He shot and he shot and he shot some more, through one Canadian winter after another. Through the spring, summer, winter again. How many shots? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand? He shot first at a plastic backboard in front of his house, then a hoop hung on the bricks of his elementary school, and finally a decent glass backboard his father put up in the backyard.
Plastic, brick, glass. Heat, rain, snow. How many? Half a million? He shot and he shot and shot some more.
And never picked up a hockey stick.
“Yeah, it’s a little weird,” Michigan’s Nik Stauskas admits. “Especially in Canada. I just never got into hockey. It was always basketball.”
It wasn’t always easy. At one point, the Catholic high school he attended disbanded its team because the coach quit. Stauskas, then 16, was looking at no basketball for an entire season until his father volunteered to coach.
But there was a problem. “My dad wasn’t a teacher,” Stauskas said, “and in order to use the gym, we had to have a teacher in there at all times.”
So Nik canvassed the faculty. Please? Please? Anyone, please? Finally, his French teacher, a woman who liked basketball but “didn’t have a clue as to how it was played,” he says, offered to sit in the gym and mark her papers while the team practiced.
On such things does a college basketball story hinge.
“You owe that French teacher quite a bit,” I suggested to Stauskas.
“Oh, yeah. If she hadn’t done that, there would have been no high school basketball for me.”
“Were you at least a good French student?”
He laughs. “I was not.”
The pictures don’t lie
And then there are the videos. Go check YouTube. Stauskas has more videos than the Kardashians. There’s Nik making 45 of 50 three-pointers in his backyard, and Nik making 102 three-pointers in 5 minutes – also in his backyard – and Nik at Nite, shooting from long distance in the darkness, also in his backyard.
You really have to see that one. He’s in sweatpants and a ski cap, looking like he just came in from the skating rink, and he shoots and shoots, no music, no fancy angles, just swish, swish, swish.
“I started doing videos because I was virtually an unknown, being up in Canada, so I was hopeful I could get some recognition from schools in America,” he says. “Once I started getting a little popularity, then whenever me and my dad were bored we’d go out there and say, ÃÂLet’s try something.'”
They must have been bored pretty often.
Of course, Nik created a pretty good highlight reel by himself last Sunday, going 6-for-6 from three-point land and breaking the back of Florida’s defense. It helped push Michigan into this weekend’s Final Four in Atlanta. The fans, the announcers, even the ESPN highlight guys seemed to revel in the barrage of long bombs that a clearly happy Stauskas kept firing. He nearly floated into the rafters after sinking his last one.
“I kind of felt it in warm-ups,” he says. “When I made my first two, I was pumped up.”
Taking aim on the Orange
Stauskas, a 19-year-old from Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto, may be the best pure shooter in college basketball. Many have said it. He has not shied away from the claim. “I honestly feel if I am open I should make every shot,” he says.
It’s not cockiness, not anymore than a tightrope walker expecting to make it to the other side is cockiness. It’s purely practice. Stauskas – who must lack the boredom gene – has put in immeasurable hours shooting long-range jumpers. The form, the feel, the follow-through – it all comes so naturally.
“Ever since I was 8 or 9 years old,” he says. “The most fun thing was to go outside and shoot.”
His parents are Lithuanian, but Stauskas was born in Canada, did two years in American high schools and has found a home in Ann Arbor as a freshman Wolverine. He has a chance to be a game-breaker Saturday night against Syracuse and its celebrated 2-3 zone. One way you nullify a zone is with deadly outside shooting. If Stauskas can find himself momentarily undefended, you can bet he’ll be seeing the ball and a green light.
“I’ve got to find the opportunities,” he says.
He has done pretty well at making his own. He shot, he shot, he shot some more. See, kids, where practice gets you?
Practice, and a friendly French teacher.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.