“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” - Chauncey Billups.
Picture this: A freshman starting point guard lacing up his sneakers and then racing out onto the hardwood, his pace accelerated by the thought that Mr. Big Shot was about to deliver another basketball lesson. Yes, Chauncey Billups, the former Colorado Buffalo and 2004 NBA Finals MVP, a man who made a living out of late-game heroics making every Laker fan’s eyes watery, was about to become a key mentor to a young Australian named Nate Tomlinson.
Maybe it was fortunate circumstances that a weaker Buffalo squad propelled Tomlinson into starting duties, or perhaps, Coach Jeff Bzdelik (head coach of The University of Colorado’s men’s basketball team from 2007-10) saw something intriguingly unique in Tomlinson. Either way, Mr. Big Shot was awaiting him at the top of the key with a basketball…
The Perth Arena has become a cauldron of pain for travelling teams. Two wins from 24 attempts. Yikes! The Miami Heat had better odds of stealing Game Six in last year’s Finals (down 5 with 28 seconds left….still ridiculous!) than any away team fending off the Wildcats in front of their raucous home crowd.
So, how did the Melbourne Tigers become just the third team this season to silence the men out West and the first to win on Perth’s home floor? Although the game finished with Mark Worthington’s buzzer beater and Chris Goulding’s very best ‘Mamba’ impersonation, it was Nate Tomlinson’s aggression in the first half that allowed the Tigers to control proceedings.
Tomlinson’s court vision, scoring, change of speed, and, above all else, a fiery will to compete, opened up lanes for his teammates and established greater looks for Goulding in transition. With 13 points and 4 assists in just a half of basketball, Coach Chris Anstey’s faith in his second year point guard proved to be well placed.
What is clear is that Nate Tomlinson thrives under the most intense pressure.
“Showing toughness doesn’t take any skill – anyone can play hard and tough,” said Tomlinson. “It’s having the will and want to compete. If you love playing the game of basketball then showing grit should be second nature. I don’t think what I do is anything special.”
Inflated egos and mounting losses can have a devastating effect on collegiate and professional level teams. Tomlinson’s Buffs faced that critical stretch where, following a string of mediocre performances, a season could either implode or be inspired. Sometimes a team just needs that one vocal and visible leader who can shock the team into positive action.
According to Mike Rohn, the assistant coach for The University of Colorado, Tomlinson seized a moment at the end of a film session to ram home some neglected truths.
“He reminded the team after a film session that we need to understand that we were not the most talented team in our league and that we needed to play the game smarter and do the little things to continue being successful,” revealed Coach Rohn.
Sure, Tomlinson’s honesty might have been infused with an occasional ‘F-Bomb’, but he definitely attracted his team’s attention and ultimately helped shape the Buffalo culture.
In 2012, The University of Colorado captured its first PAC 12 Championship.
The Tomlinson-Billups encounters in the gym were never about one glorified pro-athlete attempting to crush a budding point guard’s confidence. Instead, it was about Chauncey coming back to his old hunting ground each summer to share his own playing experiences with Colorado’s young crop of guards, and in particular, with Tomlinson.
“Chauncey was a role model for me,” said Tomlinson. “I learnt a lot off him. Since we were both point guards, he worked closely with me. He was great for me. Just the little intangible things he performed on the court I found very helpful.”
Coach Mike Rohn believes Billups also held Tomlinson in high regard.
“I know that Chauncey had a lot of respect for Nate,” said Coach Rohn. “I think he taught Nate a lot about respecting the game, and how pros approach the game.”
Tomlinson was the first Buff since Billups to lead the team in assists as a freshman (3.0 apg.) and sophomore (4.2 apg.). In fact, his influence at Colorado extended beyond the win-loss column.
“Nate was instrumental in helping us build a very respected program at The University of Colorado,” said Coach Rohn.
Sometimes statistical and stylistic comparisons can be drawn from the most unlikely of places.
Before snaring the Finals MVP trophy, Billups endured a decade-long journey that veered from college star to lottery pick bust to role player before finally arriving as Mr. Big Shot. He, perhaps more than most, understands adversity.
“I just admired him because he was so tough and everyone still talks about his toughness despite him being old as dirt,” laughed Tomlinson.
From learning under the tutorage of his father and noted coach, Bill Tomlinson, to playing as a Buff and now as a Tiger, Tomlinson is riding his own basketball odyssey.
Although Tomlinson’s fiercely competitive duels with Billups have ended, one distinct message from the greatest Buff ever still resonates deeply with him: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do” (this adage hangs in The University of Colorado’s locker-room).
“That message keeps you grounded and makes you work harder every day,” reveals Tomlinson.
Tomlinson will never tell you how tough he is. But he will show you.
Overcoming adversity is nothing new for Tomlinson. Dislocated shoulders, dodgy groins and changing roles… these types of setbacks are a way of life for professional basketball players.
But the 2012-13 NBL season was particularly difficult year for the Melbourne Tigers (12-16 record) and Tomlinson.
In his first year out of college and suiting up for his first professional team, Tomlinson faced unexpected challenges. Given an inferior role on the bench in his rookie season with the Tigers, he was like any other talented player who was used to running a team’s offense – he was bound to feel deflated and on the periphery of the inevitable cocaine-fuelled-kill-crazy-rampage (fine, I made up that last part).
Tomlinson, who is the NBL’s current assists leader, admits that playing sporadic bench minutes last season instead of starting was a “big adjustment” to make. The combination of niggling injuries, a reduced role and mounting losses proved to be deadly.
“I went away from the basics like putting in extra sessions on the court and in the weight room. I just didn’t work on my game enough, which was 100 percent my fault,” he admitted.
Like his mentor in college, Mr. Big Shot, his beginning as a pro wasn’t beautifully scripted.
Melbourne Tigers fans departing Hisense Arena were probably considering drinking from the Yarra River after watching Tomlinson seem hesitant and mistake-prone in his first season, a rookie season that produced averages of just 2.5 points and 2.6 assists per game.
Yet Tomlinson didn’t thump his chest and declare on Twitter that he was returning to the 2013-14 season with a vengeance, or even go clubbing with JR Smith in protest. Instead, he accepted fault like a true professional as he quietly went about making sure he gave himself every opportunity to succeed in future seasons.
“I promised myself that I won’t let my work ethic drop off again and no matter what happened this year I would come into training camp (this season) in great shape and ready to go”.
Tomlinson’s rhythm, poise and awareness on the court are back. And so are the Melbourne Tigers.
Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.
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