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Basketball

Right hook, left hook: The Georges Niang story

AMES — The headlines screamed the news.

 In bold type this spring: Iowa State star Georges Niang’s undergone a total body transformation!

 And it’s true.

 The 6-8 junior forward did just that.

 Workouts intensified. 

 Fast food became taboo — not forbidden fruit, just an impediment to his goals: an enemy, not a friend.

 Thus, fruits and veggies found an honored place at Niang’s training table.

 And within the fresh, wholesome ingredients lurked a multi-course set of savory 2014-15 aspirations, for himself, and his preseason top-20 team.

 “A lot of people around me are supporting me with that and making things a lot easier for me to make good decisions with my eating habits and how much I’m working out and stuff like that,” Niang told Cyclone Fanatic this month. “It’s been great getting back and being able to establish myself eating better and being a healthier person.”

 What he terms “crappy foods” are out.

 Greens and lean protein — he’s all in with those now, but the change, admittedly, didn’t come without growing pains (and hunger pangs).

 “I remember for the first two weeks I hated (it),” said Niang, a preseason all-American who averaged 16.7 points last season before a broken foot sidelined him during the NCAA Tournament. I always wanted to cheat. But it gave me mental discipline that I was lacking. So therefore I was disciplined in a way that I could control myself. And I think that helps through all aspects of life.”

 A vastly sharper, more chiseled Niang is an opponent’s worst nightmare and a Cyclone fan’s March Madness dream come true.

 He’s even stronger and more determined?

 Really?

 Bring it on.

 “When we’re going against each other it’s as if we hate each other,” said teammate and long-time roommate Naz Long. “That’s kind of how we built our relationship.”

 It’s also how Niang constructed himself.

 Grit served as the foundation.

 Desire girded the walls.

 Gratitude forms a leak-proof roof — and it’s perhaps the most enduring element of his impressive self-made architecture.

 “When things are given to you, when you just kind of inherit things, you don’t understand the struggle,” said Marcus O’Neil, Niang’s coach at Tilton (N.H.) School. “You don’t understand other people. Because he’s had to fight for everything and he knows how hard things are, he has compassion for other people. So he’s, as Machiavelli says, ’Is it better to be love or feared?’ And the guy’s both loved and feared. He’ll kill you to win, but you also love having the guy on your team.”

 Tilton and the Road to Ames

 Sure, Niang loved basketball growing up. He saw his father, Sidy, dunk in a neighbor’s driveway. Never mind that the hoops was about 7-feet high. To Niang, it was full size.

 “I remember not even being able to hit the rim,” he said. “It’s just come so far. It’s just crazy how things can change.”

 It’s a process.

 And Niang’s journey from underdog, “chubby eighth grader” to ISU star and future pro didn’t come sans speed bumps.

 His mom, Alison, said he always struggled to sit still.

 Homework, growing up, was a daunting challenge.

 “He didn’t always bring his books home,” Alison Niang said. “Study — torture in that respect, because school was never his passion. If all you ever had to do was play with him, he was a blast.”

 But mom and son shared mostly joyous moments.

 Both like singing.

 Alison queued up Motown records.

 Georges crooned to them — exhibiting the infectious groove that’s made him a fan favorite wherever he’s called home.

 “He was just so good at everything,” Alison Niang said. “I just enjoyed watching him — and watching him enjoy himself. Having fun, that’s the greatest. Even now, even with him at this level, your greatest joy as a parent is watching your child be successful at something that they love to do.”

 Alison, as Niang said, is “his rock.”

 Sidy serves in the Merchant Marine, so was necessarily gone for long stretches early on.

 He still demanded (and demands) the best from his son.

 “Sometimes my dad was being my biggest critic, but he does that out of love,” Georges said. “And my mom, anything that I need she’s always been three for support.”

 So were countless others.

 It didn’t take a village to raise Georges Niang.

 It did, however, take a strong family.

 Case in point: Uncle Ed.

 That’s Ed Champy, Alison’s brother.

 When Georges was enrolled at Tilton as a freshman, the family faced a $38,000 annual tuition bill.

 Alison said the financial aid totaled $5,000.

 The family — led by Champy — chipped in the rest, but the cost lessened somewhat over the years.

 Tilton changed Niang.

 Made him a better student.

 Better person, too.

 It served as a costly, but totally worth-it lifeline — a sturdy strand that stretched eventually, unexpectedly to Ames, Iowa.

 “He said that himself: ‘I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t go to Tilton,’” Alison Niang said. “Because he sees some of his friends (from Methuen, Mass.) from eighth grade who are gas station attendants.”

 Georges would tell her “I”m so lucky.”

 Alison would answer back.

 “Many people are given opportunities but not everyone makes the most of those opportunities,” she said. “So you need to give yourself credit for making the most of that opportunity that you were given.”

 On the court, Niang made similar strides.

 O’Neil met him as an eighth-grader.

 He was a nice player, but superficially, nothing particularly special.

 O’Neil said he’d attend one of Niang’s games and it changed the course of both of their lives.

 “It’s not like I go out and watch a lot of eighth-graders play basketball,” said O’Neil, who has guided Tilton to a national prep school title, as well as five New England championships. “But I said, ‘I’ll go.’ I think we were kind of destined to be together.”

 O’Neil said Niang was easy to coach.

 A sponge, he was (and is).

 An older teammate, Alex Oriakhi — who eventually helped UConn win a national championship, took Niang under his wing.

 “I always tried to pattern myself around what he did because he was always looked at as a pretty good person,” Niang said. “He told me one time, someone told him some advice, ‘Work like no one else so you can live like no one else.’ That’s really revolutionized the way I think. If you’re in the gym working as hard — harder than anybody else, the results are going to pay off. People don’t know what’s done behind closed doors, but what’s done in the dark will show in the light. I’m just a firm believer in when the going gets tough, keep working and telling yourself not everybody is working as hard as you.”

 He’s usually right.

 Niang not only excelled on the court, but shined in the classroom.

 He told O’Neil one day he would be class president.

 The coach wasn’t sure he could make it happen, given everything on his plate.

 Niang was — and peers voted him president in 2012.

 A “landslide,” O’Neil said. 

 “He’s a team player, you know?” O’Neil added. “Stats bear that out. There’s no perfect player out there. We know that. But around here they talk about the guy like he’s Paul Bunyan. School president when he left here.”

 Triumphantly, Niang then departed. He was bound for a meeting with “The Mayor,” who was well underway with his own makeover of his alma mater’s formerly struggling program.

 “We were his first high-major offer,” Cyclone coach Fred Hoiberg said while on the road recruiting this week. “And he remembered that.”

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 New Hometown

 Niang caught fire on the AAU circuit in the summer of 2012 — months after he committed to ISU.

 It was an AAU coach, Leo Paple, who earlier had set then-Cyclone assistant Bobby Lutz on Niang’s trail.

 Hoiberg knew Papale, who also worked with the Boston Celtics, from his days in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office.

 “(Leo said), ‘You need to get in here and see him right away,” Hoiberg recalled. 

 Now other high-profile schools began showing keen interest, which excited Niang, who took additional visits.

 Hoiberg and then-assistant T.J. Otzelberger (now at Washington), took antacids instead.

 “We were really paranoid as we were watching him play,” Otzelberger said.

 A mantra formed in Otzelberger’s mind:

 “Come on, man. Please stay loyal to us. Please stay loyal.”

 In hindsight, the silent pleas were wholly unnecessary. 

 Of course, Niang stayed loyal.

 It’s one of his hallmarks.

 It’s a trait he learned to develop the hard way, growing up, from players he admired.

 Guys he looked up to.

 Guys who dismissed him.

 Guys who showed him how not to be when the accolades begin rolling in. 

 “I’m not going to say any names, but there was a popular player around my area and I was trying to get to know him, asking him questions, and he just sort of brushed me off,” said Niang, who also averaged 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season. “From that day on I sort of told myself if I ever were to become something, I would never brush someone off. That’s why I always try to give people the time of day, because everybody has a story. Everybody is a person. Everybody has feelings. So I try to make everybody feel important and try to remember their names and stuff like that. I just feel like that stuff goes a long way.” 

 So do Niang’s skills on the court.

 As Lutz watched him, he thought, "Better then advertised."

 Otzelberger drew the same conclusion.

 Hoiberg sat down and watched Niang “dominate” an open gym filled with fellow future stars.

 There seemed to be nothing Niang couldn’t do.

 “Right hand hook, left hand hook, shooting threes,” Hoiberg said of his first Niang experience. “Offered him right there on the spot.”

 Nowadays, Niang’s seemingly boundless versatility and production is widely known.

 Then, he showcased his skills as a diamond in the rough.

 Then and now he plays with a ferocious spirit — the mentality of a person long overlooked, even though his status has markedly changed. 

 “The best thing about Georges is how much he plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Hoiberg said. “He just, I think, he always felt like he was a little bit under appreciated. You look at the guys he was playing with, the other guys on his team that were top-20 players. Then you look at Georges and he wasn’t in the top 100, yet he was leading the team in scoring. He was their leader. He was not only leading them on the court, but he was the guy that was bringing all those guys together when they were winning championships. I think that bothered him and it certainly had him out there playing with that chip.”

 It never goes away.

 It recedes behind the glowing headlines and coast-to-coast recognition, but remains firmly in place.

 When Hoiberg saw that and offered Niang the path to college basketball success, the stars aligned. 

 So did their goals. 

 “He’s a super cool dude,” Niang, the president, said of Hoiberg, the mayor. “Anybody who’s been around him knows he has a heart bigger than anybody on this planet. Yeah, he’s had successes, but the successes he has now he wants to share with everybody else. Yeah, he could be doing something else. Yeah, he could have taken an NBA job, but he wants to see us kids happy and achieve our goals. That’s all he wants. he doesn’t want anything in return. That just speaks measures about the person that he is.”

541c69035442b842bdfd7

 The Road Ahead

 Never satisfied.

 It’s likely those two words are spoken around Niang’s and Long’s apartment more than any others.

 Last season, ISU reached the Sweet 16 despite Niang’s injury, which occurred in the so-called “second round” against North Carolina Central. 

 This season, despite losing stars such as Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane to graduation, the goal is to surpass that.

 It’s really not even a goal.

 It’s an expectation — what should happen, in their view.

 Sweet 16?

 Final Four?

 Try national championship.

 “If we’re aiming for anything other than that, if we’re satisfied with getting to the Sweet 16, our priorities are all messed up,” Long said. “It’s about winning. It’s about winning it all.”

 Niang and Long serve as that lofty aspiration’s strongest standard-bearers.

 “Those two guys have been as important as anybody we’ve had as far as building a culture where guys come in here and work,” Hoiberg said.

 The underpinnings began long ago.

 Before food changes.

 Before headlines.

 When a “chubby eighth grader” set his goals and chose never to waver from them.

 “I’ve always had high aspirations,” Niang said. “I don’t want to stop working. So I’m always full steam, looking forward.”

 Glancing back, too.

 At mom and family.

 At Tilton.

 At the road blocks he overcame and the help he received along the way.

 “I feel like I still have a lot to prove,” Niang said. 

 The songs he sings aren’t old-school Motown throwbacks anymore.

 They’re contemporary hits bathed in the now, firmly rooted in the present.

 Niang’s mind has changed even more than his fully-healed and leaner body.

 It’s why yoga, yes yoga, became one of his favorite off-court pursuits over the summer.

 The calm it brings.

 The focus.

 The breath.

 The words of his instructor:

 “‘Get comfortable being uncomfortable,’” Niang said. “That can help you in everyday life. Just be comfortable knowing that everything’s going to be all right — you’re going to make it through this. I’ve thought of that outside yoga and thought of it like a basketball term, as you can be down four, but still believe that you’re going to win. I feel that yoga has lifted a new life into me, whether it’s bringing happiness or control. I think it’s really helped me in my development as a person and a player.” 

 Talk about a transformation.

 But what would eighth grade Georges think of it?

 “Eighth grade Georges would probably tell me I’m a loser,” Niang said. “Because he was probably more interested in eating Twinkies and playing (video games). I think if eighth grade Georges were to talk to me now there’d be some parts that we couldn’t relate to. In eighth grade, yeah, I worked on my game, but I don’t think I was as determined and as focused as I am right now. As you get older, you understand what you want. In eighth grade I was still trying to search for the person I want to be.”

R

Rob Gray

administrator

Rob, an Ames native, joined Cyclone Fanatic in August, 2014 after nearly a decade and a half of working at Iowa's two largest newspapers. He spent 10 years at the Des Moines Register and, after a brief stint in public relations, joined the Cedar Rapids Gazette as an Iowa State correspondent three years ago. Rob specializes in feature stories for CF.

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