After 42 years it’s difficult to know for sure which stories are true and which are tall tales.
Did the University of Kentucky really rent an apartment in Harrisonburg so it could have an assistant coach near Ralph Sampson at all times? Were news stations from North Carolina actually flying airplanes to town multiple times in a day just to get the latest intel on which school Sampson might favor?
It’s certainly true Lefty Driesell, then coach at Maryland, offered Harrisonburg High School coach Roger Bergey an assistant’s job, but didn’t call again after Sampson signed with Virginia. It makes you wonder if any awkward moments developed when Lefty wound up in town coaching at James Madison?
Over time it’s possible some stories became slightly exaggerated, but there’s no denying there was true hysteria around the recruitment of Sampson, who sat in the Harrisonburg High gym in May of 1979 and announced to the world he’d chosen the Cavaliers over Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
For Tyler Nickel, the East Rockingham senior who Wednesday afternoon announced he’s heading to North Carolina to play college ball, the recruiting process was a different kind of crazy. His entire junior year of high school, when college coaches normally make their most intense evaluations of prospects, happened under COVID-19 restrictions.
From March, 2020 to just this past summer, all in-person recruiting was off limits. College coaches couldn’t have rented a place in Elkton if they’d wanted to. But that doesn’t mean Nickel isn’t the best prospect to come out of the area in decades, and recent months have been an absolute whirlwind.
This part of the Shenandoah Valley has a rich high school basketball history. While Sampson was at U.Va., leading the Cavaliers to the Final Four and winning national player of the year honors three times, hoops was still thriving in his hometown.
Dell Curry, born in Harrisonburg and raised in Grottoes, was a McDonald’s All-American at Fort Defiance High School in 1982, eventually choosing to go to Virginia Tech. Some argue Norwood “Pee Wee” Barber, who followed Sampson at Harrisonburg High, is truly the most skilled player to come out of the city.
Barber was attracting a lot of attention from college coaches in the early 1980s until it became clear academics would force him to go the junior college route. Barber eventually played at Florida State and in the NBA.
Staunton has produced a steady stream of Division I talent through the years and Cory Alexander came out of Waynesboro in the 1990s to star at U.Va. and eventually make it to the NBA. Current Harrisonburg coach Don Burgess was once a standout player for the Blue Streaks who went on to Radford. Spotswood alum Justin Kier was lightly recruited out of high school, but after stints at George Mason and Georgia will play his final season of college ball at Arizona this season.
Nickel, by most every measure, is the best player this area has seen in decades. Even as a four-star prospect ranked in the Top 100 in the Class of 2022, Nickel could be underrated. When it comes to recruiting rankings, Nickel’s loyalty to East Rock when he could have transferred to a high-level prep academy may have hurt him.
Of course, he’s now heading to play for one of the sport’s true blue blood programs, five-star rating or not.
“When you look at the history of basketball in the Valley, there have been really good teams and players, but it shows you how difficult it is to make it to that level,” East Rockingham coach Carey Keyes said. “He embraces the fact he is from a smaller area and enjoys showing people they will find you if you are good enough.”
Possessing shooting guard skills in a power forward’s body, he’s the Platonic ideal of a modern basketball player. Back in Sampson’s day they said you couldn’t teach 7-4. You still can’t, but you sure can teach a 6-9 kid to shoot 3-pointers, one of many offensive skills Nickel has mastered.
So it’s no wonder that, like Sampson who even on the day he chose Virginia had reporters from Kentucky badgering him to say he might still consider changing his mind, Nickel’s recruitment was an intense battle to the end.
Iowa, Butler and North Carolina State desperately wanted him and made landing Nickel a top priority. But only Virginia Tech, which pulled out all the stops, and UNC were able to get Nickel on campus for official visits this fall. JMU was cut from the list of finalists earlier this year, but Dukes head coach Mark Byington stopped by East Rock last week on the first day college coaches could visit.
Hey, in the age of the transfer portal, you never know.
But there’s no reason to think Nickel, who could become the Virginia High School League’s all-time leading scorer this season, won’t excel with the Tar Heels. UNC made a strong-armed push for Nickel relatively late in the process after Hubert Davis replaced Roy Williams as head coach.
Rumor has it Nickel took it to current Carolina players during a pickup game on his visit to Chapel Hill last weekend and he’s shown his ability to hang with the nation’s best players while playing for Team Loaded on the AAU circuit the past few years.
“I’ve known him since he was in first or second grade,” Keyes said. “As a second grader you are looking at him saying this kid is going to be good. He’s tall and skilled already, but at that time you don’t know how he’s going to develop. You didn’t see the competitive nature he would form. He wants to be the best. His life for 18 years has been basketball.”
UNC has produced 90 NBA players in its history, third most of any college program, and Nickel has stated becoming a pro is his ultimate goal. Wednesday’s decision was a big one, and a step toward making his dreams come true.
Maybe 40 years from now we’ll all be telling stories about it.