The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


Russell takes unique path to find his basketball family at SMU

Practice has already ended, but Nick Russell is still working. It’s a late Thursday afternoon and many of his teammates have left the court and gone home. However, Russell continues to shoot free throws on a basket alone. He is shooting a career-low 71 percent from the line this season and wants to improve. For Russell, it’s just another life challenge he must conquer.

“I have overcome a lot of adversity in my life,” he says. “But I have a strong belief in God and I have been blessed with very supportive parents. I know I have to go down this path to get to where I need to be.”

It has been a very interesting path for Russell. He played three years at the university-modeled Grace Prep Academy in Arlington after transferring from Duncanville High School in his hometown. When he left Grace Prep as a senior, Russell was ranked as the 89th best player in the country and fourth best in Texas by ESPN. He had interest from UCLA, Oklahoma and Florida State, but chose to attend Kansas State University.

Although KSU was successful with Russell on the team, he felt out of place and unsatisfied with his role. His playing time diminished and his father became too sick to travel, so Russell decided to transfer close to home and attend SMU. He wanted an opportunity to grow as a basketball player while also allowing his parents, Raymond and Cindy Russell, to continue to follow his career in-person.

Russell was forced to sit out his first year at SMU under NCAA transfer rules and watched a basketball program struggle to compete in the lowly Conference USA. Finally, the athletic department decided major changes must occur. The school fired coach Matt Doherty and hired one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time in Larry Brown. Brown is the only coach to win a championship at both the NCAA and NBA level and immediately brought credibility and attention to a dying program.

“In 2009, SMU wasn’t cool yet. No one wanted to go there,” said Russell. “Now, with the addition of coach Brown, this program has a completely different feel to it.”

The school will supplement the Brown hire with a move to the Big East Conference next year and a plan to rebuild Moody Coliseum into a premiere basketball facility. However, building a successful program takes time and the first year has been a struggle. The team sits at 15-17 and Russell has been forced to be the best player on the team and its leader.

“I’m asking him to play a position he’s never played before and that’s really difficult,” said Brown. “He’s probably playing too many minutes, but we need him on the court. He’s a tremendous kid and I think he’s only going to get better.”

Russell understands the opportunity he has to learn from one of the greatest basketball minds ever. He is always sharing stories and lessons from coach Brown with his parents, who are now able to attend every home game. Cindy has seen her son go through a lot of transitioning and adjusting in life, but she is very happy with where he ended up. Nick’s journey to SMU makes her believe that everything really does happen for a reason.

“As a mother, I think it’s a gift that he gets to learn from a man like coach Brown,” she said. “What Nick is catching from him is powerful. I’m very thankful he gets to speak into the life of my son.”

Russell has learned a lot about life and basketball from his new coach. Brown has a sign hanging in the locker room that says, “Play the right way.” It’s a simple reminder to the team that they must compete and give effort every single night. This change in culture has made Russell become a more complete basketball player.

“I have been with three different coaching staffs and this one is just amazing. From the video coordinator to coach Brown, it’s like a family,” said Russell. “We’ve all improved so much, it’s really exciting to watch.”

Other members of the basketball team agree with Russell, but also give him credit for the culture change. The point guard usually sets the tone on the court and dictates the way the team is playing. Cannen Cunningham, a sophomore center, fought off a smile as he talked about Russell’s leadership.

“He’s great, always composed,” said Cunningham. “He never gets rattled in pressure situations. I don’t even know if he gets nervous before games, it doesn’t seem like it.”

Russell understands that everything starts and ends with his teammates. He talks about each one of them like a brother and truly has bought into Brown’s family philosophy. He is the team’s leader in minutes, assists, steals and second leading scorer, but Russell isn’t about the stats.

“I pride myself on getting everybody involved. I like to pass the ball and get the guys on my team going,” said Russell. “I love seeing my teammates smile when they score, whether I get credit for the assist or not.”

Russell may not get the national attention he was receiving at Kansas State anymore, but that’s not why he came to SMU. He hopes to leave a lasting impact on a program he believes can be one of the best in the country.

“I want people to remember Larry Brown’s first Big East team,” says Russell. “When you look back, I want everyone to remember me and my teammates as the start of something special at SMU.”

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