April 25, 2007

The First: Nick Vanos

By Dave Lewis

While it may not have been great for her, at least I'll always remember the first kiss. The day my first child was born is etched in my mind with every detail illuminated as if it were yesterday. No matter what follows, there's always something special when it comes to being the first. There may be others that follow and we appreciate those qualities and virtues. But there is no replacing the initial experience through our senses and our souls.

For those who look to the rafters at the Leavey Center, one is to believe Steve Nash is first and only Bronco to receive the honor of having his jersey displayed. While Nash blazed a trail in basketball and life that most of us achieve only in dreams, he was not the first to have his jersey hung at the Leavey Center. Especially for those he touched, Nick Vanos will always be the first.

Peter Vanos came to the United States from Holland in 1957 with only $30 and a piece of cheese. Those were his worldly possessions. Vanos also had a determination to make a life for his family, driving from San Mateo to Half Moon Bay at 3 a.m. in the early years of the nursery business. Life was hard.

Things came easier to his son, Nick. A seven-foot center from Hillsdale High School, Vanos was blessed with great hands and agility. There was no need for the early morning wake-up sessions that typified his father's existence. That nonchalance turned off larger programs, but Santa Clara's basketball coach, Carroll Williams, was intrigued. He saw the potential but was honest about what he saw. Smoke would not be blown in the recruiting process, common in other schools. Williams told Vanos what he needed to hear: Work hard and you can become something.

"I still see us sitting in the living room," said Nick's mother, Josie Vanos. "They were the first school that came to us very serious about Nick. He didn't like Berkeley at all but we all liked Santa Clara right away. Coach Williams not only became his coach but a friend of the family. We had to remind Nick that basketball wasn't the only thing in life. It was the right place for him."

Williams also has a vivid recollection of the home visit. "We saw the potential and I told him what it would be like if he came: how hard it would it be. As a high school player, he didn't defend and seemed to turn it on and off. The bigger schools lost interest but since I saw him play a lot of games, I knew what he could be."

Under extreme pressure that piece of coal became a precious gem over four years on the Mission Campus. Vanos averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds a game his final two years, shot nearly 60 percent for his career and left the school as the all-time leading shot blocker. On January 31, 1985, Vanos poured in a career-best 44 points at Loyola Marymount in a 91-70 win. On a squad with the likes of Harold Keeling, Steve Kenilvort, Vic Couch and Scott Lamson, Vanos played on teams that won 20 games three times and played in two NITs, reaching the quarterfinals in 1984.

The dynamic Keeling was the school's second leading career scorer and all-time steals leader, saying he was comfortable `gambling for steals knowing that Nick was back there.'

Nick's mother made it to most of the games, but Dad couldn't handle the nervousness that came with hearing criticism of his son. To this day, Williams says Peter wouldn't know a basketball from a turnip.

Nick Vanos' easy-going nature masked a competitive fire that was stoked over time at Santa Clara.

"I remember up at Gonzaga his junior year and he had not yet dunked on anyone," said Lamson. "Mike McNulty (the school's sports information director) told him he'd quit smoking if he ever dunked on someone. Well, that game he did, and he walked over to McNulty, took the pack of cigarettes and ripped them in half in the locker room." He had made the transformation from passive teen to a determined man.

Then an assistant, current head coach Dick Davey recalls: "He was such an unusual kid because he was so kind and respectful for someone that competitive in athletics. You just rooted for him because you saw the transition that took place over his time here. After the first practice, his head was slumped over and he couldn't breath. It didn't look like he'd make it. But when he left four years later he was wearing a cowboy hat and boots."

Vanos was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the second round in 1985 and spent two years as a backup to Alvin Adams. Just like during his time at Santa Clara, Vanos improved and played in 57 games in his second year. The Suns were ready to commit to him as the starter in year three with an aging Adams fading for a non-playoff team.

That was before Aug. 16, 1987.

Vanos was wrapping up a two-week visit with his girlfriend, Carolyn Cohen, in Plymouth, Mich. It was Nick's first time meeting her parents, and by all accounts things had gone well. Carolyn's parents dropped the couple off at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Aiport in Romulus for a flight to Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. The Cohens never could have imagined their world would unravel before they could get home.

Northwest flight 255 never had a chance, rolling 35 degrees in each direction on its initial climb with the left wing striking light poles about one half mile from the end of the runway, hitting other light poles, the roof of a car rental building and then the ground. At 8:46 p.m. the plane skidded across the ground on the runway centerline near I-94. The official cause of the accident was `pilot error,' not checking the taxi checklist to ensure the flaps and slats were extended for takeoff. The sole survivor was a 4-year old girl. Among the 156 who perished were 24-year-old Nicholaas Vanos and Carolyn P. Cohen.

Six months before the crash, the Vanos family purchased a plot at Skyline Cemetary off Highway 92. They were simply thinking about the future, their lives in eternity. They would have to buy more land so they could someday be put to rest near their son. They hoped he would return to the nursery business when his playing days were over.

That night, Lamson, on the way back from a Giants game, heard the news of the crash on the radio and intuitively knew his best friend was gone.

"I just knew it. I knew where he was and called my girlfriend, now my wife, and told her I thought Nick was on that plane. I remember it vividly. It was really hard for the next few weeks. To this day, there isn't one day that passes when he's not in my thoughts."

Lamson began a chain reaction of phone calls. He reached Davey, who located Williams in Dubois, Wyo. The coach who helped light Vanos' fuse would send his kids back to their home in Texas while he headed home to California. Terry Davis called to tell Kenilvort about 2 a.m. but he didn't need the message. The ringing phone was enough to confirm his worst fears.

Vic Couch was coaching at Kennedy High School in Fremont when he found out. "I got a phone call early in the morning and decided to just run. It was a run from reality. Running wasn't my thing but I went about four miles just to get away. I was never able to get away from the truth and it hit us all very hard."

News of the tragedy took Keeling back to the Aloha Classic, an all-star game for the nation's best players after their senior season. Vanos and Keeling were in the waters of Waikiki Beach with the tide pulling the pair out into the ocean. A worried Keeling told Vanos he thought they had gone too far but Nick assured him they were fine because his feet were still touching the ground. "That's the first time I realized how tall he was. The tide pulled us again even deeper and the next thing I know, I'm coughing up sand and ocean water after he dragged me back in. I could have drowned and I thought I should have been on that plane to save his life to return the favor. Logically, that didn't make any sense but that was running through my mind at the time."

Lamson was among the many touched by Vanos' soul. "We used to drive down the road flapping our arms like we were birds just up and down the freeway. We had a great time and were joined at the hip. It was truly the college experience with a little study mixed in."

"He was a tremendous teammate to have because he shared so much of himself," echoes Couch. "As a junior college transfer, I appreciated how he took time to make sure I understood what coach Williams was trying to get across."

It was life that transcended basketball and Kenilvort says the people who knew Vanos never thought of him as a player. "His heart was proportionate to his body. He was a big sweetheart and you won't find anyone who didn't like him, including the people who competed against him. Nick was a product of his parents; a chip off the old block. He was a kind, gentle guy. The basketball memories fade over time but the personal memories will never fade."

The name lives on with the annual golf tournament every summer spearheaded by Lamson and Kenilvort. Originally, the event was a fundraiser but now is just a way to get together, share stories and remember Nick. Carroll and Susan Williams send a card to the Vanos family each summer to let them know he is still in their thoughts. His jersey was the first ever retired at SCU, framed on the concourse of the Leavey Center near the eastern entrance. There's talk of having Vanos join Nash in the rafters.

Still on the Peninsula, Peter and Josie Vanos have three other children with seven grandkids. They all know the story and talk about Nick like they know him, even though he's been gone for nearly 20 years. It's as if Nick Vanos is in the present tense and they can sit on his lap. He's still a part of the family. The kids bring birthday cards to his grave site every April 13th.

Younger sister Amy Vanos later played basketball at Santa Clara, the final two years as the recipient of the Nick Vanos Scholarship. Once she graduated, the family's wish was granted, transferring the scholarship to the men's basketball program.

In Lamson's house, it is not a cliché to say, "He's always with me." When the Lamsons began their family there would be no need to try out the ring of different names from a baby book when it came to naming the first son.

His name is Nick. There are some things that don't require discussion. It was always Nick. He was truly the first.