In hindsight, it would have been a surprise if Ty Nichols had chosen any career but that of basketball coach.
It wasn’t a case of, say, Rle Nichols putting a clipboard in his son’s crib or stringing a whistle around his neck, “Although I remember him dribbling a basketball – yeah, while dribbling all over his chin – when he was about 18 months,” said the elder Nichols, laughing.
But Ty Nichols – the coach of Chatsworth, California’s Sierra Canyon, hovering near the top of all of the national team rankings this season – was already immersed in the life of a coach, when most other kids are still trying to get a grasp on navigating kindergarten.
Rle Nichols, a long-time coach at the high school and college levels – as well as with the Athletes in Action and now, San Diego-based High Five America – remembers watching film of his teams in action in his living room, deep into the night.
And it wasn’t “videotape” or “digital highlights” on a laptop or hand-held device back in the mid to late 1980s. “It was 8-milimeter film, threaded through a projector and shown on a pull-down screen,” said Rle Nichols, dating himself to the max in this high-tech era of scouting and team and player analysis.
“He’d sit on my lap, watching the film with me for hours until he’d fall asleep.”
Of course, some might say that the roles have changed now.
“We (he and his wife, Fern, who have three other children and 10 grandchildren) will drive up to (Rle and Fern Nichols live in San Diego, a couple of hundred miles to the south of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley), watch one of their games and then have dinner afterward,” Rle Nichols related.
Then, of course, it’s time for some post-game “analysis” in his son’s home, this time via a digital replay of the game, transferred to a disk that is popped into a DVD player and projected onto a flat screen TV in the Nichols’ family room.
“We’ll watch and talk about the game deep into the night,” Rle Nichols said, pausing and about to laugh again, “until I start to nod off.”
Ty Nichols fondly recalls those long days and nights with his father, and the family stops in Oregon (where he was born and his father first began his coaching career), Canada, Indianapolis, San Diego, and a whole lot of visits to cities – near and far – across the country.
His stints of helping his father with the AIA and High Five American programs, both of which were faith-driven and involved sharing interchange of thoughts on faith and Christianity during and after games, with coaches, players and fans alike participating.
They shaped his development as a basketball coach and a man.
“My foundation is my faith,” said Nichols, who met his wife, Patti, during a service at North Oaks Baptist Church in San Diego in 1991 and they were married barely a year later.
“My personal worth is not tied into winning and losing games. That gives me the ability to have a better perspective on things – although I wish I was better at it sometimes, because losses can still hurt.”
That faith was put to the most severe of tests as Patti suffered six miscarriages.
“It was a very difficult time,” he said. “People would say ‘we’re praying for you’ and ‘keep praying’. I’d almost want to ask them ‘what, is there some kind of ‘faith meter’, that if ‘you pray more and have more faith, we can have a child?’’’
Ultimately, he believes, “we learned a lot about our faith and God and it made us stronger as a couple.”
A little more than 12 years ago the couple adopted a son – they actually were in the delivery room to watch the child’s ‘birth mother’ bring him into the world.
And now Jonathan Tyrone, (or, JT, as he’s called), is the 12-year old hanging out at Sierra Canyon practices and games, getting to watch and be buddies with with some of the best high school players in the country.
He also gets to meet some of the most well known high school and college coaches in the country, the latter of whom show up in Sierra Canyon’s gym to watch practices and at all the places the team has played across the country over the past three-plus years.
In a lot of ways, JT’s experience parallels the experiences his dad, Ty, had while growing up around a basketball coach as well.
“He’s 12 and he likes doing a little bit of everything (sports-wise),” Ty Nichols said of his son.
“But I’m not pressuring him or anything like, ‘you have to make 500 shots a day. It’s unfair and unrealistic to put that kind of pressure on a kid that age.”
Not that Ty Nichols’ father saddled any kind of overt “you’re going to be a player – or a coach” demands, subtle or otherwise, on him.
“I just fell in love with the game at a very young age,” he explained.
“I loved playing and I love watching the game. Being around some of the very good players my dad coached with AIA – guys like (former NBA center) Swen Nater and (former NBA guards and current college coaches) Lorenzo Romar (Washington) and Mark Price (North Carolina State) – had a great impact on me. They weren’t just ‘basketball players’ but really good human beings, too.”
Nichols, who played in high school and Masters’ College in Santa Clarita (not too far from Sierra Canyon) as a 5-foot-11 guard, aspired to a long-term on-court career as a player long before he decided to go full-bore into coaching.
He can recall the exact moment where he turned firmly onto the coaching path.
“I was playing for my dad’s High Five team and we were playing an exhibition game at Duke when they had guys like Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley,” Nichols said of two players who were key elements to Blue Devils’ national title teams in 1991 and ’92.
Ty Nichols didn’t play a lot for his dad – he was actually on the roster as a player and assistant coach — but was on the floor in the second half against Duke.
“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” he said. “Dad put me in the game and I was working my butt off, trying to deny a pass to Hurley, who was on a wing.”
And then the on-the-floor-epiphany struck him. “Hurley ‘back-doored’ me and was laying the ball up before I even got my head turned around.” There was a matter-of-fact chuckle after that part of the story. “It was then,” he continued, “that I realized – ‘you know, I’m not very good.”
Fast-forward, after more than 20 years of coaching with his father, as well as on the high school (including Vista High in San Diego) and college (a four-year stint as an assistant at Liberty University in Virginia) levels, and Nichols is in his fifth year the varsity coach at Sierra Canyon.
It’s a Kindergarten-12th grade private school that only has existed in this form since 2005 and only graduated its first senior class eight years ago.
With a foundation that includes four college-bound seniors – Cody Riley (UCLA), Remy Martin (Arizona State), Terrance McBride (Cornell) and Adam Seiko (San Diego State) – each of which has been on campus since their middle school years, Sierra Canyon’s program has racked up on-court accomplishments – and regional and national stature – every year.
The Trailblazers are one of just six programs (with Chino Hills, Mater Dei, Bishop Montgomery, Redondo Union and Cantwell-Sacred Heart) to play in each of the first four CIF Southern Open Division playoffs.
After losing in the second round two years ago, they dropped into their “natural” (based on enrollment) division for state competition and won the state Division V crown.
A year ago they lost to Lonzo Ball-led Chino Hills for the SS Open crown in front of 12,000 in the Honda Center in Anaheim.
This season, 6-10 junior, and arguably the nation’s top prospect, Marvin Bagley III is also in the mix for the Trailblazers, and they’ve lost to only unbeaten – and top-ranked – Nathan Hale, by two points, and hold victories over national powers Oak Hill Academy, Memphis East, Findlay Prep and La Lumiere.
Deep runs in the Southern Section and state playoffs, as well as possible showdowns with some combination of Chino Hills, Mater Dei and Bishop Montgomery, seem inevitable.
Nichols, though, prefers to not look any deeper into the future than his team’s next practice or next game.
“We have a bunch of people here – in the administration, on the faculty and in the student body – who are so passionate about being ‘the best’ they can be, and that’s something special,” he said.
“We know we’ve accomplished a lot this season and beaten some very good teams. But we also know we’re going to be playing in the toughest end-of-season tournament (the 16-team CIF SS Open Division playoffs, likely to include four nationally top 10-ranked teams) in the country, so that’s going to be an incredible challenge.”
Spoken like a coach who has paid a lot of attention to a lot of coaches in a lot of gyms, over a lot of years, right?