Every Gym Rat's Had His Brush With a Star

Mine just happened to be “The Border Collie.”

Every amateur basketball player has a kind of Bucket List of pros and near-pros they've played with. Call it the Basket List. Most of the notable guys I've played with or against—Smush Parker, Omar Cook, Jay Williams—are from my teenage years. Since I hit 18, however, it's been a drag: a couple of no-name Mickey D's All-Americans who left Louisville and transferred to an NAIA school, Hoop Dreams protagonist Arthur Agee, and Tony Parker's little brother seemed like proof that as the inches ticked off my vertical leap, the players on my list only got worse. Enter Nick Collison (aka "The Border Collie"). It was the summer of 2005, a few months after the Sonics' respectable losing effort against the eventual champion Spurs in the Western semis. I was home in New York, playing in a humdrum weeknight pickup game in Greenwich Village frequented by music-industry guys who seemed too old to be spinning at underground clubs and designing album art for DMX. We were used to brushes with fame, like when one of the Beastie Boys suited up, but nothing could have prepared us for what we saw that night in a stuffy, elementary-school bandbox with a floor too small for anything more than four-on-four: a real NBA player. Apparently, the Sonics big man was friends with a former regular of the game who moved to Seattle. Collison asked him to recommend an N.Y.C. pickup game, and the guy, perhaps as a practical joke, suggested he visit our game. The Border Collie's rugged emphasis on defense and rebounding wouldn't have blown the roof off at the Rucker, but to say our game was beneath him would be an understatement of epic proportions. Like the humble son of Iowa that he is, Collison explained that he didn't care about the competition as long as the ball was round and the rims 10 feet high. As the only player on the court with any college basketball experience, and the only one within five years of Collison's age, not only did I get to share the court with the former NCAA All-American, I got to guard him. Graciously, the 6-foot-9 Collison deemed it unnecessary to post me up, since I'm seven inches shorter, and spent the night putting up 19-footers while I played tenacious, hounding defense on his armpits. I was proud when the contests were close enough that the Border Collie got frustrated and started routing me on the offensive boards for easy put-backs. My team even stole a game when I got hot and hit a bunch of jump shots, which Collison was either too proud or (likelier) too kind to guard. In one night, Collison restored my Basket List to semi-legitimacy and gave my passion for the game a welcome jolt. My only hope is that next time he brings Danny Fortson along.

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