Feb. 7, 2006
By Mark Emmons
San Jose Mercury News
He was mercilessly booed by 20,000 people every time he touched the ball in Chapel Hill, N.C. Heckled in Starkville, Miss. Jeered at Loyola Marymount and in other West Coast Conference arenas.
``I'm always the most hated player on the road,'' Santa Clara senior Travis Niesen said.
Such is your fate in basketball life when you are an overachieving, undersized forward whose fiery style is predicated on a willingness to trade elbows. Niesen, who is a floor burn waiting to happen, believes the shortest distance between two points is a straight line -- even if it's through an opponent.
For that, and the fact that he's one of the WCC's top players, Niesen has earned the wrath of student sections everywhere. He has been taunted with chants of ``Pretty Boy Niesen,'' ``Dawson's Creek'' (for his resemblance to actor James Van Der Beek) and other phrases that won't be appearing in your newspaper.
But the worst verbal abuse might come tonight when the Broncos play fifth-ranked Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash. He is expected to return to action after missing Monday's loss to San Diego because of a back injury suffered when he slammed into a water cart diving after a loose ball against Pepperdine on Jan. 23.
``I've gotten e-mail from up there that's unbelievable,'' he said of rabid Zags fans. ``They think that they know me and have decided that I'm this horrible person.''
A person, by the way, who is intent on pursuing a career in law enforcement and who off the court fits the stereotype of the easygoing, surf-loving Southern Californian. But when the game starts, Niesen plays with a fierce competitiveness -- even as he has learned to cut back on the emotional eruptions as he leads a young, injury-marred Broncos squad.
``Let me explain something: I play a certain way that people don't like,'' he said. ``I play real hard. Opposing fans don't like it if a ball is going out of bounds, and I can save it by throwing it off one of their players. If there's a loose ball, I'm going to dive and take a guy out in the process. That's just the way I play.''
And it's part of the passionate, seize-the-day philosophy he inherited from his mom.
``The toughest person I've met,'' Niesen said of her.
Making the most of his opportunities
Niesen's mother, Debbie, was a 13-year-old Orange County tomboy when a lump on her neck grew to the size of an orange. The doctors' first thought, mononucleosis, turned into a diagnosis of Burkitt's lymphoma -- a rare and deadly form of cancer that was more prevalent among African children.
She was given six months to live. But after radiation and an experimental drug, she was alive a year later. The American Cancer Society was surprised enough to send her to Bethesda, Md., for testing and a conference to determine why she hadn't died.
Further defying the odds, she eventually played volleyball in junior college, where she met and married her husband, Jeff, a player on the school men's team who went on to become an outside hitter at Long Beach State.
The miracles never stopped. She had been told she probably would never have children because of the effects of radiation and chemotherapy. Instead she had three healthy kids -- Sara, Travis and Tyler.
``Nobody guarantees you a tomorrow,'' Debbie Niesen said. ``And nobody guarantees that you'll be able to do the same things tomorrow that you can do today. So what we've always told Travis is that whatever you're doing, make the most of it because you might not ever get the same opportunity.''
He was born big -- 11 pounds, 6 ounces -- and always loomed over other kids.
``I'd have to bring a birth certificate to my games because nobody would believe my age,'' Niesen said. ``Other parents didn't want me to play because I was too physical, too mean and too ill-tempered.''
Niesen chose SCU in part because of its proximity to beaches where he could surf. His aggressive attitude immediately made Coach Dick Davey smile and frustrated opponents. At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, he qualifies as a smallish power forward -- which explains his battler's mentality. And his unorthodox, left-handed shot gives defenders fits.
An example came in SCU's upset of eventual national champion North Carolina last season.
``I was running down the court on offense and Sean May and Marvin Williams were arguing about who had to guard me,'' Niesen said. `` `You got 'em.' `No, I don't want to guard 'em. You take 'em.' I was just laughing. I don't play dirty. But people don't like to guard me because I'm going to do all those little things that are annoying.''
Such as what he did in December's rematch against North Carolina -- a loss -- when Niesen bounced the ball off a prone Tar Heel while falling out of bounds to retain possession. The crowd of 20,255 deemed it unsportsmanlike and serenaded him with boos the rest of the night.
``He doesn't mind,'' Jeff Niesen said. ``But as a parent, I died hearing that. I just wanted to get out of there.''
Yet coaches, including the Tar Heels' Roy Williams, have expressed their admiration for Niesen.
``Even Ray Charles could see that he's their best player,'' said USF Coach Jessie Evans. ``So when fans are crying and are upset, that just means he's doing his job.''
Added Evans: ``He's a senior, right? Good. I've seen enough of him.''
In his final season, Niesen is among the WCC's best, averaging 18.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. That's even though he's often double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed, and has struggled with that aching back. He played against USF last Saturday even though he hadn't practiced in a week and finally had to sit out against San Diego.
Though he still shouts and pumps his fist after big plays, he has only three technical fouls this season.
``He's got this incredible zeal,'' Davey said. ``He's calmed down a little bit, but I don't ever want him to lose that edge.''
Considering career in law enforcement
Debbie Niesen, 50, is generally healthy today although she has a greater chance of thyroid and skin cancers because of the radiation treatments. She spent years trying to figure out why she had survived and if she had a special purpose in life.
``And then one day I decided that maybe I didn't need to be searching, that maybe it was in my children,'' she said. Sara is an elementary school teacher and Tyler is a student at Long Beach State.
``Maybe Travis will touch lives, in some small way, because basketball is a perfect opportunity to motivate small boys to play sports rather than get into trouble,'' she added.
Or he could make a mark in whatever he does next. Niesen doesn't dismiss the idea of playing pro ball after he graduates in June, but he talks more about becoming a police officer. He would like to stay in the area -- his girlfriend, Bonnie Bowman, is an SCU soccer player -- and has toured the Santa Clara Police Department.
``It's a really dangerous profession,'' he said. ``But I know what I would be getting into. I'm aware of the risks.''
That will come later. For now, he's intent on helping the Broncos surprise people down the stretch. (Feb. 4 was) a chance to score the biggest upset against Adam Morrison and the Zags.
``Last year I would yell, get ticked off, talk back to student sections on the road,'' he said. ``This year, I just kind of smile and not let it bother me. But I play just as hard.''
He's still got some time left to aggravate opponents.