OKC Thunder: Nick Collison's jersey retirement big news back in Iowa
Nick Collison smiled at the mention of his Iowa hometown, Iowa Falls.
“Five stoplights,” he said, still grinning.
Marissa VanWingen jumped in.
“Six,” she said. “We got a new one.”
VanWingen would know. She’s a reporter for the Iowa Falls Times-Citizen, the twice weekly newspaper in the small town in central Iowa. She usually covers sports at the three high schools in the county and the junior college in town.
Wednesday night, she was in Oklahoma City to cover Collison’s jersey retirement.
On a night the Thunder bestowed its greatest honor on Collison, VanWingen’s presence was a reminder of how big a deal this was back in his hometown some 600 miles away. In a place intensely proud of its own and profoundly interested in basketball, nothing is bigger than Collison.
“The league is full of guys that came from different places,” Collison said. “There’s guys that come from inner cities, that come from Europe, that come from different continents.
“Some guys come from small towns, too.”
Collison came from one of the smaller ones.
Iowa Falls has a population of only 5,048. A little bigger than Sulphur and Alva. A little smaller than Lone Grove and Harrah. Iowa Falls is a place not unlike many in Oklahoma, towns where everyone knows everyone — for better or worse — and where activity revolves around the schools.
That’s how it was when Collison moved to Iowa Falls when he was in eighth grade. His dad, Dave, was a teacher and coach who took over as head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Iowa Falls High.
Nick had basketball dreams then.
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“I just wanted to play for my high school team,” he said.
Starring at Kansas?
Spending 15 years in the NBA?
“For me, it seemed kind of farfetched to be able to play in the NBA,” Collison said. “The best player at my school played Division II.”
Collison didn’t play varsity as a freshman at Iowa Falls in part because his dad didn’t want anyone to think his son was being favored. But Dave Collison also thought his son was a little soft. Thought freshman team coach Randy Fiscus was just the guy to toughen Nick up, too.
Thunder Nation knows Collison as a guy who would dive after a ball or take a charge, bust his knee or bloody his face. He played that way because he knew it was the kind of thing that could help his team and maximize his impact.
But he also played tough because of the folks back in Iowa Falls.
“It was just always important for me to … try to represent them,” Collison said.
As he talked about home, he got emotional. With the exception of his 13-year-old daughter, Emma, no other subject choked him up Wednesday night. He had to stop and take a couple deep breaths.
“When you get older, you get emotional, man,” Collison said.
When you get older, you also get perspective. You appreciate the people who poured into you. You recognize the sacrifices and the heartstrings. You realize how much pride they take in one of their own doing well.
That pride is why Marissa VanWingen came to town for Collison’s big night. Even though the paper has done lots of coverage on Collison over the years — her husband and sports editor, Justin Ites, for example, wrote a substantial piece after Collison retired last summer — the Times-Citizen realized the gravity and importance of Wednesday.
Small-town newspapers just don’t send reporters to other states much nowadays.
But VanWingen flew in Monday and spent three days chronicling all things Collison. She posted blogs and videos on the newspaper’s website, then Saturday she’ll have a big story on the jersey retirement, and Wednesday she’ll help fill a special section on Collison.
The newspaper knows people will gobble up every morsel because they are fired up about Collison.
It was fitting, then, VanWingen got the final question during Collison’s news conference.
“You’re one of very few people who have three numbers at three different places retired — high school, college, now the NBA,” VanWingen said. “Once you look back on this moment, how are you going to feel?”
Collison, dressed in a sharp black suit, silver tie and crisp white shirt, talked again about being at a stage in his life where he could appreciate what happened Wednesday night.
“This is pretty special,” he said. “Just to have this celebration at the end is great.”
So was everything about the whole jersey retirement. The video with the old clips when Collison looked like such a kid. The ovations that roared around The Peake. The banner in the rafters with COLLISON and 4 on it.
But nothing was more special to Nick Collison than the folks back home who got to watch it all.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson