BY BILL SORRELL
There was a time when Austin Nichols was stopped in his tracks.
“I filled my gas tank up with the wrong type. I am pretty sure it was diesel gas and it really messed my car up. It’s funny now looking back at it, but at the time it really wasn’t,” said Nichols.
A center for the Memphis Hustle, the Memphis Grizzlies’ developmental team in the G-League, Nichols has had his share of goofs.
“People who don’t know me,” he said, “I don’t think they would expect me to be so goofy. I am laid back, like a big kid, just goofy.”
When he was at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, he spilled coffee on his button-down collared dress shirt that was required for Wednesday chapels.
“I didn’t have an extra shirt so I had to wear that for the remainder of the day,” he recalled. “It was a little bit embarrassing.”
He took it in stride as he has other experiences.
After transferring from the University of Memphis to the University of Virginia, he changed his major from business to drama.
“I like improv, no script, just kind of be yourself,” said Nichols, whose teammates enjoy his humor.
Hustle guard Dusty Hannahs said, “He is really funny and goofy. We are always joking and laughing. He is kind of a prankster.”
It was a serious time in Nichols’ life when he decided to transfer from his hometown university to Virginia. He had a lot of questions but few answers.
“I really had tested my faith there, exactly what I want to do and what my goals were,” he said.
At Memphis, Nichols played in each of the Tigers’ 34 games as a freshman and was named the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year. A power forward, he averaged 4.3 rebounds, 9.3 points for the 2013-14 season.
As a sophomore he played in 27 games despite an ankle injury and improved his scoring to team-high 13.3 points per game and 6.1 rebounds., second on the team. His 3.4 blocked shots ranked third in the nation.
He was first-team All-AAC for 2014-15, the first Memphis player to make first team since the league was organized.
He sat out the 2015-16 season because of transfer rules. He went undrafted in the NBA Draft in 2017.
“In sports there are a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “When I am going through a rough patch or a couple of downs, I look up scripture to read to remind myself at the end of the game it is just a game. You are to supposed to have fun and to also learn from your circumstances.
“In the world there are a lot of negatives,” he added. “If you consume yourself with the negativity it is easy to fall into that. I think for myself and the community, we learn to stay strong it will be better for every one. We are human. We all make mistakes and it is not what you do, it is how you bounce back from it and use the mistakes that you have in life to learn from the situation.”
His faith, which was nurtured by his parents Mark and Kim Nichols, has sustained him from preps to pros.
As a senior at Briarcrest Christian School, Nichols averaged 22.7 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocked shots and was recruited by Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Duke, Virginia, as well as Memphis. He attended the University of Memphis for two years before transferring to the University of Virginia. He is now a member of the Memphis Hustle.
“Everything is for a reason,” Austin said. “Sometimes people don’t understand what they are going through, why certain things are and why the consequences.”
While basketball is part of God’s purpose for him, Nichols has goals that are not hardwood related.
“Basketball has something to do with it but I am still working on that,” he acknowledged. “Being a better human being altogether, like understanding life and not just waking up everyday and doing the same thing.”
One of the first Bible verses Nichols memorized was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Nichols, who has a twin sister Ashley Nichols and an older sister Natalie Nichols, became a Christian when he was child and attended church every Sunday.
At Briarcrest he was in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, went to Bible studies, learned while being in Bible classes and chapel.
“Briarcrest helped my walk with Christ tremendously,” said Nichols.
Briarcrest Head Coach John Harrington continues to be a spiritual mentor, along with Nichols’ parents, who are also role models.
From his late grandmother, Ola Mae Parker, he received a gift that is among his most treasured. She gave him a cross.
“I put it on my desk and whenever I am going through a tough time, I revert back to that,” he said. “I’ll pray. That is one of the most important things I have received.”
Nichols surrounds himself with a friend group that provides accountability.
Hannahs called Nichols a “high character person.”
“He is really strong in his faith,” he noted. “You can tell by the way he plays he trusts God’s plan for him.”
Hustle Head Coach Glynn Cyprien, an assistant coach at the University of Memphis from 2009-11, has known Nichols since he was a college freshman.
“He is a big faith guy and he believes and stands for all the right things,” Cyprien said. “As a coach, as a man and as a mentor, I am awfully proud of him.”
Cyprien has had his own faith challenged. He was involved in the most tragic day in the athletic history of Oklahoma State University.
On Jan. 27, 2001, a Beechcraft Super King Air 200 carrying two OSU basketball players, six OSU broadcasters and coaching staff, crashed in a field 40 miles east of Denver.
The plane was flying to Stillwater after a game in Boulder with Colorado. It was one of four chartered planes. The pilot became disoriented in a snow storm. All 10 on board died in the crash, including the pilot and crew member.
Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena has a memorial “Remember The Ten.”
Cyprien was an OSU assistant coach from 2000-04.
“It was a difficult day but faith got me through it,” he said. “Ten people died. We are talking about faith. That is what we talk about, faith. God put me here. God kept me here for a reason to coach and be a good mentor to these young men.”
With the Hustle the youngest team in the G-Leauge, Cyprien has seen the development of Nichols, 23, as a basketball player.
“He is so skilled. He knows how to play. He has a good basketball IQ. He has a great feel for the game,” he said. “Hopefully one day we will see him in the NBA because he has those skills.”
Hannahs, who played at the University of Arkansas in 2015-16 and 2016-17 after transferring from Texas Tech where he played 2012-13 and 2013-14, shares a desire with Nichols to be promoted to the Grizzlies.
“We both want to be in the NBA,” said Hannahs. “We share that goal.”
On court they share the ball.
“He is someone I feel like is looking for me when I am on the court and vice versa,” said Hannahs.
Nichols said, “I think people don’t understand or see how much of a team sport it is when you are all coming together as one for the same goal. You have to have teamwork. That is really important. When I am not in the game I like to be cheering loud and support my teammates.”
Nichols (6-9, 232) uses his length offensively and defensively to run and spread the floor. Blocking shots (1.90 per game), sinking three pointers (40 percent) are among the positives he brings to the Hustle.
He averaged 10.68 points, 5.97 rebounds through 31 games this season.
“Just his energy on the court, his winning attitude. He plays hard and scores. He is really versatile for a big man,” said Hannahs.
Fort Wayne Mad Ants center Jarrod Uthoff said of Nichols, “He is a big guy who brings energy.
A key to Nichols’ success has been staying even keel, not getting too high or too low.
“I think playing for the Hustle and being in the Grizzlies organization with the coaches and the coaching staff and the resources they have, it’s given my game a positive outlook. I have extended my range. It has taken me listening to coaches and doing what I need to do,” he said.
At Briarcrest, he was one of the most accomplished players in Tennessee.
He was named the state Gatorade Boys Player of the Year in 2013 and a PARADE first-team All-American.
As a senior where he played small forward, he averaged 22.7 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.6 blocked shots and was recruited by Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Duke, Virginia, as well as Memphis.
He was Mr. Basketball in Division 2-AA in 2012 and 2013.
Although the Saints lost state championship games to Nashville Ensworth in 2012 and 2013, Austin called the experience “incredible.”
He called playing in college “a great experience.”
A turning point came when he encountered different basketball levels, including going from middle school to high school.
“There is a different competitive level on each level, from high school to college,” he noted. “Staying grounded and staying rooted, knowing where I came from and who I am, is really the turning point at all levels.”
While he has no pre-game ritual, he focuses on what is at hand.
“I know a lot of guys who listen to music or do whatever. I just show up on time and then get my mind prepared and do a little mindfulness breathing to focus my thoughts and the game plan,” he said.
Nichols, who likes to fish and “be a regular guy” outside of basketball, looks at the sport as a “great way” to financially support his family.
“That keeps pushing me and that is really my inspiration,” he said.
Off the court, he found inspiration on a mission trip to Chicago when he was an eighth grader at Briarcrest.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he recalled. “It was a great experience I will never forget.”
He worked in a soup kitchen providing meals for homeless.
“They didn’t have anything,” he said. “They barely had shoes. We took time out of our week to help out. More of the community needs to get involved in it. To see the smiles on their faces made my heart happy.”
The Memphis Hustle will play the Reno Bighorns at noon this Saturday at the Landers Center before taking a road trip. They will be back in town for another noon game on March 10 against the Santa Cruz Warriors.