— Nate Sikma does impersonations.
"He does it with his brothers, he does it with me," his dad, Jack, said Friday. "He's a creative kid. He's not that outgoing with it in public, but he slips them in at the dinner table all the time."
"Nate's the funniest guy on the team," Hartford coach John Gallagher said. "He does imitations of me. He even got up in front of 250 people at our preseason banquet and did one."
Gallagher broke into his breathy, "How you feelin', man?" It was Gallagher doing Sikma doing Gallagher, which was just fine with the Hawks' third-year coach.
"When you're trying to change a program, you've got to get guys who see the vision with you," Gallagher said of his 6-6 sophomore captain. "Nate understands we really haven't won here since the '80s. To change this, we have to change habits. He's a habit-changer. I feel, in a lot of ways, he's an extension of me."
One matter Sikma certainly doesn't seem weighed down by is trying too hard to be an extension of his dad. Impersonating people can be a hoot, but other people's expectations that you'll impersonate your 6-11 father on the court — especially since he was a seven-time NBA All-Star — can be unhealthy.
"Nate's his own man," Gallagher said.
"My dad let me develop my own love for the game, didn't force it on me," Nate said. "And as I've gotten older, I've gotten more open to his criticisms and his teaching points, which I think is pretty neat.
"Being an NBA player's son people are going to think, 'Oh he's going to be good.' There's definitely that pressure. But I never tried to put undue pressure on myself. You do that you're just going to make it worse. I actually really liked hearing about my dad from other people's perspective. My dad's awesome."
Gallagher, whose underclass-heavy Hawks have risen to 17-15 since a 0-13 start last season, runs a creative offensive scheme developed by Fran O'Hanlon of Lafayette. It is predicated on timing, spacing and cutting. In the system, the 4-man [Sikma] has to be able to shoot. Sikma is fourth in scoring with 6.7 points. He's also second in rebounds and assists and third in three-pointers made. He has scored as many as 26 points against Arizona State and as few as none twice.
Asked if there was inconsistency, Gallagher answered, "I don't think so. He's of the mind-set, 'If they're keying on me, I'll get it to the open man.'
"Nate has a great sense of purpose and poise, hard to find in an 18- and 19-year-old. He understands the game and what we're trying to do. He has varying ways to affect a game. He is a mismatch nightmare."
Sikma, interestingly enough, has taken as many as 20 shots against Arizona State and as few as none in 35 minutes against Mount St. Mary's.
"I think I've done a good job of picking up the offense, and I think I can pick up even more," Nate said. "There are so many possibilities. You have to think it out. It's a really strategic offense. Being a 4 man in it, I can have the ball in my hands a lot and make a lot of decisions."
With six seniors leaving after the 2010-11 season, Gallagher had a huge challenge and a terrific recruiting opportunity. His assistant Chris Gerlufsen saw Sikma play. He called Gallagher and told him to get out to Seattle, that Nate was perfect for the system. It turned out Sikma's Bellevue High School coach Chris O'Connor played and coached at New Hampshire.
"I walked into a gym and Chris tells me, 'My uncle is [Sacred Heart coach] Dave Bike,' " Gallagher. "I watched them practice for 15 minutes. He came back over and said, 'Initial thoughts?' I said, 'Yeah, he has a full scholarship to Hartford.'"
Jack, then an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets, was in Portland having dinner with his wife, Shawn, when they got the call from their son.
"Nathan was happy," said Jack, now an assistant with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "He had been frustrated because he and his team were having a good year [advancing to the state title game], but he hadn't gotten any sniffs from teams in the Northwest."
There would be only one more D-1 offer, New Hampshire. He visited UHart. He loved it.
"Six other freshmen would be coming in with me," Sikma said. "I thought it would give me a chance to develop a strong relationship with them, to make the NCAA Tournament and have a good college experience."
"We told those guys there are less than 10 schools that have been in D-1 since the 1980s that haven't gone to the NCAA Tournament," Gallagher said. "You want to make some history? Nate embraced that."
With the help of the coaches, Jack said he thought that big class, committed to each other, helped themselves through a mortifying 0-13 start as freshmen.
"That 0-13 start will help us in the future," Nate said. "We had to learn how to win."
Jack never coached Nate, but he did coach Nate's older brother Luke in middle school. Luke, at 6-8, went on to star at the University of Portland and now plays professionally in Spain. Nate said he didn't know if Luke liked playing for dad so much: "It's kind of a weird thing."
Jack is from Kankakee, Ill. He is famous for staying close to home to play at Division III Illinois Wesleyan and still being a first-round NBA draft pick. He is famous for playing on the 1979 NBA champion SuperSonics. He is famous for his blond Dutch Boy haircut in the 1970s and curly blond hair of the 1980s.
"He's off the farm," Nate said. "He'd get up early and work, shoot hoops after. They had one of those hoops on the barn."
Nate grew up in the Seattle suburbs and played with the same group of kids from the fourth grade through high school. He did join his parents after his sophomore season to finish the school year in Houston and enjoy time around the Rockets.
Nate kids that with limited YouTube videos from 30 years ago, he has had far fewer chances to see his dad play than his dad has seen him. During the 2010 NBA lockout, Jack spent a few weeks around the Hawks, but technology is the big difference. Computer links, Synergy Sports video, the Timberwolves' video department tapping into games … Jack doesn't miss much.
Jack, who began coaching with Seattle, worked with Yao Ming in Houston. He works with Kevin Love now. As a player, he wasn't fast, but he was one of the best shooting centers ever. Dad has a ton of knowledge and he usually shares it with Gallagher once a month or so.
"His has unbelievable insight, is a great resource," said Gallagher, who remembers as a kid growing up in Philly watching Jack, then with the Bucks, beat the Sixers in the playoffs. "One time he said to me, I like [the Hawks staff]. You guys chew on the game a lot. Nate grew up around people who chewed on the game. We're a year ahead of schedule because of his type of leadership."
And Jack's chew on Nate?
"He's probably outside a little more than he could be, hopefully John doesn't take that the wrong way," Jack said. "We've talked about sneaking Nate inside when matchups present themselves."
Before most games he usually just texts Nate, "Good luck" or "Be aggressive."
"If we lose a game and he tries to give me criticism right after it, I'm not going to handle it very well," said Nate, a communications major looking into advertising and public relations. "He definitely has improved in that aspect. He gives me points calmly and isn't too overbearing.
"And my mom is one of my best friends. She's really supportive. She knows how basketball can bring a lot of pressure."
Nate's grandfather Denny Strickland — Shawn's dad — played basketball at Oregon. He went on to have a noted career as a graphic artist, designing the iconic Sonics logo with the Seattle skyline. He did the Sounders logo. He designed Nike's first big ad, "There Is No Finish Line." Nate would miss a game in November to attend Denny's funeral.
"Nate didn't get his creative genes from me," Jack said. "He was really close to his grandfather."
Creative enough to impersonate his coach, to be sure. But creative enough to grow his hair into a Dutch Boy or curl his blond locks like old-school Sikma?
"No way!" Nate Sikma said. "I just want to go back in time, talk to that guy and ask him, 'What the heck are you thinking?'"