By Matt Bracken
The Baltimore Sun
2:01 PM EDT, March 15, 2012
It was a departure met with major media coverage and ample blog and message-board discussion. Typically the parting of ways between a pro basketball team and a player scoring seven points a game wouldn’t be dissected at such an intense level. Drew Nicholas, however, is not your typical overseas player.
In the nine years since Nicholas finished his Maryland career, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard has won multiple championships and scoring titles for some of the premier franchises in the Euro League. So when Nicholas and Olimpia Milano decided last month that it would be mutually beneficial to go their separate ways, the former Terp admitted “it was a pretty big story.”
But despite the premature end to his season in Italy, Nicholas says there are “no hard feelings.” In a nine-year career filled with highlights in the U.S. and abroad, the most recent development in Nicholas’ journey is just a minor blip on an otherwise incredible basketball resume.
The two signature memories of Nicholas’ college career – his buzzer-beating 3 against UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament, and his role on the Terps’ 2002 national title team – remain unforgettable moments in Maryland basketball history. And for thousands of hoops fans in Italy, Turkey and Greece, Nicholas is easily one of the top shooting guards of the past decade.
“I’m really happy I’m able to get to this point,” Nicholas said. “It was such a big process … going from the second division in Italy to a really small team in the first division to the best team in Italy to a better team in Turkey, and finally getting to the top in Greece. It’s been a while.”
Nicholas, 30, is back in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., enjoying his time at home and concentrating on “getting my body right.” Being back in the states earlier than usual also gives Nicholas a chance to watch as much of the NCAA tournament as he wants, and enjoy almost constant reminders of when he and the Terps were all alone at the top.
Nicholas arrived in College Park during the summer of 1999 after a decorated prep career at Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran. The wiry freshman got significant minutes off the bench right away, and finished his first year at Maryland averaging 5.1 points and seeing action in all 35 games. Sophomore year was more of the same, with Nicholas scoring 6.6 points per game and appearing in all 36 games.
After Maryland’s devastating Final Four loss to Duke in 2001, Nicholas and his teammates came back to College Park the following fall with a championship-or-bust mentality.
“I think everybody on the team really realized that even though we were losing talent like Terence Morris from the team, you kind of saw how good we could be,” Nicholas said. “We were still young and full of potential. With everyone getting a year older, a year more experienced and us still having Lonny [Baxter] to rely on, we felt we just had a great chance. Not many times a situation comes up like that.”
Nicholas’ role expanded with averages of 7.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 20.5 minutes. In the Terps’ national-championship win over Indiana, Nicholas was as reliable as ever, scoring seven points while making five of his six free throw attempts.
Maryland wouldn’t repeat as national champs in 2003, but the Terps’ Sweet 16 run featured one of the most memorable game-winning shots of all time. Down 73-72 to UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Nicholas took the inbound pass, raced up the court and launched a fall-away 3 that dropped in for a 75-73 Terps victory.
“First of all, it’s a great feeling just knowing that I’ll be part of NCAA history, at least for awhile,” Nicholas said. “As years go on, different guys hit different big shots. Time passes and guys seem to fade off a little bit. The season was almost a decade ago. It still seems like people still remember my shot. They hear my name and recognize me. A lot of times people like to tell me exactly where they were, stuff like that. It’s always pretty cool when I get to relive that and see the replay. It’s kind of surreal to me.”
After 103 wins and a senior season in which he averaged more than 17 points, Nicholas embarked on his pro career with a spot on the Orlando Magic’s summer league team. Despite not playing much, several teams expressed interest in adding Nicholas to their training camp rosters. But Nicholas was realistic about his future.
“I knew the chances of me making a team were probably pretty slim,” he said. “I was going to be a roster guy for the first couple of days or weeks, something like that. Pretty much right away, after the summer league, I talked it over with my agent immediately [and] we started [looking into] Europe.”
Nicholas was quickly signed by Fabriano, a second-division Italian League team that offered him a decent first contract (around $60,000 or so) and plenty of playing time. Nicholas said he was excited to start his career and happy to live overseas, but that first year – at least off the court – wasn’t easy.
“To be honest, I had no clue what I was getting myself in to,” Nicholas said. “I remember looking up the city and town online. It was just a really small town between two mountains in Italy. It was a big culture shock, going to play from Cole Field House and Comcast Center to going to play in a town where there’s probably 25,000 people.”
What the town may have lacked in big-city amenities, it made up for in opportunity. Nicholas led Legadue in scoring at 27.1 points per game, putting the former Terp squarely on the radar of several more high-profile Italian franchises. Livorno, a Serie A team, offered him a better deal, and Nicholas was on the move for the 2004-05 season.
Livorno was far from an upper echelon first-division Italian League team, but it offered Nicholas better competition and much more exposure. The coaching staff put the ball in Nicholas’ hands, and he responded by leading Serie A in scoring at 22.1 points per game. Another breakout season led Benetton Treviso to come calling, and once again, Nicholas was on the move.
“It was another step up – the best team in Italy and in the Euro League – the best 24 teams across Europe,” he said. “Again, I was kind of on that same path -- people saying the competition in the league was tough, I was too small and couldn’t have the success I’ve had. I just kind of played with a chip on my shoulder and ended up leading the Euro League in scoring. Trust me, I don’t know how I did it. But I did. It was just another big step. That year we also won the Italian League. That was a pretty nice accomplishment.”
After three seasons, three scoring titles and one Serie A championship, Nicholas had reached the pinnacle of Italian basketball. While Nicholas was undeniably happy with his success, another challenge loomed.
Istanbul is a city of more than 13 million people, making it by far Turkey’s largest city and the third-biggest metropolitan area in Europe behind London and Moscow. Coming from a series of charming Italian towns, Nicholas needed some time to get used to his new surroundings.
For two seasons in Turkey, Nicholas was a top performer for Efes Pilsen, averaging 17.3 points during the 2006-07 season and 12.7 points the following year. Nicholas’ success with EP, which raised his profile even more across Europe, led to his greatest pro opportunity.
In Panathinaikos, Nicholas was a star for one of Europe’s preeminent basketball franchises. His time in Athens couldn’t have gone much better.
“Greece was probably the best, probably where I felt the most at home,” said Nicholas, whose top contract paid $1.5 million. “I think a lot of that had to do with just the success we had as a team there. We won the Euro League championship, pretty much like winning the Final Four in college basketball. It was just a great, great experience.”
Nicholas, who teamed up with former Terp Sarunas Jasikevicius to help Panathinaikos win the 2009 championship, had cemented his status as one of Europe’s top players during his time in Greece. He was a three-time Greek All-Star with two Euro League rings. Even Nicholas, a confident yet realistic person by nature, was somewhat surprised by his European success.
“At the time, I was in such a different mindset,” Nicholas said. “I remember going out there and every night, just coming with a huge, huge chip on my shoulder. It’s kind of like all I’ve been through in my career. Everybody talked about how I couldn’t play at Maryland and I’d never be an ACC starter. Those kinds of things, they just stuck with me. Every time I got a chance to play, I felt like I had something to prove. I played angry. I just dedicated my life to see how talented I could be.”
The financial crisis in Greece led to pay cuts for Panathinaikos players, so Nicholas was on the move again after 2011. He landed in Milan with a team -- owned by Giorgio Armani – that “hasn’t won anything in the past 15 years.” Coming from Panathinaikos, where Nicholas was hoping to win the franchise’s first back-to-back titles, was a major difference.
“Just for whatever reason, it just didn’t fit,” Nicholas said. “Maybe I had just gotten so used to being with my team in Greece. Maybe the transition somewhere didn’t work.”
Whatever the case may be, Nicholas and Olimpia Milano proved to be a less-than-ideal fit. The shock of Nicholas’ departure to Euro League fans has finally seemed to die down, and while a couple Spanish teams would love to land Nicholas for their playoff run, the former Terp is content to focus on resting up and getting back in shape for the 2012-13 season.
Nicholas owns a condo in Fort Lauderdale and still travels back to New York frequently to visit his family. He keeps in touch with Steve Blake and played against Andre Collins in Italy. And while he doesn’t spend much of his time thinking about his college career, Nicholas credits his time at Maryland for preparing him for the pros.
No matter how much success Nicholas experiences overseas, this time of year always brings him back to Maryland's post-game scene in Atlanta 10 years ago.
“When I hear ‘One Shining Moment,’” Nicholas said, “it takes you back to 2002.”
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