Feb. 20, 2003
By Chip Rogers
Standard learning in the fourth grade in California includes concepts of decimals, writing responses to literature, and principles of magnetism. For Virginia center and California native Nick Vander Laan, it also included the importance of defending one’s home court. After his grandmother gave him a basketball hoop for his driveway, Vander Laan knew he had to defend it vigorously. No matter all of the journeys he took, coming home–to self, or basketball–was an important part of the trip. Soon after that gift of the hoop, Vander Laan embarked on a journey of basketball that has brought him in contact with hundreds of people from all different walks of life.
“The people I have met and the experiences I have had with them are my biggest benefits from basketball,” said Vander Laan. “I learn a great deal from the people with whom I form a relationship, and in doing so I learn a lot about myself and also my relationship with God, which is very important to me.”
Vander Laan’s journeys with basketball started with a leap over a fence by his house to a large blacktop where he had plenty of space to play and train. “The blacktop had fog lights, so I would stay out there until 10, 10:30 at night,” recalled Vander Laan. “My mother would blow a whistle, and I’d know it was time to jump back over the fence and head on home.”
It was on this blacktop that Vander Laan taught himself the importance of hustle and where he developed his finely tuned work ethic. “The court was covered with lines of all kinds,” said Vander Laan. “If I missed a shot, I would work to beat the ball to one of the lines.” Driven from within, Vander Laan worked on his shot, and when it didn’t fall, developed grit and determination to atone for the miscue.
After a couple years of working on his own on the blacktop and in his driveway, Vander Laan joined organized basketball where he worked his way into an AAU program. It was here that he came in contact with David Benezra, his coach in one of the programs. Vander Laan still considers Benezra one of his mentors. “I’ve been fortunate to meet him and have kept up a relationship with him. I train with him and live with his family in Los Angeles from time to time,” said Vander Laan.
After going to boarding school at St. Thomas More Academy in Connecticut, Vander Laan’s basketball and personal journeys continued to a stint at California-Berkeley where he earned a scholarship to play for the Bears, which he did for two seasons. While at Berkeley, Vander Laan started both seasons and helped the Bears advance to the NIT.
During his time at Berkeley, his journeys continued to put him in contact with many people who have influenced him along the way. These contacts helped him figure out his next stop, which was at the University of Virginia. During his first year in Charlottesville during which he practiced with the team but was not allowed to play in games due to NCAA transfer rules, Vander Laan forged solid relationships with his professors. Vander Laan is quick to credit his professors at Virginia with being very supportive and helpful as he has adjusted to life as a Cavalier.
In turn, others have noticed Vander Laan’s commitment to the team and personal development and are just as quick to credit him for his work ethic. In particular, Virginia head coach Pete Gillen has taken quick notice of Vander Laan’s hustle, saying “he has a lot of talent, but his work ethic is tremendous.”
For his part, the 6-10 center notes that while his role on the team is subject to change depending on the game, at the very base of his contribution is his giving a maximum effort on the floor and keeping up the energy level for his teammates. “I have been breaking out of my shell on the team,” notes Vander Laan, “and I feel more comfortable. I know as long as I find the way to contribute, I’m doing my part for the team.”
Vander Laan demonstrated his ability to play multiple roles on the team in a string of three games at the end of the 2002 semester, starting with the win over Gardner-Webb, in which he averaged 10 points and nine rebounds over the course of the nine days.
Against Gardner-Webb, the Runnin’ Bulldogs had pulled within three at 49-46 with 9:55 to play. The 6-foot-10 Vander Laan had four of his 17 points and an offensive board in the 7-0 run over a three-minute spurt to push the Cavaliers back out to a double-digit lead.
Two nights later on the road at Rutgers, Vander Laan again led the Cavaliers on the boards, pulling down 11 rebounds as Virginia secured a crucial road victory with the 61-57 victory over the Scarlet Knights. Six of Vander Laan’s rebounds were on the offensive end, and he also pulled down six in the second half to help keep a surging Rutgers at bay.
A week later, after the Christmas break, Vander Laan continued his rebounding prowess with a team-high eight boards against Georgetown. With the Cavaliers down by four at 21-17 with 9:00 to play in the first half, Vander Laan had three points and three rebounds in a 12-2 run over a five-minute span to give Virginia a six-point lead that they held at the halftime break.
“My goal for us is to win a national championship,” said Vander Laan. “I’m going to help us get there by leaving everything out on the floor when I play. My role is to give a 100% effort in every game.”
Vander Laan has demonstrated that determination in the first part of the Cavaliers’ season, starting nine of the Cavaliers’ 17 games. He has also averaged five boards per game through the first 17 contests, which ranks second on the squad.
In all of his journeys, though, Vander Laan has not forgotten some of his early lessons, including the importance of hustle and home court. Through Virginia’s first eight games at home this season, the team sports a healthy 8-0 record in University Hall. It seems as if Vander Laan is still doing a pretty good job of defending the home court, and the Cavalier faithful hope he can continue that childhood magic.