This article first ran in 'HOOPS: The Iowa State Way' on December 1, 2016, and can be found at www.isdhoops.com.
AMES, Iowa — Things were going well for Nazareth Mitrou-Long when he took the court at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma, on Feb. 9, 2015.
Naz and No. 14 Iowa State were taking on No. 17 Oklahoma, one of the bigger games for the Cyclones in their Big 12 Conference slate that season. Naz opened the game with a 3-pointer. He quickly followed it up with a dunk. Things were fine. It was business as usual. Naz was in the middle of his junior campaign, one in which he truly established himself as Iowa State’s premier 3-point shooter.
But that night in early February, even though the average Cyclone fan saw Naz play well, something was off. Naz subbed out of the game in his normal rotation. He approached his seat on the bench, and that’s when he knew something was wrong.
“I couldn’t sit on the bench,” Naz said. “I had to go lay down.”
Almost instantly, the national audience watching the game on ESPN’s Big Monday started criticizing him.
“Naz is having a great game, so he wants to go to the end of the bench and lay down,” someone tweeted at him.
Several more tweets and comments followed. Naz, Iowa State’s 3-point guru, looked like he was loafing around at the end of the bench. He was having a good game, so why not kick back and relax? He had earned it, right?
“For people to see that, they probably didn’t know why I was doing that and [were] thinking, ‘I just wanted to do that because I could do whatever I felt,’” Naz said.
“But it wasn’t that. It was just the fact that I couldn’t sit on the bench. I was very uncomfortable.”
An excruciating pain, one that had been slowly chipping away at him all season, engulfed him, forcing him to lie down at the end of the bench. It was all that he could do to catch his breath.
Naz didn’t call it quits, though. He finished the game with 14 points, the 15th time that season he finished in double figures for the Cyclones. But it was then that he knew something was truly wrong. The pain that had been jawing at him all season was making itself known.
He couldn’t ignore it any longer.
So a month later, just days after Iowa State fell to UAB in the NCAA Tournament, Naz went into surgery. Doctors repaired two torn labrums in his hips and scoped part of his hip bone. And for the next seven months, the one thing in Naz’s life that always made sense was gone.
He had to step away.
“I genuinely love this thing, man. This ball, I love this game,” Naz said. “Everything it’s done for me, it’s made my life so beautiful, man. I appreciate it.
“And to have that taken away, it hurt. It was one of the worst moments of my life.”
He wanted to play Division I basketball in the United States.
A Canadian high school student doesn’t easily accomplish that feat. Most college scouts simply aren’t looking at the basketball scene north of the border. So he left to attend Montrose Christian, a prep school in Rockville, Maryland, where he averaged 8 points and 5 assists per game. After that year, Naz transferred to Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada.
While he didn’t see the court much that year in Nevada — thanks to the stocked roster that included Anthony Bennett, Myck Kabongo, Nick Johnson and Landen Lucas, among others — his basketball game reached a new level, Naz said.
“That year was the year that I took the jump of becoming a way better player than I had been in the past,” Naz told the Daily. “These guys were 6-feet-7 or 6-feet-this, 6-feet-that. I’m looking around like, ‘Wow, this is the size of people in the NBA and in college. This is going to get me prepared.’”
It wasn’t until after the Nike Peach Jam, one of the best tournaments on the AAU circuit, that following summer that Naz started getting college offers. And once he connected with then-coach Fred Hoiberg and took his visit to Ames, his decision was made. He was a Cyclone.
“I’d never seen anything like that,” Naz told the Daily. “The athletics out here, you can’t compare to Canada. So when I saw Jack Trice and the football game, I fell in love with that.
“I wanted to leave my mark at a place I had mistaken for Ohio State. I didn’t even know there was a state of Iowa. I hadn’t known, but I wanted to know. I was so eager to know more.”
So Naz moved to a state he had never heard of and started settling in. But during his freshman campaign, his role on the team wasn’t quite what he had hoped. Naz saw action in just 18 games that year, averaging 1.4 points and 1 assist per contest. Essentially, he got scrub minutes.
He knew that going into the season. It wasn’t a shock. Naz just took what he got and ran with it.
“I’m a guy who it takes a little second to learn some things, but once I get it down I’m going to give my all, 110 percent to make sure I’m doing my best at it,” Naz said.
While many freshmen would have been frustrated not getting much playing time, Naz’s mom, Georgia Mitrou, said it wasn’t an issue for him.
He embraced his role.
“It wasn’t hard for him, which is weird because most kids would be like, ‘Oh no, I want to play,’” Georgia said. “His first year he accepted it. He respected the seniors so much, and he learned so much from them that for him it was just good enough to be around that group of guys, that coach, that atmosphere, and that was Naz.”
Naz’s sophomore year was better. He was filling a sixth-man role and doing well. He played in all 36 games that season, averaging 7.1 points per contest and shooting 40 percent from behind the arc.
Even though he didn’t get a lot of playing time, or even all of the recognition he may have deserved that year, Naz was doing everything he could in his role. Senior guard Matt Thomas, who was a freshman at that time, said Naz’s leadership hasn’t differed since he first met him that season.
“Ever since I’ve been around Naz he’s been a vocal leader, even as a sophomore,” Thomas said. “He was still a leader on that team because that’s just the presence that he brings to a team, and everybody respects him when he speaks up. That hasn’t changed.”
He started in all but one contest that year and averaged more than 10 points per game. He even hit a team-high 77 3-point buckets that season. But it wasn’t that easy. The pain in his hips was eating at him again. Georgia said this pain was nothing new for Naz.
“I want to say his hips were hurting since the age of 15,” Georgia said. “He’s always complained. He couldn’t stretch. He hurt. [It wasn’t as bad] as it was when he got older. [We] thought it was growing pains.”
Yet all through his junior season, Naz would talk to his mom about the pain that had returned.
“No, I’m OK. I can do this. I’m OK,” Naz told his mom over the phone one night.
“If you’re not feeling good, just sit out,” Georgia told him.
“No mom. I got this,” he said.
He was resilient. He refused to sit out.
“In his head, he wants to accomplish so much in so little time,” Georgia said. “Little did he know, ‘Hey, you have all the time in the world,’ in a sense.”
So he stuck it out, waiting to have the surgery until the season was over. Naz then took time off.
Seemingly recovered after his offseason break and rehab from the procedure, Naz entered his senior season making national headlines. The Cyclones were good. Led by All-American Georges Niang, Iowa State started the season ranked No. 7 in the country. While Naz looked good on paper, even going 5-of-9 from the field for 13 points in the season opener against Colorado, he was still struggling.
“I wasn’t healthy, even in the season,” Naz said. “It was something where I wasn’t supposed to play last year at all. Numbers wise, we just didn’t have the depth. I knew if I didn’t try and push and get back to play, it would hurt us in the beginning of the season.”
Georgia, who watches nearly all of Naz’s games on TV, was watching one night early that season.
“I saw him sitting on the bench. Then I saw him on the court. Then all of the sudden, I didn’t see him anywhere,” Georgia recalled. “It’s unlike Naz to be somewhere else. He’s always with his team.
“[Then] I saw him lying down on the ground in pain.”
It was like the Oklahoma game all over again. Naz couldn’t sit on the bench. He was in too much pain. That night after the game, Georgia called her son.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“I’m in so much pain,” Naz told her. “This is my senior year. I’m supposed to shine.”
“Mom,” he added, “I can’t sleep at night.”
The pain wasn’t just hurting him physically. It was killing him mentally, too.
“People don’t know that Naz didn’t sleep,” Georgia said. “He would be up half the night not feeling well in pain all the time, trying to make decisions. Every aspect of his life was affected by it.”
By the fifth and sixth games of the 2015-16 season, Naz knew he was running out of time. If he wanted to seek a medical redshirt, he couldn’t play more than eight games.
But Naz didn’t want to give up just yet.
“I knew it in my head [what I had to do], but I didn’t want to believe it,” Naz said. “I kind of knew that it was going to come to that point, but I was hoping that I would play and it would feel better to the point where, ‘Bang, that idea is gone now. Let’s keep riding the wave and let’s keep doing it.’ But you could see as the season was progressing how quick it was for me to decrease.”
Naz played in the Cy-Hawk basketball game against Iowa, Iowa State’s eighth game of the season.
Right after the game, he sat down with Iowa State coach Steve Prohm.
“After the Iowa game, we talked one more time, and that’s when I knew he was ready to shut it down,” Prohm said. “He just didn’t feel like he was capable of playing.”
He called the entire team over to his apartment one night and broke the news. He was stepping away.
“Everybody was over, and there was tears in that room,” Naz said. “Not only by myself, man, but Georges [Niang] was crushed.”
Prohm knew Naz was crushed, too. He watched Naz battle with this decision all season and understood how hard it was for him.
“He’s been with these guys [since the beginning],” Prohm said. “I’m sure it was really tough for him because part of him is probably thinking he’s let some people down. On the flip side, he has to make sure long term that he’s healthy and feels good. You can’t have it both ways.”
And just like that, only eight games into the season, Naz’s senior year was over.
It was the ninth game of the 2015-16 season, and Iowa State was about to tip off against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. It was the first game since Naz decided to hang up his jersey for the year.
The team broke its pregame huddle. The players started to run out of the red double-doors, slapping the Iowa State mural atop the doors before stepping out into the bright lights of Hilton Coliseum.
But Naz froze.
He couldn’t do it.
It was the first time in his career that he would walk out onto the court in street clothes. It was the first time at Iowa State that he wouldn’t be an option in the game. It was the first time he would be tied down to the bench.
And he was devastated.
“I couldn’t stop crying in the locker room because it just didn’t feel right,” Naz said. “I had never walked out in just street clothes. I never redshirted or anything, so I never did that. It was a shock to me.”
Georgia, who was once again watching on TV, texted Naz after the game. He didn’t answer.
Then she FaceTimed him. Still no answer. Finally, she just left him a text.
“Call me when you’re ready to talk,” it read.
When she eventually got hold of him, Naz was still devastated.
“Mom, if this doesn’t work out for me, what am I going to do?” he asked. “I love this game. I love the connection I have with these guys. What am I going to do?”
“Naz, you know God has plans for you,” Georgia replied. “You didn’t come this far for this to be where you stop. You have to believe.”
At that point, the dynamic of the team had changed. One of its senior leaders was no longer on the court.
“As a friend, as a teammate, seeing him go down is definitely tough to see,” Thomas said. “Not having him on the court, it’s tough because he’s such a vocal leader. He traveled with us on the road, but it’s just not the same when he’s out there in uniform competing with us.”
Prohm knew that, even though the team was in a different place, he couldn’t afford to lose Naz for good. He had to do something.
“The biggest thing then was, ‘Hey, come with us. Help coach this team. Help keep these guys encouraged,’” Prohm said.
And Naz did. Once he was able to get over the initial impact of not playing, Naz’s mentality changed completely.
He had become an assistant coach of sorts. Throughout the rest of the season, Naz was right there on the bench cheering on his team. He was right there in the huddles, giving tips and advice.
He embraced his new role, something he described as being an “extension of coach.”
And his team responded well.
“I think his role came to him naturally,” Georgia said. “He didn’t know what was going to happen, he just showed up and things fell into place.”
Especially late in the season, Naz would be in the gym working out and he would feel like his old self.
But the consistency wasn’t there.
“There was times I felt up, but then I’d have a second practice later that week and I’d be so low,” Naz said. “I’d be so pissed off and so mad at myself, and the reality of it was this is the nature of my body at that state.”
Naz wanted to be back out there. He wanted to retake the court. He contemplated coming back, especially right before the conference tournament started.
“It went through my mind every game, honestly,” Naz said. “Every game that we were just walking out in Hilton, it never got easier. I just wasn’t used to it, and I’m not used to it.”
Vic Miller, the team’s athletic trainer, warned him about this scenario
“There are going to be days where you feel like, ‘All right, you’re ready to go back out there,’” Vic told Naz. “But you can’t do that because it’s not what’s going to be the best for your body. Rest is the key thing now.”
So that’s what he did. He rested. That entire season, Naz slowly started to get back into the gym. He said that process, though, was one of the toughest.
“You start to question if you’ll ever be back as the player you were,” Naz said. “In this game, it’s all about consistency. If you have 30 [points] one game, zero the next, win this game, lose that, you’re so up and down, you’re not really doing anything positive. You’re not taking any steps forward.”
Once Iowa State fell to Virginia in the Sweet 16, Naz took five weeks off.
He rested. And once he was ready, he retook the gym.
Prohm likes where Naz is at.
“He’s in the gym all the time shooting,” Prohm said. “His body looks good. I think he’s in a really good place. He’s fully healthy, ready to go. Shooting it well, moving well. I think he’s at a really good place right now.”
“Right now he’s playing the best basketball I think in his life,” Thomas said.
After a painful two seasons, Naz is finally back. The pain he has felt off and on since he was 15 years old is gone, nowhere to be found.
This is exactly where Naz wants to be.
“It was everything I had dreamed of since the day I got my surgery,” Naz said.
“When you go through things like that, you really think like, ‘Is this it?’ I put my whole life, left home young, the whole shebang, for this. And when those type of things happen, you just think, ‘Is it done?’
“When I got that consistency going again and my shot started to fall, when I started to dunk again and started to do the little things and take hustle plays without no pain, I couldn’t do nothing but thank the man upstairs for blessing me with that.”