center stumbling behind the Thunder break on a slick of his own blood, half doubled over from a sternum-quaking elbow; a dribble handoff placed at the perfect nexus of corner-turning speed and “Apologies for my hip briefly fusing to yours, incredulous dude on the floor”; eight points in six minutes—all flat-footed put-backs—as the opposing frontcourt looks about helplessly, caught between the dread of an assignment blown and legit thinking the Thunder just got away with playing an extra man for half a quarter: Piece these shards, one jagged tile at a time, and behold a basketball gem of naïve art, hand steady as the Rockwell coif.

It’s a wide yawp, for sure, from the style that defined Collison’s stellar four-year stint at Kansas. He seemed, back then, seasons ahead of his time: mobility, vision, step-out prowess and pretty stroke to match. As soon as he hit the league, though, that vanguard potential surrendered to the pragmatic. It took 10 years for Collison to attempt his 20th triple. His usage rate never crept above 16.2, his role much beyond “quasi-skilled bruiser.” But it wasn’t coach or roster context that precluded his becoming more of a force; Collison dynamited that path himself, setting off instead, immediately and earnestly, on the safer, leveler, longer road.

All the more reason he could’ve been cast loose years ago, a cautionary tale of what ultimately befalls the consciously retro. Why with no shortage of younger, more malleable facsimiles gnashing at the bit for their shot. Guts and glue only get you so far, after all, and sooner or later the flyer feels safer than the known.

***

What’s left, perhaps, is Collison as curio of the greater Thunder narrative. One of two holdovers—along with Durant—from arguably the most insidious franchise highjacking in sports history. Stoic mainstay of a team that can’t escape its own carpetbagger karma. A career commenced on a fault line of epochs: just after Jordan’s, LeBron poised to eponymize the next. It’s pretty compelling timing, even if solely as footnotes go.

You wonder how he feels about all of this, being the lone constant in OKC’s four-blackboard theory left unsolved. Maybe he’ll lend us that window when he retires—at the end of his current contract next summer, most likely. After KD and Russ uproot stakes to seek their respective fortunes elsewhere, region’s earthen blood running in rivers at their heels. Collison can be the guy who did it right and right by all. For whom chasing titles bowed to loyalty. So what if talent made that a one-choice problem, or if the only place he ever sees his number hung is in a sheath of dust on The Peak’s gift-shop clearance rack? Cult heroes are still heroes, if more in noble deaths than epic peaks.

Conversely and much more likely, you’ve literally never wondered a wit what Nick Collison thinks about anything, nor mustered anything more laudative than “Man, is that guy solid.” Much less know why anyone would dedicate an icon-obit’s worth of words to a basketball panic button. You won’t miss him or wish he’d stuck around. You might recoil when he’s the comp a draft guru bestows upon your favorite prospect, or rejoice a bit too much recalling him last second for a trivia-night bonus point, leaving off the second L in haste.

“It’s just Nick Collison,” we sneer, unaware of what we’ve flippantly dismissed. A blue-collar career sincere in both its toil and modest triumphs. For he is nothing if not this washed national myth rendered hardwood: basketball as less a game played than a trade plied; a scar for every three-tooth grin; enough unused sick days to staff a second factory. At the end of it all, an annex off the old three-season porch. The kids give it a week before he wheels in the table saw, to turn the retirement clock into kindling.

That he was never that indispensible to his factory anyway—a rusted cog where a second broom would’ve fit—hardly matters. In an America long gone from the myth of a life’s work, the securest job, perhaps the noblest, is the one they hardly notice.

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Jim Cavan is a Columnist and Senior Editor for The Cauldron, an affiliate of Sports Illustrated. His work has appeared at the New York Times, Grantland, ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and TASTE of the Seacoast Magazine, for which he serves as Beer Editor (this is a real title). Jim lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two daughters, one of whom walks on four legs and angrily lunges at passing trucks. Let him know if you want to buy a screenplay.