March Madness at MSG: Ultimate playground for two vintage NYC guards

NEW YORK — From an elevated platform on the fifth floor of the Expo Center at Madison Square Garden, diminutive Kansas State point guard Markquis Nowell unspooled a story that began with his dismantling of sixth-seeded Kentucky in the second round of this year’s NCAA Tournament and ended with a twist so deliciously New York City that writers from the local tabloids nearly fell out of their chairs.

The tale involved a series of postgame interactions with Kentucky head John Calipari, who dismissively referred to the 5-foot-7, 160-pound phenom as “the little kid,” this after Nowell had blitzed the Wildcats for 27 points and nine assists through an assortment of no-look passes, body-contorting leaners and gut-check 3-pointers from surrounding area codes. The comment sparked a rash of criticism on social media, and Calipari later sent Nowell a note of apology. They connected via phone earlier this week.

“I congratulated him on his career and what he’s done at Kentucky and told him that I’d be happy to see him at the Hall of Fame one day,” Nowell said on Wednesday afternoon. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you’ll get there, too, because your passion and your hard work will get you there.’ And he wanted to stand at my press conference when I do get inducted. It was just a cool exchange.”

That an undersized point guard whose team was picked to finish last in the Big 12 proclaimed himself a future Hall of Famer to an actual Hall-of-Fame inductee is, on its surface, utterly ridiculous. Sure, Nowell has guided Kansas State to within 80 minutes of its first Final Four since 1964 with averages of 17.1 points and 7.8 assists per game, but NBA executives love to scoff at pint-sized guards — if and when they acknowledge their existence. Only after examining Nowell’s East Harlem roots and, later, his eventual stardom in one of the most revered high school basketball leagues in the country does the unabashed bravado begin to make sense. To thrive in an environment that marries toughness and grit, flash and showmanship, the floor generals from these five boroughs are wired differently than the rest.

And now, in the Sweet 16, a wondrous twist of fate has transformed Thursday’s matchup between third-seeded Kansas State and seventh-seeded Michigan State into the ultimate playground for a pair of vintage New York City guards to ply their trade at Madison Square Garden, the sport’s most hallowed ground. The game within the game pits Nowell, who starred for two seasons at Bishop Loughlin in Brooklyn, against Michigan State’s Tyson Walker, a four-year standout for Christ the King in Queens. They competed against each other first on parks and playgrounds, and then their profiles grew in the famed Catholic High School Athletic Association, whose member institutions have become an assembly line for fearless point guards with the ball on a string and hearts on their sleeves: from Mark Jackson and Kenny Anderson to Kenny Smith and Speedy Claxton, from God Shammgod and Taliek Brown to Kemba Walker and Jose Alvarado.

Expand that list to include the city’s public schools and legendary names like Bob Cousy, Pearl Washington, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Rafer Alston, Rod Strickland and Lance Stephenson enter the conversation.

“Many of those guys aren’t very big, if you think about it,” said former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun, whose 2004 and 2011 national championship teams featured point guards from the Catholic league, during an interview with FOX Sports earlier this week. “So I always think that the New York City guards, if you were going to play in the streets, if you were going to play at the park, if you’re going to play in those kinds of places and make a name — I watched the little kid Nowell from Kansas State, and he’s got that. He’s got that ‘F— you.’ You know what I’m saying? And it’s that kind of thing. If you’re going to play, you’ve got to have game.”

Nowell honed his game across three high schools in four years after growing up at the intersection of East 109th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. He wedged two incredible seasons at Bishop Loughlin — including a junior year in which he averaged 19.9 points and 8.1 assists per game — between a disappointing freshman campaign at New Jersey powerhouse St. Anthony and an injury-plagued senior year at The Patrick School. As a three-star recruit with modest scholarship offers because of his height, Nowell signed with Little Rock in a decision he viewed as the means to an end.

Nobody around Nowell doubted that he would eventually transfer to a power conference, not after they witnessed his maniacal work ethic. There’s a story Bishop Loughlin head coach Edwin Gonzalez likes to tell from Nowell’s time in the Catholic league, and it takes place on a Friday night when there was torrential rain in Brooklyn. Amid the downpour, Gonzalez received a call from Nowell around 7:30 p.m. Nowell wanted his coach to open the gym.

“Coach,” Gonzalez remembers Nowell saying, “I’ve got to get in the gym. Somebody is outworking me right now.”

Gonzalez, who shared the story in an interview with FOX Sports, paused his retelling momentarily. “How do you tell a kid no?” Gonzalez eventually said. “He was relentless.”

Fueled by the college coaches who doubted his ability to play high-major basketball, Nowell began embracing the motto heart over height. He spent countless hours drilling the parts of his game that would need to shine against bigger defenders, like the step-back jumpers and near-logo 3-pointers Nowell rained against Kentucky. None of his sessions in the gym at Bishop Loughlin, which produced the likes of future New York Knicks point guard Mark Jackson, could end before Nowell had made a certain number of deep 3s launched from miles beyond the arc. If his teammates weren’t practicing hard enough both inside and outside the team’s scheduled sessions, Nowell got on them before Gonzalez could.

He paired that obsession with the panache and flair accrued while playing in front of packed crowds at Rucker Park during summer leagues. He once scored 33 points with 10 assists as Carmelo Anthony and several other NBA players watched Bishop Loughlin battle St. Raymond’s in a Catholic league classic. Nowell’s Twitter handle is @MrNewYorkCityy with a bio that reads, in part, “I Run Ny.”

“New York City games are legendary,” Calhoun said. “And guys talk about, you know, the great leapers who could put a quarter on top of the backboard and all the different things, summer leagues and just playgrounds. You’ve got to have some game to show up.

“And the way to survive in New York — because guys aren’t just tough in New York City, (they’re) the kings of swag and the kings of trash talking. So they were going to shoo you away if you couldn’t play, so you had to find ways. I call it both a survival and evolutionary: How am I going to play the game I love?”

Said Nowell: “I made a promise to myself back when I was in high school that I was going to do anything and everything in my power to be the best player that came out of New York. So I kind of keep that edge and that kind of just reminds me every day that I wake up that I still have more work to do. Guys like Carmelo, Bernard King and all the greats came out of New York, so that just keeps me grounded and keeps me working hard.”

That meant traveling south to average 14.3 points per game in a starring role for Little Rock from 2018-21 before transferring to Kansas State last season. A coaching change ensued after the Wildcats won just 14 games in Nowell’s first year and Bruce Weber, who had endured three consecutive sub-.500 campaigns, was replaced by former Baylor assistant Jerome Tang. A bond between coach and point guard quickly formed as Nowell became one of the primary recruiters for an overhauled roster before leading the league in assists and ranking fourth in scoring.

He scored 17 points and sprayed 14 assists in a first-round win over Montana State before exploding for 27 points — including 23 in the second half — against Kentucky.

“He obviously plays with a tremendous chip on his shoulder,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton, who coached against Nowell the last two seasons and also played at Bishop Loughlin, during an interview with FOX Sports earlier this week. “He probably feels like he’s been doubted for a long time, and he’s out there to prove that he belongs. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s trying to prove people wrong as much as he’s got a core of supporters that have always actually believed in him. And he wants to prove those people right.”

Nowell echoed that sentiment during his news conference Wednesday afternoon: “I wouldn’t say I proved a lot of people wrong,” he said. “I proved myself right.”

And there’s a shared outline in the scripts that bring Nowell and Walker to Madison Square Garden on Thursday night. Though Walker is a few inches taller than Nowell — somewhere around 6 feet tall on a good day — there were similar concerns about his size at the Division I level after four years at Chris the King and a post-grad season at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire. He committed to Northeastern as a three-star recruit and, like Nowell, increased his scoring average from 10.4 points to 18.8 points per game as a sophomore before entering his name in the transfer portal prior to the 2021-22 season.

When asked about the traits associated with New York City guards, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo admitted during his Wednesday news conference that he hasn’t spent much time recruiting kids from this part of the country — though he also said that might change after two wonderful years with Walker, who leads the Spartans in scoring at 14.8 points per game and is tied for the team-lead in steals with 1.2 per game.

That kind of two-way ability, which Izzo described as the best he’s had since shooting guard Gary Harris played at Michigan State from 2012-14, was evident throughout Walker’s high school career. He arrived at Christ the King with ball-handling skills so clean and so crisp that his coach, Joe Arbitello, said Walker could wiggle his way to spots on the floor that most point guards couldn’t. He’d been toughened by games against his older brother, Andre Walker, who played four years in college at Loyola and then learned some of basketball’s dark arts from Alvarado, a teammate at Christ the King who is now a defensive specialist for the New Orleans Pelicans.

“I used to have arguments with my coaches about who was better,” Arbitello said of the Walker brothers in an interview with FOX Sports. “And I said, ‘Guys, it’s not close. Tyson Walker has pro potential.’ Everybody thought I was crazy back then, and I would only say it to them because if you looked at it, you would think I was crazy. But I always thought he was way better than Andre. I tell Andre that all the time.”

Arbitello’s favorite story about Walker captures the kind of toughness and resilience he’s channeled this season in leading the Spartans to the Sweet 16 after an up-and-down regular season. It was a game between Christ the King and St. Francis in which the opposing coach dared Walker to beat his team with perimeter jumpers. He instructed the player guarding Walker to keep both feet in the paint at all times. He wanted Walker to fire away, unencumbered, as often as possible because he assumed the inconsistent shooter would miss more than he made.

Walker began the game 0-for-8 from 3-point range, and Arbitello sensed frustration bubbling within his star guard. But when the final buzzer sounded later that night, Christ the King walked away victorious after Walker scored 11 straight points in the fourth quarter.

“Some kids, their confidence would be gone,” Arbitello said. “Tyson’s confidence will never be gone. Ever. It’s just not who he is.”

Izzo described Walker’s demeanor as the “happy medium” between having enough New York City swagger to take — and make — big shots when Michigan State needs them without compromising the values instilled by his parents. One of the things Izzo loves most about Walker, who gave a speech thanking his teammates for the chance to play at the highest level following last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Duke, is how little entitlement he’s shown the last two years. Coach and player have shared laughs about the lengthy bus rides Izzo took while working at Northern Michigan and Walker endured while playing at Northeastern — two programs that lack the budgets to fly private like most schools from power conferences.

But come Thursday night, Walker and Nowell will share the floor at Madison Square Garden on the biggest and brightest stage their sport can offer. How they reached the mecca won’t matter. They’ll be living every New York City point guard’s dream.

“To go back there as a hometown kid?” Calhoun asked rhetorically. “Pretty special.”

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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