From Toddler to Baller

(Western Oregon University Athletics) Julian Nichols, 23, dribbles down the court in a game while playing for Western Oregon University.

(Western Oregon University Athletics) Julian Nichols, 23, dribbles down the court in a game while playing for Western Oregon University.

“Swish.”

“Bounce, Bounce…Swish.”

The sun is down and the street lights are on. The playground is deserted and all the other kids have gone on home, but you could still find young Julian Nichols playing basketball at his neighborhood park.

Nichols was just two-years-old when he picked up his first basketball and started playing. He loved it so much that he would never put it down. The little toddler would lug the big orange ball, half his size, everywhere he went. In eighth grade, it became more than a game, and today it’s the love of his life.

Like any other relationship, his love affair with basketball has had its ups and downs, facing trials and adversities that at times caused him to question his desire to still play. But for Nichols, basketball has always been more than a game. He sees basketball as not only a sport, but as a platform, and has been inspired by his struggle and the support he has received from his loved ones.

Julian said he aims to be an inspirational voice, proving that you can do anything you set your mind to.

“It’s way bigger than me,” said Nichols.

His passion and tenacity for the game have allowed him to constantly make pivotal changes in his career that have given him wonderful opportunities. Although at one point he contemplated letting go of his dreams, Nichols is now being looked at by D-League basketball teams.

Nichols is an example of what can happen when you get back up after being knocked down.  His story is one of a boy who has started from the bottom, and a man who is making his way to the top.

Upon graduating from Upland High School, Nichols had no offers and had been attending clinics from different schools with hopes that he’d catch the attention of a school with a great team.  He attended a clinic he was invited to at Santa Clara University where the coach had already told Nichols he wanted him for his team. However, before he left the gym, he was brought to the side and informed that they had decided to go with someone else. It was hard news to take, but it didn’t stop his grind.

After deciding to attend Irvine Valley College after high school, Nichols continued to work until he landed a spot on the Lasers’ roster. Nichols had been expecting to play about 20 minutes a game, so the ambitious athlete went into his first college basketball season ready to showcase his talent.

As the season flew by and games passed, he found himself on the bench a lot more than expected. He was losing not only time to be seen by university coaches, but also losing time to do the one thing he loved.

“It was the hardest thing, I went from high school playing to not playing,” said Nichols. “I was playing on average less than ten minutes a game and some games I wouldn’t even touch the floor.”

When his sophomore year came around, he left Irvine Valley to play for the California State University, Dominguez Hills. Once again, he had gone into the year both eager and optimistic, but that optimism would soon be faced with heartbreak. He was cut from the team and forced to sit out after the school semester had already begun.

NCAA Division II eligibility allows each athlete what they call a “five-year-clock,” which begins the first time a student enrolls in 12 units at their university. Nichols had been enrolled in the minimum 12 units when he was cut from the roster which meant he lost a year of eligibility to play.

For a moment, he almost walked away from it all.

“I got to the point where I didn’t want to play,” said Nichols. “I felt cheated, but I took it as a learning experience.”

Instead of letting hard times get him down, he turned to God and stepped up his game. He happened to find an open gym near his house that he would find himself at almost every morning for the next year.

After Dominguez Hills, Nichols spent a year playing for Chaffey College, where he was joined by his high school teammate and best friend John Gilliam. It was there that Nichols experienced what he would call his “rebirth.” He and John helped their team to a 28-6 season, good enough for second place in their conference and an appearance in the Final Four.

He said without God, none of this would be possible.

“Everything I was asking for, God, he was giving me resources,” Nichols said.

Then, Nichols was given his first big opportunity. Benjamin Kaufman, an assistant coach at Western Oregon University in charge of recruiting, decided that Nichols’ talent was worth giving him a shot. Nichols made sure he didn’t disappoint.

In just his first year, he helped turn around the entire WOU basketball program. During his first season, the Wolves won the regular season title, and for the first time ever in school history, they made it to the NCAA tournament.

That year, Nichols was selected to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference First Team All- Conference and was recognized as one of the top five point guards in Division-II basketball. Through it all, he grew not only as an athlete but as a person, and by his senior year he racked up a long list of achievements and awards, as well as an impressive stat record.

In 2015, he was also named the GNAC Newcomer of the Year. The following year, he was selected for Second Team All- Conference as the Wolves won back-to-back regular season titles. WOU had also gone to the Elite Eight, Final Four, and won their conference tournament for the first time ever.

Over the course of his two years at WOU, Nichols had an average of 12.7 points, 300 total rebounds, and 347 total assists.

Now, as a former college athlete with a sociology degree and no agent, he has caught the eye of a few D- League teams. He’s proving to those who grew up in similar neighborhoods that they could do anything, and that despite the trials and adversities you face, hard work and determination will always be the reason you come out on top.