There is beauty and magic in sports to be sure…the last second hail Mary, the World Series after decades of losses, the epic Olympic gold medal win against an unbeatable foe. And, of course, there are the larger than life players with the 60 point nights, the flashy Sports Center highlights, and the million dollar tennis shoe deals. But there is a quieter magic and beauty in sports that happens every day in gyms and on fields, in small simple midwestern towns with every day players. They don’t scream sports mecca or super star, but they do represent why we love sports, it’s the stories of people like Nick Waddell, a story of a love of the game, of overcoming obstacles to achieve one’s dreams, and ultimately, it’s about winning—on the court and in life.
A 2017-2018 Grand Rapids Danger late season addition and currently playing his third professional season in Uruguay, Nick is living a dream, a dream of playing the game he loves and make a living doing it. A self-proclaimed, late bloomer, he didn’t pick up the game of basketball until his junior year of high school. He was asked to play for the Mean Street Express AAU team in his hometown of Chicago and was thrown to the wolves early, having to match up against players like Derrick Rose, Jrue Holiday, and Derrick Favors, to name a few. He took his lumps and some major losses, but instead of discouraging him, he used it for fuel. “I wasn’t happy just getting destroyed at that time, but it actually motivated me to become a better player; that’s when I started taking basketball serious.”
Waddell, like so many others, had another motivator. Mentor, Che Chappe gave him the foundation he would need to get where he wanted to go. “He introduced me to the 5:00, the 6:00 workouts in the morning, the running in the rain, things where I was like ‘what the heck,’ …I felt like it didn’t make any sense, like why are we running right now. He just instilled in me a lot of hard work, discipline.”
Waddell had a few different options after high school but ended up at Grand Valley University. After his senior season, Nick admits that he was a little selfish. “I had a lot of plans with basketball after college, I was going to play in the D league, so at that time, I was probably thinking about me more than anything; I was about self, what can you do for me?” He signed and played with the Lansing Capitals. He also had a couple offers from the Bakersfield Jam and Reno Bighorn, but as with all the great sports stories, adversity entered the scene.
In a summer pick-up game against a group of football players, Nick tore his ACL. “At that time, I was very lost, I didn’t know what to do. …I really felt like basketball was over.” Eventually, he decided if he couldn’t play, he’d do the next best thing and began coaching the freshman team at Kelloggsville High School. Not only did he teach the kids the game, but they taught him a little something, too. “It was humbling for me to get another chance, and the culture there, …the team chemistry and the motivation, working hard and doing the same thing every day and being patient, trusting the process and letting it work…” He began to apply that approach to his own game. “I cherish those moment.” And it was those players, with their heart and work ethic who encouraged and motivated him to get back into the game. “It’s crazy, like people say. It’s all about who you know more than what you know, and it was about my peers and my
friends, and the kids that I coached. If it wasn’t for them telling me I could do it and get back into shape and just keep playing, that I could have opportunities to go overseas, I wouldn’t be here today. It got me having high hopes… and it got me thinking about not giving up.”
Waddell not only had the hurdle of fully rehabilitating his knee but overcoming bad habits he had acquired while he recovered. “I had to stay off my leg for eight months or more. I wasn’t very disciplined.” He admits he was overweight and didn’t eat well. With a strong support group, self-discipline, and some good ole’ Shaun T, Nick was able to get back in shape and play better than ever. He played a season with the Lake Michigan Admirals and averaged 12 rebounds a game and then signed with Grand Rapids Fusion. After that he headed to Europe and played in a London summer league and then started his long stint with South American teams like La Union Formosa before coming home to Michigan.
In the small basketball world of Grand Rapids, Waddell learned through the grapevine that some of the best competition in the area was with the North American Basketball League’s Grand Rapids Danger. Owner Allen Durham, “was giving people like me opportunities to stay in shape, stay with the game, get some film, connections overseas, he’s going well with that. I had a conversation with him and let him know that I wanted to play. It wasn’t just about me, it was about wanting to get myself out there and just try to win and try to get a championship.” Nick came to the Danger in the last 3-4 games, so “I just really wanted to come in and not try to break up the team chemistry just hoped they accepted me for who I am, and they did.” With Nick’s help, the Danger were in the hunt to win the league but fell short to the Dallas Stangs in the NABL championship.
After the Danger season, Waddell was once again sought after by teams in South America. He will play a 40 game season in Uruguay. “These teams down in South America, they like how I play.” Humbly he shared, “I seriously don’t know why I get the opportunities I do. I’m not a flashy player, I can admit that. I am the player that will try and get it done, I can score in multiple ways. They like that I bring a positivity to the team on and off the court because I try to just bring the team together. It’s all about motivation.”
Waddell’s story should inspire a number of players, young and old, and especially those players who aren’t necessarily blessed with Jordanesque athleticism. He advices them to work on the other aspects of the game. “It’s sometimes not all about skill...” He added, “I’m a grounded player, more IQ, a dirty work player… I think two plays ahead, that’s’ the type of player I am… I wish I was jumping out the gym like Trent (Hobson) and Arsenio (Arrington), like I wish I was, if I had their athleticism, I’d be in the NBA. I mean you can’t everything.”
For Waddell, it isn’t just about playing the game anymore; it’s about influence and paying it forward. Waddell hopes to use that influence when he returns to Grand Rapids and hopefully play another season for the Danger in 2019. He wants to help them to not only win a NABL championship, but to be a positive mentor to up and coming players. “That’s why I play with the Danger as well, so I can motivate, keep it going. Doesn’t matter if you play at this level right now, you could be going overseas, but you have to keep working. It’s not just me, ya know, it’s
all of us, so you know I think a lot of players they see that, and they know it is a passion of mine to show that we are all out there as one… …I want to see us bring a championship to Grand Rapids.”
There isn’t an ending for Nick’s story just yet. And it may not end in a huge arena with a million dollar endorsement and screaming fans, but there is still time. And regardless of whether he gets his one E60 episode, he is making a difference using basketball as his platform. “I want to be around the sport until I die, … I want to motivate, just show them (youth, teammates, and players) that… I came from the lowest of the low. It’s a motivational story. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me because look at all the great things that came out of it, and that’s what I want to install in kids. It’s not about what you are in right now; just accept wherever you are for whatever it is and better it.”
Author Jill Yarberry-Laybourn
Assistant Coach/ Staff Writer