Playing college basketball is every high-school player’s dream, and few are lucky enough to get that chance. Current UW women’s basketball player Shawna Nicols earned that chance only to have it torn away by injuries.
A high-school standout, Nicols was named the 2000 Gatorade Wisconsin State Player of the Year and a Street and Smith’s honorable mention All-American. After completing a stellar prep career at Milwaukee Pius High School, in which she led her team to three consecutive private school titles, Nicols decided to continue her basketball career in Madison while turning down offers from other Division I programs.
In her freshman year at Wisconsin, Nicols saw limited action at point guard, backing up former UW players Tamara Moore and Candas Smith. During that season, Nicols missed two games and practices after sustaining a concussion.
In her sophomore campaign, Nichols did not see her first action until two weeks into the season after a back injury prevented her from participating in preseason practice and conditioning. After an eagerly anticipated return to the court, Nicols played in 26 games, including five starts at point guard.
Nicols and her UW teammates worked hard in the offseason to improve their on-court performance after a disappointing 7-21 finish in the 2002-03 season. This year was supposed to be the start of bigger and better things for the junior. But while her teammates were learning Coach Lisa Stone’s new system, Nicols was left to cope with the fact that she would have to spend her junior year watching from the sidelines.
Nicols, who was expected to challenge for a starting spot, was told in late October by team doctors that due to the several concussions she sustained throughout her career at UW it would be too dangerous for her to continue playing basketball. Nichols received a medical redshirt for the season and her career at UW seems to have come to an abrupt and unfortunate end.
“I’m technically retired, so basically I don’t plan on playing next year, but the athlete in me always tries to find ways around that,” Nicols said.
The doctors who examined Nicols determined that continuing her basketball career would jeopardize her ability to function normally after her playing days were over.
“For as much as I would give [to] go and practice today, I know it’s not safe,” Nicols said. “It’s dangerous, and for as much as love basketball it’s gotten me so far in life. For us it’s a full time job during the season and sometimes you forget to appreciate things outside of basketball and other things in life matter.”
While Nicols only averaged 2.3 points per contest, she could always be counted on to do the little things that do not appear on the stat sheet, such as diving on the floor for a loose ball and taking a charge. The Badgers will miss Nicols’s ability to find open players and distribute the ball in the open court.
“What we miss about Shawna is that she is probably one of the best passers in Wisconsin history,” UW head coach Lisa Stone said. “She has tremendous floor vision and can really deliver the ball, so we really miss that. Transition is something we don’t look for a whole lot this year. I think if we had Shawna that might have opened that up a little bit more.”
Though she can no longer help the Badgers on the court, the resilient point guard has found other ways to support her team. Nicols has taken on the role of a student assistant this year. Her responsibilities include keeping track of stats, monitoring the shot clock during games, working with the perimeter players and giving advice to the coaches.
“It’s hard because your role isn’t written out, you kind of get a feel for it,” Stone said. “I think for Shawna [Nicols] it’s finding out whether she wants to go into professional coaching or not.”
What has been even harder for Nicols to overcome are the thoughts of what might have been in Coach Stone’s first year at the helm.
“It’s hard for me to sit back during games, to want to be able to help physically somehow and to at least give myself and the coaching staff a chance with what I think I could do everyday,” Nicols said. “It’s something I’ve struggled with. I just miss being active and playing.”
Even though Nicols hasn’t suited up for UW this season, she has been extremely beneficial as a motivator and a calming force on the sidlines.
“She’s just been a real comforting factor,” teammate Stephanie Rich said. “When you come out of the game, she’s always there to help you out and encourage you. We wish she was out there with us, but she’s doing a good job of keeping us all up.”
Nicols hopes mainly that others can draw upon her experience as way of remembering what is important in life, and that her teammates will not take their ability to play for granted.
“I hope more so that I can remind them that it can be taken away from you in an instant,” Nicols said. “Make the best of everyday that you have whether it’s on the floor or in class because something that you love can be taken away so fast.”
After receiving the news that Nicols would not be cleared to play this season, her teammates immediately united around her.
“The team rallied behind her right away, they have some mementos in her name,” Stone said. “They bought her a necklace she wears in honor of the team and our team is going to rally in times of adversity and understand Shawna [Nicols] is as important as anyone else on the team.”
Like any athlete who can no longer participate in the sport she loves, Nicols misses the competitive drive that she once felt on the court.
“I miss that feeling, when you do something you love and put 100 percent into it,” Nicols said. “I haven’t been able to find that feeling anywhere else in my life.”
Nicols does not know what the future holds or if coaching is an option, but she recognizes that basketball has provided her with a unique opportunity. The game has helped to give her the chance to become the only person on her mother’s side of the family to attend college, and has provided her a set of teammates and coaches that will always remember her.
“Her career has come to an end, but she’s added another set of eyes on the sidelines and a voice with the players,” Stone said. “She has and always will be a very important part of our team.”