By Christian Caple The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Let the record show that despite his well-earned reputation as an academic whiz and accolades as a prep basketball player, Nigel Williams-Goss cannot play the cello.
At least not very well.
We know this because, as a child, Williams-Goss was encouraged by his parents to try new things, particularly things outside of his comfort zone, in an attempt to teach the hyper-competitive young man that, no, you don’t have to be perfect at everything.
So, yes. The cello. It didn’t go so well. Certainly not as well as the Chinese lessons. And that was just fine.
“He would laugh while he did it,” said Valerie Williams-Goss, Nigel’s mother, a licensed therapist. “That’s kind of what we wanted. In the middle of all the seriousness in his life, he’s always having fun and doing fun stuff.”
That seriousness — hoops, books and all — is what makes Nigel, a 6-foot-3 point guard with quickness from his brain to his sneakers, the Washington Huskies’ most coveted basketball recruit in this year’s class. It’s what made him a McDonald’s All-American. It’s what drew him to Harvard, and vice versa, while he was being recruited.
It was hard turning down the Ivy League, he said — two visits to Harvard’s campus were “a crazy experience” — but he couldn’t walk away from his relationship with UW coach Lorenzo Romar.
“He’s the same person he is now as he was when he was recruiting me,” Williams-Goss said last week, seated in a chair in the Hec Edmundson Pavilion concourse, shoveling fettuccine between sentences.
“I think that speaks volumes to the type of person that he is, which made it so attractive for me to want to come here and play for him.”
Relationships are important to Williams-Goss. He says his family is “everything” to him, and that’s apparent when he’s in uniform: ink sprawls across the back of each of his shoulders, one tattooed with his mom’s name, the other with his dad’s.
The downtown Portland skyline is emblazoned across his chest, a reminder, he says, to “never forget where it all started.”
It all started not far from here, actually. Nigel was born and raised in the Portland area — Happy Valley, a nearby suburb, is listed as his hometown — and was coached by his father, Virgil, during Amateur Athletic Union basketball from third through eighth grade.
Virgil, a former Air Force Staff Sgt. who played basketball professionally in England, believed from an early age that his son had a special interest in the game. During youth baseball games, Nigel would stand in the outfield, pretending to shoot baskets in between pitches. And by the time he was in third or fourth grade, Virgil said, Nigel was waking up early enough to work out with his dad at the local community center before school.
“When a kid wants to get up early before school to work out,” Virgil said, “you know they have a desire and a passion to succeed.”
By the time he was in seventh grade, Williams-Goss was considered among the nation’s best players in his age group by folks who monitor such things. But he usually played against older competition. Romar likes to tell the story of Williams-Goss — whom he first met in passing at a Portland Trail Blazers game when the kid was in seventh grade — attending a UW elite camp as an eighth-grader, matched against players with years of high-school seasoning.
“He’s kind of that guy,” Romar said. “When he was 13, he was playing up with 17-year-olds. You never hear him talk about his age, like ‘give me a break, I’m only this age playing with these kids.’ He’s disappointed if he isn’t one of the better guys out there.”
In fact, it was after an AAU game in Las Vegas as a 13-year-old — playing on a 17-and-under team — when Nigel was approached by Mike Peck, then the coach at prep Findlay Prep, the basketball powerhouse located just outside Las Vegas in Henderson, Nev.
This was the summer before Nigel’s eighth-grade school year, and the seed was planted: maybe a move to Vegas, and to Findlay, would better advance his basketball career.
Virgil, well-versed in the machinations of college recruiting, immediately agreed. Valerie had questions, most of them academic-related. But after learning of the honors program at Henderson International, the school at which Findlay players attend classes, she was in.
For a basketball prospect, playing at Findlay “is like sending your kid to Julliard. I don’t see it any different,” Valerie said.
So they moved before Nigel’s freshman year of high school, and when it was over he became the first four-year player in school history, helping Findlay to a 35-1 record his senior year. Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-America invites followed. When he was finished, he wrote a letter to the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, thanking the local community for treating him well during his time there.
He originally committed to nearby UNLV as a sophomore — “I didn’t want to keep moving,” he said — but reneged when coach Lon Kruger left. Washington re-entered the picture and never faded. Harvard finished second.
His parents wanted him to make his own decision, but they provided input. Virgil wanted him to play for a team coached by a former point guard (Romar and Harvard coach Tommy Amaker each qualify), and to attend a school located in a city where Nigel could see himself living in the future.
Seattle won, partially due to its proximity to Portland and Las Vegas. UW’s academic reputation was also a factor. Nigel has never received a class grade less than an A, and came here to double-major in psychology (like his mom) and communications. But an economics class has piqued his interest, so yeah, he said, business is still in play, too.
He could speak Mandarin by fifth grade (though the lessons ended long ago, and he admits he doesn’t remember much of the language these days). He’s given motivational speeches to high-schoolers, his dad said, before pontificating that his son might grow to be a leader in the business or political world. Virgil chuckles and volunteers that Nigel’s aggressive academic pursuits are likely born from watching his mother, who is nearly finished with a dissertation that will complete her PhD in Human Services.
Mom and dad are competitors, and that’s the thing about Nigel, too: he has to win. Basketball, school, video games (though he doesn’t play often), whatever. It’s what makes him particularly valuable as a point guard, and why his goal is at least a 3.75 college grade-point average.
The idea of losing gives Williams-Goss “a sick feeling, just talking about it,” and Romar hails his ability to contribute to a winning effort in every way possible. His 22 points, six rebounds and five assists helped UW to a victory over Eastern Washington last week, and he’ll be relied upon for similar leadership in the Huskies’ matchup today against Indiana at Madison Square Garden.
“We all want to get back to the tournament and make a deep run in the tournament,” Williams-Goss said. “I think I’m definitely capable, and plan on having a big impact in that.”
He has no reason not to.