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Back to the Big Apple

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, March 10, 2011

Almost two decades ago, Tyrone Nash crossed a busy Eighth Avenue in downtown New York, clenching his father’s hand. Dodging the traffic, Nash couldn’t have been happier. His eyes twinkled in front of the magnificent palace in front of him, for he was there to see his favorite player take on his favorite team in America’s sports citadel.

“My first [Knicks] game was seeing Michael Jordan kill us at the Garden,” said Nash, Irish senior forward and Queens native. “I was four years old and my dad took me. I’ll never forget it.”

That is where the dream began for Nash. He grew up in the shadow of the Garden with a fantasy that all New Yorkers share: to play there. But Nash got the chance early, as a young athlete with his local basketball team as a halftime filler.

“One time I got to play at halftime when I was in a youth league and that was the only time I thought I would play at the Garden,” he said. “But lo and behold I got the chance to be a part of the Big East and play there every year.”

The dream became reality multiple times throughout Nash’s Big East career. Years after watching his heroes hustle down the court, Nash will play once again on the very same floor they did, something he could only dream of while watching highlight films as a kid.

“Those past players motivate me,” Nash said. “I have a bunch of old Michael Jordan videos. I used to watch tapes of Dr. J, Grant Hill and all those guys over and over again. Then I would go and try to do what they did on my Fisher Price hoop with a rubber ball. That’s where my basketball career started.”

Nash has come a long way from the hoop on the back of his door, as the experienced senior is a key part of No. 4 Notre Dame’s run this season. With the Irish’s 70-67 win at Connecticut Saturday — where he had 13 points and five rebounds — Nash became the all-time winningest player in Notre Dame basketball history with 94 wins, passing the mark Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody set last season.

“It is a story that I can tell my grandchildren when I get older: That granddad is part of the winningest class in Notre Dame history,” Nash said. “I’m etched in history now, and it’s a great thing. If you would have told me that coming into my freshman year I would have never believed you. It is a testament to the great teams that I have been on. We just keep winning.”

The teams keep on winning, but Nash is a bigger part of the winning than he gives himself credit for. The senior is averaging 9.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, while leading the team in offensive rebounds with 76. He has scored in double-figures in five of the past six games, highlighted by his fourth double-double of the year with an 11-point, 11-rebound effort against then-No.19 Villanova on Senior Night.

Following Nash’s lead, the Irish are 21-1 when they outrebound their opponent and 15-1 when Nash scores in double figures. He has helped to build a plus-5.1 rebounding margin over opposing teams on the season. Nash has done this while also guarding colossal centers that outsize his 6-foot-8 frame.

“It is a different task every day,” the forward said. “Sometimes I have to guard the biggest guy on the court, but then again he has to guard me on the offensive end too. I just try to use my speed and quickness and make his life hell when he has the ball. It’s good that I can be versatile and guard the big men but then go out there and guard the guards. It’s definitely an asset to my game.”

After he rips away a rebound from his bigger opponent, the senior often brings the ball down the court himself to set up the offense, something that he picked up as a hybrid star in high school.

“I was like a guard-forward,” Nash said. “It was more of a comfortability thing. My old coach used to always trust me with the ball and I made good decisions. It just stuck. And [Irish] coach [Mike] Brey realized that it could help the team out a little bit. It brings out [the other team’s] big man and relieves some of the heat off the guards who face a lot pressure when they bring the ball up the court.”

At times, Nash even plays like a true point guard. His vision and passing abilities over his career have resulted in 82 assists in the past four seasons, including a seven-assist night at Providence Feb. 23. The forward, who has led the Irish in assists in eight games this season, credits the coaching staff for his development, and, moreover, for the essential confidence in his game necessary for a multi-tool player like himself.

“[Coach Brey] has helped me by just giving me a chance,” Nash said. “He instilled confidence in me and my game, which is something that I lacked in my freshman year and going into my sophomore year. He would just tell me, ‘You can do it. Go for it.’ Because of that, the confidence in my game went up and provided me with the opportunities that I have today.”

Those opportunities were not always there for the senior, who was also offered scholarships from Kentucky, St. John’s, Purdue and many others. Nash sat behind veteran forwards his freshman year, averaging less than four minutes per game. But he was never one to quit, starting offseason work immediately after his freshman season.

“Nothing in life is given to you and you have to learn everything,” Nash said. “I learned that early on in my freshman year. I made a real effort to go home and work hard on my game to show the coaches how I have improved so I could earn some minutes on the court and play in this league. After that I was able to start my first game that year. It just made it feel that much better that I worked so hard for it and I earned it.”

Since then the forward has been the most consistent force for the Irish. Along with fourth-year forward Tim Abromaitis and fellow senior Ben Hansbrough, Nash has started in every contest this year. On top of that, the senior has played in a team-high 80 consecutive games, dating back to February of his sophomore year. That type of consistency has developed the Irish into a top-five team; Nash, however, is not ready to celebrate this ranking, knowing that there are still three more teams ahead of his.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but I don’t want to be satisfied with that,” the veteran said. “I don’t want to get too comfortable with a ranking. It doesn’t mean anything when we get to the tournament. We still have a lot of work to do and goals to be fulfilled.”

Starting tonight, Nash can expand his records at the famed Garden, a place that holds a special meaning of home-court advantage to the senior.

“Playing at home in front of my home crowd is just an incredible feeling,” Nash said. “Hopefully we could come out of there with a win this time and a Big East championship in my hands. It would definitely be a great story.”

Reflecting on his career before practice in the Purcell Pavilion Monday afternoon, the senior’s wide grin — provoked by thoughts of New York — soon morphed into a meek smile. His eyes twinkled due to the magnificent palace in front of him.

“I’m going to miss this whole thing … All of it,” the senior said, ready to return to his home on 7th and West 31st one last time.