Dec. 30, 2005
Debbie Niesen wasn't supposed to be there, experiencing the anguish.
Folded at the waist, Niesen pressed her hands against the outside of her head. How could she possibly survive what few are challenged to tolerate? For those who watched the final of the Cable Car Classic against Bucknell, you'd think the previous description is of Debbie watching her son play one of the final games of his college career. The image goes back to her teens when there were doubts if she should live. Having babies was certainly out of the question.
"She was diagnosed with cancer when she was 13 and went through chemotherapy," said Debbie's son, Travis. "She was told she had six months to live and to this day they don't know why and how she overcame the cancer. It's kind of a corny thing to say but I think it has to do with her mental approach and how positive she was about the whole process. She really is one of the toughest people I've ever met. If I can be half as tough as her I'll be fine."
Thursday night, Debbie did hold her head with her hands, rooting for Santa Clara to pull off the upset against an NCAA tournament team. While Travis plays like it's his last day on the face of the earth, his perspective on the game and life reflects a different philosophy.
"I tell her, `It's okay. No one is going to remember this in 5 years', said Travis. "The world doesn't revolve around basketball so don't pretend that it does. She's more worried than I am. I feel so bad. She's got her head in hands and I'm worried for her. I hope she calms down and when I tell her I love her after the game and I'm okay, not riled up anymore then she's fine. "
As a teenager with chicken pox, Travis was confined to his room for fear of spreading his ailment to others. Always wanting to play guitar but never having the time, he immersed himself in the craft. Learning chords on his own, he would play with his fingers bleeding because of the sores. By the time Niesen's skin healed he knew what he was doing and now has a repertoire that features Dave Matthews and calls Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" a "show off" song.
Because of the stress of balancing school and basketball, Niesen will sit in his room with the guitar, strumming and picking away anxiety, alone with his thoughts. Thoughts that travel far and beyond chasing down Gonzaga or a new wrinkle in the half court offense.
Niesen has fantasized about being a pro golfer and he drives the ball off the tee consistently reaching 280 yards. The occasional errant iron shot has forced him to learn patience. He attacks this game like he does the rim, with focus and passion. He's a surfer, who was talked into sky diving last summer by his girlfriend (soccer player Bonnie Bowman). Bungee jumping? It's overrated, he says.
Here's a guy who's getting all the marrow from the bone. A victory in his mind is simply doing his best regardless of what the scoreboard says. In a lot of ways, Niesen has it figured out while the rest of us are looking for answers. This comes from a player who appears to the outside world to be one technical foul short of a straight jacket. If he's crazy, then he's crazy like a fox.
Not many players increase their scoring by five points a game every year for an entire career but Niesen has done that, now at 20 points a game. He's on pace to get into the top 15 all-time by the end of the season. By scoring 47 points in 2 nights, Niesen was named the winner of the Cable Car MVP, often willing the ball into the basket and his team to victory. It completes the Lion King circle of life for him at the tournament. As a sophomore, he won the Kevin O'Connor award and was all-tourney the last two years.
"I love the city of Santa Clara and I hope to stay around here in whatever I do next year," said Travis. "It would be great coming back to the Cable Car and knowing we won our senior year. It means a lot. It's awesome."
The same night with rain falling on southbound highway 17, three Bucknell coaches were on their way to a post Cable Car Classic event paying tribute to someone who took them apart an hour earlier.
"That (fill in with your own colorful adjective ending in "ing") Travis Niesen!" said one of the Bison assistants. "He flies around, uses his elbows right, flops at the right time. They all feed off him. Damn! If we had him on our team we'd be 11-0."
While Dick Davey loves all his players, there are a select few that are on an unprinted "toughest competitors" list. The names of Rambis, Kenilvort, Lamson, Nash, Garnett and Jones flow from Double D's lips. At the preseason luncheon with boosters, Davey introduced Niesen and put him on that list. In Broncoland, there is no higher praise.
Although there has been some interest from abroad, there is some doubt if Niesen will continue to play after this year. After all, basketball does not define him and one could see him moving on to the next chapter in his life.
"I'd like to get into law enforcement next year and I've checked out the Santa Clara PD," said Travis. "It's a great department and they're extremely selective. It would be awesome."
Take pity on the criminals. Turn yourselves in now because you WILL be caught.