May 6, 2014
By Chad Shepard
Recently departed University of Michigan men's basketball guard Nik Stauskas has come a long way from launching shot after shot, day after day in his snowy driveway in Canada. He's earned conference and national awards of all kinds, and was honored with an acknowledgement of a different variety when he was asked to throw out the first pitch Monday (May 5) at Comerica Park before a Detroit Tigers win.
Stauskas arrived early to take in batting practice and to meet a few players.
"I'm just having a good time soaking up the experience," he said.
Sizable crowds queued up around the netting behind home plate, hoping for a picture or autograph from the former Wolverine. Stauskas obliged many of them, donning a custom-made Tigers jersey with his name on the back and his No. 11 stitched in navy. Though largely uninitiated to the world of baseball and unfamiliar with its customs, he looked calm and collected as usual, a natural fit around athletes and fans of any kind.
Every sport has its own culture, complete with unique terminology and unspoken codes understood only by those engrossed within it, but Stauskas showed no signs of a learning curve as he met and spoke with Detroit stars Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Joe Nathan and others.
He is a social chameleon, always capable of making the slightest of adjustments to better travel a sea of changes that he has already been navigating masterfully in pursuit of his dream of playing in the NBA.
The willingness to embrace change is not something new for Stauskas. As a high school senior, he moved to Southborough, Mass., to play ball at St. Mark's School Prep School, more than 500 miles from his home in Mississauga, Ontario.
The move to Massachusetts paid off, and led to another -- this time from the East Coast to Ann Arbor, to become a Wolverine, where he blossomed into the player that experts are certain will be snatched up by an NBA team in the first round of next month's draft.
He found a comfort zone here, surrounded by teammates and coaches to both push him and keep him grounded.
"Coach John Beilein just let me be who I am," Stauskas explained, "Sometimes I like to be able to flash a little bit on the court or celebrate. He kind of let me be free with that and just let me be who I am."
Though his path to the NBA has been unlikely at times, the train has never derailed, and it only picked up speed in Ann Arbor.
"I never thought it was unrealistic," said Stauskas of his dreams of playing in the pros. "From the moment I picked up a basketball I always told myself I was going to be an NBA player."
Stauskas fit right in at Michigan, and he knows that the confidence and swagger that helped him establish himself in the Big Ten will be a necessary component to NBA success.
"From talking to guys who are in the league, one of the biggest things I've heard is you have to feel like you belong," said Stauskas. "You're playing against guys who are playing for their job and providing for their family, so it's important to be confident."At the same time, I realize I always have more to work on. I have to have that same kind of drive and motivation I've had my entire career."
Although he is no stranger to change, the experience does not necessarily grow easier for the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year.
"It's an adjustment I've had to make a few times now, but every time it brings nervousness and excitement," said Stauskas. "I'm sure I'll continue to have success as long as I have the same motivation and work ethic that's gotten me to this point."
It isn't just his game that's gotten him this far, though. Stauskas was first vaulted into the recruiting world thanks in part to his YouTube videos, a story well-traveled along the media circuit that covered him during this season, and the year before.
To some, it may seem as if Stauskas as simply marketing himself -- and that is certainly one factor in the equation; what they may not realize is that this is who the real Nik Stauskas is.
"It's just my personality I guess," he said. "I'm not afraid of talking to people and showing them who I am off the court."
He had that opportunity again on Monday, and was true to himself as always, confident and capable. Despite never playing organized baseball in his life, the only warmup Stauskas employed was a short throwing session in the batting cages behind the third base dugout.
"Eight pitches ... that was all I needed," he told curious reporters. "I'm good to go."
The air of confidence that surrounds Stauskas is a big part of his game, and should be nothing new to fans of college basketball. Still, they playfully teased him. "The lights, the crowd, that doesn't affect you at all?" asked one.
"When the lights are on and the fans are loud, that's when I come on," he said.
Stauskas' answer made the questions seem rhetorical in hindsight. After all, U-M basketball fans have grown used to watching him handle the pressure of the big stage with ease.
From a perfect six-for-six performance beyond the arc against Florida in the 2013 Elite Eight that launched the Wolverines to the Final Four, to a step-back game-winning three-ball to ice Wisconsin in Madison this past season, Stauskas has shown time and time again that as the spotlight burns brighter, so too does the Canadian sharpshooter.
That competitive fire is fueled by a lot more than the wood of whichever court he is lighting up. It burns deep in Stauskas, and provides a glimpse of his unique mental makeup, forged through years of chasing a dream that will finally be realized in a few weeks' time. Whether he's playing basketball or throwing out first pitches, Stauskas wants to win.
"I'm going to be better than J-Mo (Jordan Morgan), just watch," he said of his former teammate, who was given the same honor by the Tigers organization just few weeks ago. "I'm going for the heat."
Shouts of "We love you Stauskas!" and "Go Blue!" ushered him onto the diamond as he stepped out from the underground confines of Comerica Park's clubhouse, pausing only to sign a few more autographs for eager but patient young fans.
When he finally trotted out to the mound, Stauskas delivered on his promise, firing an effortless strike down the heart of the plate, just like he said he would, and the swell of U-M fans in attendance roared.
There will be plenty more pictures to take and posters to sign for Stauskas, who is now back in Chicago to continue working out for the draft. He'll have long years to spend getting to know a new city and a new fan base, giving everything he can to them, the same as he did for Michigan.
It's been a long road to this point.
"You have your doubts through the whole experience but from day one this has always been part of the plan, I guess," said Stauskas.
When his name is finally called in June, it will be another milestone achieved, another dream realized, and another promise kept -- this time, a promise to himself.