This article first ran in 'HOOPS: The Iowa State Way' on December 1, 2016, and can be found at www.isdhoops.com.
AMES, Iowa — He’s been spotted around Ames, Iowa, during the last several years.
A 6-foot-10 white guy is hard to miss.
And in spring 2015, that’s all Stuart Nezlek was: a 6-foot-10 kinesiology student.
But Stuart wanted more. So he took a chance.
He emailed Iowa State basketball coach Fred Hoiberg.
“Dude, my name is Stuart. I’m 6-foot-10. I just wanted to play basketball for you,” Stuart wrote, more or less.
“Yeah, come by,” Hoiberg replied later. “We’ll talk.”
So they did. Stuart went in to meet with Hoiberg and the coaching staff. Then, a few meetings and practices later, it worked out. Stuart was on the team. From there, the legend was born. Stuart went from an average college student to a fan favorite overnight. Instead of sitting in the stands at Hilton Coliseum, Stuart is now the big guy sitting at the end of the bench who fans go crazy for when he gets in at the end of games.
“STUUUUUUU,” fans scream out when he gets on the court — which only happens for about a minute each game, if he’s lucky.
But that doesn’t matter. He’s just happy to be back on the court again.
“Being able to [play at] a school like this that is in the top three conferences in the U.S. and in the Top-25 in the country, it just goes to show that if you really want to do something, there is never anything or anyone that can stop you,” Stuart said.
By the time Stuart began high school, he started to take the game more seriously. He joined the basketball team his freshman year and continued to play his sophomore season. His junior and senior seasons, though, didn’t go so smoothly. Stuart transferred to Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois. He said he and his new coach didn’t see eye to eye, limiting his playing time significantly. He was still a member of the team, just never really got to see time on the court.
“It was tough just knowing that I was better than the people who were playing above me, and basically because of how it was set up I just never got the opportunity [to play],” Stuart said.
As Stuart approached the end of his senior year, he knew one thing: He wanted to keep playing basketball. His coach, though, wasn’t so sure.
“The highest level of basketball you would ever play is a small Division III school,” his coach told him. “A liberal arts college, somewhere that was never known for sports.”
That wasn’t good enough for Stuart.
He looked his coach dead in the face: “No. I can do better than that.”
So he started looking around at schools where he could play, but still get the education he wanted. He didn’t have any scholarship offers to play basketball anywhere, so he landed at Iowa State. He liked the school, and it was one of the only schools to which he was accepted.
But basketball was off the table. At least it was at the start.
Before Stuart even set foot in Ames, he sent an email to Micah Byars, the head of Iowa State basketball operations. Stuart explained his situation, that he didn’t play much basketball in high school, but wanted to walk onto the Iowa State team. Stuart’s email intrigued Byars, so he set up a meeting. When he looked at the roster that season, though, the two just couldn’t make it work. The roster was already full.
“He actually came in and sat on my couch,” Byars said. “At that time we had definitely one, may two walk-ons. Then it kind of dissolved into, ‘Oh, well maybe next year.’”
So Stuart just adapted to college like any other freshman. But just because he couldn’t get on the team didn’t mean Stuart quit playing basketball. He started regularly playing pickup basketball at Lied Recreation Athletic Center.
“I’d mainly go there to play basketball for two to three hours every day, just to pass the time and work out at the same time,” Stuart said. “I was just enjoying playing basketball.”
But Stuart hurt himself by the end of his freshman year. He tore his labrum in his shoulder and was forced to undergo surgery. He then took the next fall to rehab his shoulder until he could play basketball at Lied again.
And when he finally got to that point, Stuart had a thought. It was time for him to give walking on another shot. That’s when he sent the email to Hoiberg.
“I was actually in [Hoiberg’s] house when he got that email,” said guard Naz Mitrou-Long, who had just finished his sophomore year. “It was interesting to hear because it sounded like a dude who was dedicated and wanted to be on the team. I thought he might be able to come in here and start by that email.”
Once they read the email, Byars and Hoiberg decided to bring Stuart in for another conversation.
This time, things went much more smoothly.
“We brought him in, sat [him] on the couch again,” Byars said. “Then he met with Fred, came down and did a workout with one of our graduate assistants and our managers, and next thing you know he’s on the team.”
Stuart was just as surprised as the rest of them.
“I didn’t really know how to take it at first,” Stuart said. “[I kept thinking,] ‘Is this real? Y’all aren’t yanking my chain?’ Once I started doing workouts with everyone and it was solidified, I was like, ‘Oh, this is like high school only better.’”
Soon, though, a dilemma arose. Stuart joined Hoiberg’s team. But Hoiberg departed Ames to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. When Steve Prohm was hired to replace him just a few months later, Stuart didn’t know if Prohm would keep him on the team.
Soon enough, though, Prohm decided to honor Stuart’s spot on the team. He could stay.
“It was sort of strange in that Stuart was getting a spot on what would have been Hoiberg’s squad just as Fred was departing to coach the Bulls, so there was a period of uncertainty when Steve Prohm took over as head coach,” his dad, George, said. “That had to be a difficult thing, taking someone else’s squad with no real input into choosing your own players, but I was delighted when all the dust settled and Stuart was still there.”
While it was fairly straightforward for Stuart to join the team, successfully earning a spot on a Division I basketball team is no easy task. Only 15 players can make the roster, leaving just two or three spots, maximum, for walk-ons. Byars, who handles most of the walk-ons initially in the process, said he gets emails daily from students wanting to join the team.
“The majority of them, to be honest with you, are students at Iowa State that enjoy basketball and then they decide that they want to be a part of it,” Byars said. “But I don’t know that most of them know what all that entails. A lot of those folks, when they realize what the entire process entails, they usually back away.”
But Stuart’s email to Byars stood out. When Stuart told Byars the story of his high school basketball problems, that’s what really made him stand out.
“When you read that, the candid nature of that is just funny,” Byars said. “So that kind of led to another email and a call. When he showed back up, it had been a year or two since I saw him, and I told coach Hoiberg that I saw this kid [before].
“It was just a funny story, so it kind of caught my eye. I thought it was interesting, and coach Hoiberg thought it was funny as well.”
By the time his first Hilton Madness — Iowa State’s version of a preseason “Midnight Madness” — rolled around, Stuart was well known.
He just didn’t know it yet.
“When Hilton Madness came, when I heard ‘STUUU,’ I really thought it was BOOs,” Stuart said. “Literally for the first three games I thought it was ‘boo.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is lovely.’
“But when I finally listened, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a S. That’s Stuart.’”
Stuart doesn’t get much playing time. Last season he played in seven games for a total of nine minutes, dropping just two points on the season. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t putting in the work in practices. Mitrou-Long said it’s far from it.
“He works. He gets it in in the weight room. He puts in that overtime,” Mitrou-Long said. “He’s a very educated dude. And he’s funny. If you’re talking some smack to him, he’s coming back to you.”
The fact that Stuart can talk some “smack” proves that he isn’t just a footnote to the rest of the team.
He’s most definitely a part of it.
“This was destiny for him,” Mitrou-Long said. “He was meant to be with us. He keeps the character high on this team. He’s just a great dude.
“He fits in well. A Stuart-less Cyclone team would be a little weird. His presence is definitely felt when he comes in. That’s my son.”
Prohm, who had nothing to do with Stuart’s arrival on the team, has felt his impact on the team. While it’s not traditionally what you think of, Prohm said his impact is still incredibly important.
“All the guys like him. He knows a lot of people on campus. [He’s] got a great personality,” Prohm said. “I think the biggest thing that he provides for us is that he can be a great encourager, be into the game on the bench and on the sidelines and in practice, keep people loose and enjoying it and having fun.”
Stuart knows he won’t have a major impact on the court this season. That isn’t a surprise.
But that doesn’t matter to him. He’s just here to play basketball.
“I just want to keep getting better,” Stuart said. “That’s all I can do and provide for the team in anyway I can.”
Oh, and there is one other goal of his.
“Hopefully [we] beat Kansas, on the road and here,” Stuart said. “That would be great.”
Stuart is set to graduate from Iowa State this spring with a degree in kinesiology. As of now his plan is to continue his education, hopefully attending graduate school to get his master’s degree. He isn’t sure where he wants to attend yet but is still weighing his options. Should he attend graduate school, Stuart would have one year of eligibility left to play basketball.
“I guess I’ve just looked at a bunch of schools based on what they offer for school, and basketball is just secondary,” Stuart said. “It’s still there, but it’s just not there as much as school is.”
Regardless of where he ends up, Stuart is living a dream that very few college students ever get to experience.
“This is an unbelievable experience for Stuart,” Prohm said. “He’s playing Big 12, high, high-major basketball, traveling, eating at the best places, staying at the best hotels, playing the best competition. This is life-changing for him.”
There are even times where Stuart can’t describe the feeling. Just three years ago, Stuart was an average fan, cheering on the Cyclones from the stands in Hilton Coliseum. Now, he’s a member of that team that thousands of fans around the country cheer for every year.
He made it.
“To go from there to sitting on the bench, it’s a totally different atmosphere,” Stuart said. “Instead of going to cheer for people, people were cheering for me. Just the whole switching from being a fan to being a part of something that people cheer for, I couldn’t describe it.”