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Despite difficult past and limited role, Nikko finds perspective in basketball

January 26, 2018 GMT

Reed Nikko needed the trees, bushes and leaves. So, an hour before the Missouri men’s basketball season tipped off against Iowa State, he snagged his letterman jacket and dipped out of Mizzou Arena to walk around a wooded area by the parking lot for a bit.

On that buzzworthy night, Nikko — who averages eight minutes played, 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game for the Tigers — needed a special type of calm. Nature provided it, and often has over the course of his life.

So, too, has basketball.

“It’s kind of therapeutic,” the sophomore forward said of the game he loves. “For whatever reason, when I step on the court, everything else outside of those lines goes away.”

Years ago, Nikko, who often escapes headlines in his bench role for the 2017-18 Tigers, needed things to go away. An admitted introvert, he was lost and forced to grow up quicker than any kid wants to, and he’s reminded of this growth every time the national anthem plays pregame.

As “The Star Spangled Banner” resounds throughout the arena, he bows his head, and thanks his dad for everything as he ponders perspective gained from the past, which began to take shape on June 18, 2013.

That day, a 14-year-old Nikko returned from a camp hosted by the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He watched as his father, Russ Nikko , received a call inside the living room of his family’s home in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

Minutes into the phone conversation, Nikko’s father, known as “Coach Russ,” gave his oldest son a thumbs-up. Initially, Nikko thought the coaches were solely impressed.

He didn’t think they were offering a scholarship.

When his dad hung up the phone and told him they were, Nikko climbed the stairs to his room and yelled in happiness. It was the only thing he knew to do. It was the happiest he’d been.

“The thing I remember,” Nikko said, “is going from the highest high I’ve ever felt to rock bottom.”

That next day — June 19, 2013 — Nikko was at his driver’s education class when a police car pulled up.

“I remember getting in the car and they wouldn’t tell me anything,” Nikko said. “That’s when I started to know, like, oh shit, it’s bad.”

As soon as Nikko and his brother, Parker Nikko, arrived at the hospital, they had an inkling. Then, their mother, Kris Nikko, told them the news.

Their father had died after an unexpected stroke.

“Ugh, there is a lot of emotion,” Kris Nikko said when thinking back to that day. “It was hard. It’s, wow. It’s a reminder that life changes in an instant, and we can’t take anything for granted.”

In the days that followed, Nikko wanted to do one thing: play basketball.

“I just remember, like, I just wanted to get back to the court,” Nikkosaid. “I just wanted to go back to where nobody is going to treat me any different.”

Years after receiving the North Dakota offer — years that included taking care of his little brother and teaching him how to shave and how to tie a tie — Nikko received a scholarship offer from former Missouri coach Kim Anderson.

Unlike so many high-profile college basketball players, Nikko never thought he’d be on this stage. His parents never pushed him to play, and he never realistically thought he could play at the Division I level until he received the North Dakota offer.

“It was never a … ‘We’ve got to get him to call the camps, we’ve got to make sure he’s always playing, this how we’re paying for college’ (mindset),” Kris Nikko said. “It was, ‘You’re enjoying playing basketball, you’re having fun with it, so keep doing it.’”

Nikko’s first year at Missouri was not fun. Instead of playing and helping the Tigers win games, he was sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair a hip impairment he didn’t notice until halfway through his senior year at Maple Grove High School.

As he ran down the court, his hips clicked. Turns out, his femurs were too large.

“When I committed here, I didn’t have any idea I was going to have the hip surgery,” Nikko said. As soon as I got healthy from that, I went down with the ankle injury and battled that all year. It was adversity, but it helped me enjoy being on the floor.”

Now, he’s healthy. He’s refreshed. And, because of freshman forward Jeremiah Tilmon’s struggles with fouling, Nikko’s role has become bigger. In Missouri’s home upset of then-No. 21 Tennessee a week ago, the sophomore provided a scoring spark in the first half when the Tigers needed it. Against Utah early in the season, he scored eight points and grabbed nine rebounds.

He knows he’s not the quickest. Or the strongest. He also knows he has had his fair share of struggles. In Wednesday’s 91-73 loss to No. 19 Auburn, he missed the front end of consecutive one-and-one free-throw opportunities.

Regardless, he’s proud.

“The thing (my dad would) want most is for me to get my degree and to take the financial pressure off of my mom with her being a single parent,” Nikko said. “Those are the two things that make me feel the best.”

Before games like the season opener against Iowa State and even Wednesday’s game against Auburn, Nikko gets too revved up. It becomes hard to focus and read over his scouting report. A Fisheries & Wildlife major, though, Nikko has always taken to nature.

So the walkarounds have often become a part of the pregame routine — to slow him down, to get him back down to earth.

On Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi, Nikko will take the court against Mississippi State in his No. 14 jersey prepared to do what he loves: play basketball.

But first, the anthem.

He’ll bow his head, thank his dad for everything and ponder perspective gained from the past.