Van Nest looks for another shot, at BC
NEWTON — Andrew Van Nest finally gets to the front of the line at the Dunkin’ Donuts near the Boston College campus on Commonwealth Avenue and the cashier doesn’t see his face.
Instead, he looks straight forward and sees the bottom of Van Nest’s black Polo shirt. Then he looks up. Way up.
“Man,” the young cashier says. “You make me feel small.”
Van Nest smiles, nods, politely orders his sausage, egg and cheese sandwich with a large iced coffee and takes a seat at a small table outside.
He hunches over and grips his sandwich with a pair of hands big enough to look like he’s wearing oven-mitts. Sitting straight up, back against the chair, his knees can hardly fit underneath the table.
At 6-foot-11, 245 pounds, this is a big man.
And the way he talks about his basketball career — how he was stamped with the NBA-prospect tag during his teenage years at Weston High School and Northfield Mount Hermon before suffering a string of injuries at Harvard, never getting a chance to prove himself — it’s obvious that something is missing.
Van Nest doesn’t define himself as a basketball player. He says he never needed to succeed in the sport, that he considers himself just a nice guy who happens to be pretty good at it. But the part of him that doesn’t like to fail is starting to reveal itself.
He said he gave up a job with Credit Suisse in Los Angeles, a job with the NBA in New York where he would assist with production of the All-Star game and even an opportunity to play basketball professionally somewhere in Europe.
All so that he could return to Boston College for one more year of eligibility (he missed his entire freshman season at Harvard with a torn rotator cuff) and prove, if only to himself, that he’s a top-class basketball player.
“I feel like this is my time,” he says, taking a gulp of his iced coffee in an interview Sunday. “All of this, all the hardships, has led up to this moment.”
Flash back to last summer, after his junior season at Harvard (when he started in just two games), when he and Harvard coach Tommy Amaker had a conversation about his future.
“Look, I don’t see you playing at all next year unless there’s some drastic change,” Amaker said, according to Van Nest.
But he wasn’t going to walk away from his teammates or cause any drama.
So while Van Nest’s roommate, Ivy League MVP Keith Wright, was looking for additional coaching, Van Nest asked if he could tag along.
They went to visit Wayne and Keith Alpert, who run a clinic at Waverly Oaks Athletic Club in Waltham. “Two short, bald Jewish brothers,” as Van Nest describes them, “who also happen to be incredibly brilliant.”
The Alperts are known for taking players on the cusp of the NBA and giving them that extra boost.
Van Nest didn’t fit the bill, but he was invited for a workout.
The guest list: Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure grad, drafted No. 19 by the Orlando Magic last week), Justin Harper (Richmond, drafted No. 32 by the Magic in 2011), Lavoy Allen (Temple, drafted No. 50 by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011), Jarrell Williams (La Salle), Michael Eric (Temple), and Courtney Sims (Michigan, playing for Memphis Grizzlies this summer).
“It was like a tryout to work out,” Van Nest said. “So we played three-on-three, full court. Second play, someone shot the ball and missed. I got the ball and bust out down the sidelines, got by one dude and dunked on Courtney Sims. I just jammed on him. Real bad. So after that they were like, ‘OK, you can come work out with us.’
“Those guys after that tryout came up to me and were like, ‘Who are you and where do you play?’ I was like, ‘Technically I don’t even play, so I don’t really know how to answer your question.’
“But for that entire summer, I gave Andrew Nicholson the business. He could do some stuff, but I could guard him and he struggled to guard me. It was unbelievable. Here I am going up against guys that would wreck the Ivy League, and I’m wrecking them. So I’m thinking in my head, ‘This is huge. This is big for me. This is what I needed.’ ”
But back in Cambridge that fall, there was still no room for the big forward, who appeared in just one game all season.
Amaker said it was difficult to gauge what Van Nest was capable of while at Harvard because of his inability to stay healthy over a long period of time. Van Nest said he couldn’t blame the coach, and the two had a great relationship.
But after it was all over with, he was ready to call it quits.
Together, Wright and John Carroll, Van Nest’s coach at NMH, wouldn’t let him.
“I think if it was a situation where he wasn’t injured, and it was due to his poor performance, that’d be one thing,” Carroll said. “But I think a lot of people were really interested in what the possibilities could be.”
Van Nest was offered a scholarship to get his master’s degree and play basketball at Boston College. He’s already impressed.
“He has a stroke,” said BC sophomore center Dennis Clifford. “He can shoot it from anywhere. I really think he can contribute. Coach [Steve Donahue] gives everyone a shot to play. If he trusts you, no matter who you are, you’ll see the court.”
Now 23 years old, Van Nest says his body is in perfect shape. His shot is fluid. He’s happy. And he’s confident.
“I’m really big on confidence being a really important of the game of basketball,” said Wright, who will play summer ball with the Dallas Mavericks. “I honestly think the game itself is 85 percent confidence. If you’re confident, everything else will be easier. And he’s really confident.”
Maybe Van Nest doesn’t see a single minute of action at BC and goes on to work in finance or psychology. Or maybe he collects five rebounds and five points per game — an average that, in the Atlantic Coast Conference, could still fetch a nice salary in European professional leagues.
Van Nest doesn’t seem to care too much about that. At the bottom of this, he just wants to know that he gave it his best shot.
And sometimes, the rim can be friendly.
Said Amaker: “If anyone deserves it, it’s Andrew.”