Fuquan Niles makes his return to the court

Xander Fu

Xander Fu

Mitchell Johnson, Sports Editor

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It was another dark gloomy February evening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport when Fuquan Niles clocked out of his shift at 7 p.m.

He checked his cell phone — a missed call from CWU assistant coach Jared Johnson..

Niles gave Johnson a call back and after he hung up the phone his excitement on this dark gloomy day picked up.

“They told me they wanted to bring me out on a visit,” Niles says.

Standing above most at 6’11, and weighing 280 pounds, Niles was always a defensive force on the basketball court.

At this point, Niles had not played a basketball game in about a year — even though he was one of the top basketball players in Washington three years earlier. This was the call he needed.

Getting into the game

Even though Niles was not always 6’11 he has always stood above most people his age.

“I was always the tallest in elementary,” Niles says. “In school pictures I was always the tallest kid.”

Genetics have helped. His dad is at 6-foot-7.

When Niles was in sixth grade, he got into basketball after watching his brother play high school basketball. He joined Seattle Rotary basketball, a part of the Amateur Athletic Union for Boys Basketball (AAU).

CWU junior guard Jawan Stepney played with Niles during AAU; they are now roommates and teammates here at CWU.

“AAU is pretty loose, more up and down,” Stepney says. “Throwing him the ball up and him blocking everything is pretty fun.”

Stepney believes it was during his AAU day when Niles set the base of his skill set.

“He improved a lot,” Stepney recalls. “He got stronger and tougher mentally and physically. He developed a little jumpshot [that would] take him a long way too.”

Playing for the powerhouse

During his freshman year, Niles played for Ingraham High School in North Seattle. But the long distance from the school made him want to transfer.

“I lived closer to Rainier Beach,” Niles says. “Where Ingram was at [it] was like a 40-minute drive just to take the bus out there.”

Niles had to play his sophomore year on Rainier Beach’s Junior Varsity (JV) team because transfers cannot play on varsity for a year after coming to a new school. Here is where he met and became best friends with his now CWU — teammate Naim Ladd.

“We pretty much bonded,” Ladd says. “We played together and been friends ever since.”

Even though Niles has a 17-inch height advantage over the 5’7, Ladd it has not stopped their friendship..

“Playing on the same team and being around each other makes us click even more on-and-off the court,” Niles says. “That’s like my dude. Even later on in life that’s still going to be my guy, because he’s just a good friend and a good person.”

After his sophomore year basketball season, Niles put in lots of offseason work with the Rainier Beach coaching staff to improve his game.

“He didn’t have much technique or post moves, so he was just tall,” Ladd says. “The next year when he came in he was just a beast.”

The next year Niles started on varsity for head coach Mike Bethea, who has been at the helm for Rainier Beach since 1994. During his career there he has led them to nine state championship finals, winning seven times. Rainier Beach was also ranked No. 1 in the country for a short time in 2002.

“If you can get coached by him you can be coached by anybody,” Niles says. “He’s going to give it to you tough and hard, but he also knew what he was talking about.”

Rainier Beach and Bethea have also been known to produce NBA players. Jamal Crawford is one of them; he’s going on 17 years in the NBA. Nate Robinson is also well known from his time with Rainier Beach and the University of Washington.

During NBA off-seasons, many of these NBA alumnus will come back to their hometown to scrimmage with the Rainier Beach players.

“It made me tougher because I had to play stronger and play [bigger], and I wasn’t [as] big as I was now,” Niles says. “They got me tough mentally and physically too. They give us good feedback about how to be better players [and] individuals. It’s just a good life experience.”

Niles helped bring two straight state titles to Rainier Beach, with a 61-58 win over Seattle Preparatory School during the 2011-12 season, and a 62-59 win in overtime over Lakeside in 2012-13.

In 2013, Niles was the third-best recruit in the state of Washington, receiving a 3-star rating. According to ESPN.com he had offers to play basketball for UW and Washington State University.

“He’s coachable, that’s what separated him from a lot of bigs,” Ladd says. “That goes a long way in life.”

Niles could not go to either of these schools — or any NCAA school — because he did not take his SAT. He thought he would get one more year of eligibility to play at Rainier Beach, but it didn’t pan out.

“He’s coachable, that’s what separated him from a lot of bigs. That goes a long way in life.””

— Naim Ladd

The Junior College route

Niles went to North Idaho College (NIC), following his Rainier Beach teammates Will Dorsey, Jordan King and Wilfred Middlebrooks.

“It was a different adjustment, because I’m used to being at home,” Niles says. “I’m five hours away from Seattle, which isn’t far, but it’s the first time on my own.”

During his freshman year at NIC, Niles played in 30 games, starting in 12 and playing 13 minutes per game. He averaged 3.6 points per game and five rebounds per game. NIC had a 26-5 record, making it to the Scenic West Athletic Conference (SWAC) Championship, where they lost to Salt Lake Community College 74-69.

Before his sophomore season, Niles was once again reunited with Ladd when CWU scrimmaged NIC before their seasons started.

“Seeing him and how his game was then and developing since high school, it was amazing,” Ladd recalls. “I was pretty shocked.”

Niles’ next season was similar stats-wise. The team had a 24-8 record, making it once again to the SWAC championship game, losing to the College of Southern Idaho 96-79.

“Seeing him and how his game was then and developing since high school, it was amazing. I was pretty shocked.””

— Naim Ladd

Heading down south

Niles then went to the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. After he went down there he never felt comfortable from the start.

“I just wasn’t feeling it — the coaching system, the people down there — I didn’t feel like I would be happy down there,” Niles says. “So I didn’t wanna waste a whole year playing down there.”

Ladd made sure to keep in contact with Niles during his time in Texas.

“I just kept in touch with him, asking him how is day was, how he was doing in class, little things like that,” Ladd says. “Making sure he was okay and straight on-and-off the court.”

After the semester ended, Niles moved back to Seattle.

“I wasn’t giving up basketball after that,” Niles says. “It was just a minor setback.”

Work, work, work, work, work

Niles got a job cleaning airplanes and pushing wheelchairs for travelers not able to walk themselves at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

During his time working at the airport, Niles got out of basketball shape.

I got fat,” Niles says. “I got to like 300 pounds working at the airport. I used to work and go home and that was it.”

CWU Assistant Coach Jared Johnson had ties with Niles through NIC. They began contacting Niles once they found out he left West Texas.

“I’ve always liked Central in the first place, so I felt it was a good option for me,” Niles says.

Once he knew CWU wanted him, Niles began to get in shape. It wasn’t an easy task, though.

“Hard — Hella hard,” Niles recalls. “The first time I ever ran down the court I was just done, my chest is hurting and all that. I was like I don’t know, this is too much.”

During warm summer nights, Niles would make his way out to the Rainier Beach High School track five days a week. Here is where he began to regain his stamina to play for the CWU basketball team.

Joining the Wildcats

Niles came in to Central not fully in basketball shape, but he had lost 20 pounds, moving him to 280.

CWU head coach Greg Sparling changed Niles’ role into one that he was not used to at first.

“In his old spots he was a pick-and-roll rebounding kind of guy, and we’re asking him to score a little bit more here,” Sparling says. “He’s buying in to it.”

After an exhibition game, Niles played his first regular-season basketball game against California State, San Bernardino on November 11. His first game in 622 days.

“I was nervous but I was happy because I was finally on the court again,” Niles says. “I get to do what I love to do.”

Niles scored 18 points off the bench in an 89-84 win over California State University, San Bernardino.

“He said he couldn’t wait to get back onto the court,” Stepney recalls. “It was tough for him to sit out that year.”

“He hasn’t scratched the surface on how good he’s going to be. He’s just getting better daily””

— Greg Sparling

During that same roadtrip, the CWU men’s basketball team was leaving their team dinner at Applebee’s in Seaside, California, when they realized Niles was missing.

The team could see Niles talking with a group of two families, 15 people total, inside the restaurant. He was answering all of their questions: How tall are you? Where do you play?

“He went all the way down the line, ‘Thank you, Thank you, Thank you,’” CWU head coach Greg Sparling recalls. “Everything he does he says thank you.”

Niles earned a starting spot during the Wildcats’ eighth game of the season against Alaska Anchorage.

Currently Niles averages 9.9 points per game, 8.3 rebounds per game and in 22.3 minutes per game, the fourth-highest on the team.

“He hasn’t scratched the surface on how good he’s going to be. He’s just getting better daily,” Sparling says. “We’re fortunate things worked out; we got him for two years here.”

Like Niles, Stepney was also an incoming transfer this season. Stepney, who transferred from Cochise College, says that Niles joining the Wildcats influenced him to come, too, in order to reconnect.

Niles and Stepney are now roommates.

When Niles and Stepney are not at practice or doing homework they are hanging out in their apartment playing NBA 2K or watching television.
“He’s a funny dude, we talk about anything whenever,” Stepney says.

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Fuquan Niles makes his return to the court