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Standing tall

"My mom and dad always taught me to do my best," says junior center Yemi Nicholson. Photo: Tim Ryan

Yemi Nicholson’s lean, towering frame emerges slowly from DU’s basketball locker room, his head barely clearing the door jam. A small smile spreads as his friendly, boyish face stares down with a calming sincerity. He extends a massive brown hand that’s warm, soft and the size of a baseball glove.

“Hi, I’m Yemi,” he says in a voice that matches the handshake perfectly — warm, malleable.

As comforting as this introduction is, something’s not right. Can this humble, unassuming giant be the same person who moves like a cheetah, shoes screeching against the court, torso twisting, knees bending, body vaulting — ultimately leaving an opponent dazed, wondering why DU’s score just rose by two points?


“When he first started playing as a little boy, he wouldn’t put his hands up when he was covering opponents,” says his mother, Bola. “After the game I asked him why, and he said if he did, the opponent wouldn’t be able to see where to throw the ball.”

The early score: Competitiveness, zero. Affability, one.

As it turns out, for someone who spends a good part of a basketball game soaring through the air, Yemi Nicholson is someone who remains grounded.

“He’s just a really great and nice person,” says basketball Head Coach Terry Carroll. That’s a comment echoed by everyone who knows him. At one game this winter, more than 100 members of his church came to see him play.

“My mom and dad always taught me to do my best,” says the junior center, who is just two inches shy of seven feet. “And, I remember my dad always telling me never make the same mistake twice.”

Those two ingredients have simmered in Nicholson over the years, helping him to grow into the kind, gentle young man he is today.

But another part of him is a basketball player who just may end up in the NBA. His feats on the court during the 2004-05 season were nothing short of dazzling. He recorded 11 double-doubles, registering 10-plus points 29 times, 15-plus points 18 times, 20-plus points 13 times and 30-plus points three times. In one game he scored a career-high 34 points; in another he pulled down a career-best 18 rebounds. And in the last game of the regular season, Nicholson blocked a school-record nine shots. Plus, he earned the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District 13 Second Team.  He was’s Star of the Week. The Sun Belt Conference not only tapped him as Player of the Week three times but also voted him 2005 Player of the Year. And Sports Illustrated recognized his considerable talent with an All-America Team honorable mention.

All this helped give the Pioneers the best season they’ve seen in nine years, propelling them to a Sun Belt West Division title, an appearance at the Sun Belt Conference Championships and an invite to the National Invitation Tournament — the team’s first post-season Division I appearance in 46 years.

But all of these are unlikely events in the life of this 21-year-old.

Nicholson’s path to DU was long and winding. Yemi, which means “gives thanks to God,” in Yoruban, is the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone, Africa. His parents are hard working folks who place a premium on education (both hold college degrees). Nicholson was born in Oregon, lived in Texas and moved to Colorado in 1994.

“He was very much a good kid growing up. He liked to play outside with friends every chance he got,” Bola says.

She remembers him getting into “fairly serious” trouble once, when he decided to ride along with a 15-year-old friend who took his mother’s car for a joy ride. “That’s about the worst thing he ever did,” she says. “I guess we did something right somewhere along the way.”

Up to his early teens, basketball was just one of many sports for Nicholson, and not one that that looked to hold much promise.

“When I first saw him play as a kid, I thought he was terrible,” Bola says. “He was much better at baseball, and I thought that’s what he’d end up choosing to play.”

But in middle school, Nicholson quit hardball in favor of basketball. It didn’t look like a good move: He almost didn’t make his high school’s team. But, he had something he could fall back on: music. Nicholson also is a gifted jazz saxophone player.

“He saw Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on TV and he said he wanted to learn to play,” Bola recalls.

He was so good he won the prestigious Louis Armstrong Award. And when he stepped off the graduation stage of Aurora’s Overland High School, he held a diploma and a scholarship to study music at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

While Nicholson’s musical skills grew, so did he — from 6-feet 4-inches to his current 6-feet 10-inches, a stature that his father, Willie, couldn’t ignore. Willie encouraged his son to give basketball a second look, and a few weeks later, Nicholson walked on the Ft. Lewis team midway through his freshman year.

The following summer, back in Denver, Nicholson was playing a pickup game and caught the attention of Pioneers basketball standout Rodney Billups. In fact, Billups liked what he saw so much, he believed Coach Carroll should meet Nicholson and his family.

“I just felt like he had something special,” says Billups, a senior guard.

Coach Carroll met the family and brought Nicholson to DU for the 2002-03 season, which he sat out as a red-shirt freshman.

“When I first saw him play, I thought of the words ‘unlimited potential,'” Carroll recalls.

No doubt, that potential has been slow in coming. While there were some glimmers of talent in the 2003-04 season, Nicholson’s performance was paltry compared to what he unleashed this year.

“He’s completely dedicated himself with weights, his conditioning and his diet,” Carroll says. “He’s been working his tail off.”

Nicholson credits the breakthrough to his upbringing. He says softly, “I just keep thinking about what my parents always told me: Nothing is easy and you have to work hard at everything.”

Everything includes school. “I told him there’s a reason he’s called a student-athlete,” Willie says. “The student comes first. He’s not an athlete-student.”

Nicholson has gotten the message. “I know school is number one,” the communication major says. “It’s what I hear in the back of my head all the time.”

He likes school, and if he doesn’t enter the pros, he may go for an MBA at DU’s Daniels College of Business.

His mom says he also likes kids. “When he gets around them, he kind of becomes a kid himself,” she says.

Kids return the admiration and rush the court after games for his autograph. At the team’s last regular season game in February, Nicholson’s mom was wearing a Pioneers’ T-shirt that her son had signed, “To Mommy, Yemi Nicholson.”

After that game, Bola made her way courtside and Nicholson left a radio interview he was in the middle of and did something that comes naturally. He gave his mother the only hug he knows how to give — a huge one full of meaning and love.

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