Home fires still burn for Nunnally

Home fires still burn for Nunnally

Jan. 8, 2011


January 8, 2011 11:28 AM

James Nunnally arrived in Stockton on Friday under the chilly cover of a damp, San Joaquin Valley fog.

But the scoring leader of the UCSB men's basketball team never felt more sunny.

Home is a warm place for Nunnally, and it felt just like summer when he took the practice court a few hours later at the University of Pacific.

"I worked out here every day during the summer," he said. "We stayed at my brother's apartment, and the gym is just down the street. One of my good friends had a key."

Nunnally, an all-state selection for nearby Weston Ranch High, has been a key for the Gauchos this season. He'll take a Big West Conference-leading 18.8-point average into tonight's game at Pacific, and he's also pulling down 5.2 rebounds.

He does it with a fluidly, effortless style that belies the sweat that he spilled last summer in Stockton.

"He's a guy who sees the value of working on his game, more so now than ever before," UCSB coach Bob Williams said. "He has a much better work ethic on his game."

It helped that Nunnally has a drill sergeant for a buddy. Jerrell Walker, a forward for the New York Institute of Technology, made sure it was no summer at the beach for the 6-foot-6 junior.

"I've known Jerrell since I was 2 years old, and we went to high school together," Nunnally said. "He worked me out every day this summer. We'd wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning and head to the gym to work on our shooting. In the middle of the day, we'd work out again.

"If I weren't making shots, Jerrell would have me do push-ups, or sit-ups. He'd make me run, too. He'd really drill me."

Nunnally is shooting nearly 50 percent overall, 38 percent from the 3-point line and 90.3 percent from the free-throw line.

He didn't even cut his workout on Bastille Day, July 14, which is also his birthday.

"We worked out from 10:30 to 12:30 the night before, and then woke up the next morning by 5 to work out again on my birthday," Nunnally said. "That's what prepared me for this season, and so I give Jerrell a big shout-out. That's my guy, right there."

Williams wanted to make Nunnally his guy after getting a shout out from former Delta JC coach Brian Katz.

"Nunn worked out at their gym all the time when he was in high school, and Brian Katz kept telling us, 'This kid can play,'" he said. "He's now the basketball coach at Sacramento State and probably regrets ever helping us, because maybe he could've had Nunn."

Williams didn't realize just how good Nunnally could be until he watched him get 22 points and seven rebounds against nationally ranked North Carolina in just his second game as a Gaucho.

"We believed that Chris Devine and James Powell were going to be our go-to guys that season, but we were really wondering where our third scoring option would come from," he said. "We left that game going, 'That's our third scoring option ... That young man belonged.'

"He could physically hold his own with those guys -- could run and jump with them. His body was good enough to play with them."

Nunnally wasn't even sure he would play that night at the Thunderdome.

"I'd only played 10 minutes in the first game against Cal State L.A., so I was thinking, 'Why would I be in against North Carolina?'" he recalled. "But I got my opportunity and just wanted to do the best I could.

"The first time I went in, I was pretty nervous. Their trap was vicious -- their press was kind of scary to face in the second game of my college career. But after I got my first wind, it was just basketball, something that I'd been playing my whole life."

Nunnally wound up as UCSB's third-leading scorer that season, and then made the All-Big West second team as a sophomore while averaging 14.7 points and 5.6 rebounds.

"Nunn has a tremendous gift for the game," Williams said. "He really sees it, understands it, picks it up quick. He's a really good basketball mind.

"But the difference has been the consistency. As he matured, he's taken a more professional approach to the game."

Nunnally was always the whiz kid in Stockton, dating back to when his brother Michael, a former Pacific star, would choose him in pick-up games at the playground.

"He's four years older, but he'd always pick me, and it would help me, going against older players," he said. "In fifth grade, I was on the eighth-grade team. I always played above my age. I was always the youngest and the smallest."

His older brother schooled him during one of their Big West match-ups.

"I left him for a second and they threw him a lob at UOP and he dunked it," Nunnally said. "He didn't say anything about it, though. He's a real quiet guy, but he's real funny when he does talk.

"Man, I miss him."

Michael Nunnally is playing professional basketball for a team in Hanover, Germany, but he still contacts his younger brother every day.

"We do Facebook or Skype, and he has a phone, too, so I'll call him," Nunnally said. "He hit me up this morning on Facebook, telling me that I had a good game at UC Davis, and wishing me good luck at UOP. He checks up on me every game."

Even without big brother, the Spanos Center will be packed with Nunnally fans, including his mother, Deanna Johnson. Weston Ranch High plans to retire his number this year, and many from the school are planning to attend tonight's game at Pacific.

"This is a pretty special game for me," he said. "I am hyper person, I get really excited. But honestly, I know how to tone down and stay calm on the court.

"I've been through everything in this game. I've hit game-winning shots, and I've missed game-winning shots."

And then run laps alone in a sweltering gym before taking the next one.