Three years ago, Nowell was living a dream and a nightmare at the same time. At 15, his basketball career was blossoming but he would lose his father to cancer that same year.
Jaylen Nowell knows exactly what his father would say if he were here to see his oldest son lead the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team in scoring.
“He would tell me that you’re definitely doing a great job, but there’s a bunch of things that you still need to improve on,” says Nowell, a UW freshman who averages 16.9 points per game. “There’s no such thing as being a finished product.
“That’s what he always used to tell me. So no matter how good I’m doing, I always feel like I can do better. I’m always trying to improve every day.”
On a cold and gray Seattle winter afternoon, Nowell sat inside an empty Alaska Airlines Arena and connected the dots on his basketball journey.
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It’s a wistful story detailing the heartbreaking loss of his father and how he’s learning to live with that pain.
It began 13 years ago when Nowell started playing basketball in the small backyard of his parents’ home in Kent on a grass court.
He learned the game from his dad, whom many called Big Mike or Monster Mike. The name fit because Mike — a 6-foot-6 giant of a man — was a bully on the court, his friends would say.
“He could set a screen like you wouldn’t believe,” said Washington State assistant Ed Haskins, who coached Nowell at Garfield High.
Jaylen had posters of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant on his bedroom wall, but he idolized his dad’s favorite players: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
“Growing up, I always watched the older guys with my father and I guess you can say I patterned some of my game from what they were doing,” said Jaylen, who possesses an old-school mid-range jumper. “That was the main way they scored back in the day — mid-range Js.
“I just always felt like – especially with the way the league is going right now – it’s something that nobody is really works on. Therefore, nobody can really stop it.”
In many ways, Jaylen was born to play basketball. His father, Mike, starred at Clark Atlanta University (1989-93) and his mother, Lanie, played center for Clark Atlanta’s women’s basketball team.
“Her and my dad would go back and forth talking about who got what from who,” Jaylen said. “It was a funny childhood.”
They spent countless afternoons at a nearby park playing basketball. Jaylen and his younger brother, Shane, would team up against their parents.
“We loved to be around each other,” Jaylen said. “Even if it wasn’t basketball and just life in general. But we always connected it to basketball someway, somehow because that was as a kid the way that I learned things.
“I was one of those kids who didn’t go out much. I just wanted to play basketball no matter where I was. As long as there was a hoop and a ball, I was good.”
Three years ago, Jaylen lived a dream and a nightmare at the same time.
The 15-year-old sophomore became a bright young star in the basketball world.
In 2015, he garnered a roster spot on the USA national team that played in the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Argentina and was a first-team selection on the MaxPreps Sophomore All-America Team.
The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 23.3 points and 6.1 rebounds during the 2014-15 season for Garfield High, which finished 27-2.
Jaylen tallied a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs to a 66-51 win over rival Rainier Beach in the Class 3A state title game.
Two months later, Mike died May 11 after a long fight with cancer. He was 46.
“Being a kid and being the oldest, I’m trying to be strong for my mom and my brother so I didn’t really show any emotions,” Jaylen said. “My mom would be constantly worried about my mindset because I would never talk to her about it. I just wanted to be someone who got them through that instead of being involved in it.
“As a teenage boy, that definitely broke me, but I just wanted to do exactly what he wanted me to do, which was just continue to work and be the best that I can be. That’s what he told me every day. As long as you are the best you that you can be, then he’s happy.”
Mike mentored many kids in Seattle who had basketball dreams. From 2005 to 2011, he was an assistant coach with the Seattle Rotary Style Basketball AAU program. In 2009, he joined Haskins’ staff at Garfield and coached the junior varsity team in 2011.
And Mike spent the 2014-15 season as a Seattle University assistant under Cameron Dollar, who is now a UW assistant.
“Everyone loved Big Mike,” UW assistant Will Conroy said. “When you see such a strong man as Big Mike was and you see him get so weak, it just breaks you. You know that he’s Jaylen’s and Shane’s and Lanie’s world. Your heart goes out to them and you want to help as much as you can.”
In pro-am tournaments at Seattle U and pickup games at Green Lake Park, Mike Nowell spent years providing tutelage on the court. He mentored Seattle greats such as Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Peyton Siva and Tony Wroten Jr.
Still, Mike’s most prized pupils were his sons Jaylen and Shane, who is now a freshman guard at Eastside Catholic High, averaging 9.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
“What I thought Big Mike was great at is he would not feel like he needed all the credit or needed to be the one to help his son,” Conroy said. “He would come to me or Brandon, and be like ‘I’ve taken Jaylen as far as I can take him. I haven’t played at that level that you guys have played at. You guys can show him the rest.’ He wouldn’t hesitate to say stuff like that.”
Mike Nowell landed an NBA tryout with the Denver Nuggets, but was cut on the last day of training camp. It was a painful memory he often shared with his sons.
“I felt like he didn’t want me to be in that position so he pushed me to be great every day,” Jaylen said. “And I thank him for that.”
Two years ago, when Jaylen sat between Lanie and Shane and signed a Washington scholarship, Daryll Hennings, the athletic director at Rotary Boys & Girls Club and director of the AAU basketball team, beamed like a proud papa.
“This was the dream,” he said. “This is what Mike always wanted. He invested so much into those boys.”
The dream was nearly altered last year when the Huskies fired Lorenzo Romar and replaced him with Mike Hopkins, a newcomer who spent the previous 22 years as a Syracuse assistant.
Washington’s touted 2017 recruiting nearly disintegrated.
When Nowell re-committed to the Huskies, Hopkins proclaimed it one of the greatest days in the history of the program. Nowell was the only one of five commitments to Romar’s staff who ended up coming to UW.
At the time it seemed like an overstatement, but six months later Hopkins proved to be prophetic.
The UW coach draws parallels between Nowell and former Syracuse great John Wallace, a Rochester, N.Y., native who signed with the Orange in 1992 at a time when most top recruits shunned the Orange while it served a two-year probation for recruiting violations.
Four years later, Wallace led Syracuse to the 1996 NCAA tournament national championship game.
“I always say, John saved the program,” Hopkins said. “At that time, if he doesn’t come, then where are we?
“So here you have one of the biggest recruiting classes. A change of coach. You never know what’s going to happen. Jaylen’s belief in this school, it’s … huge. And to see what he’s doing now. He moves the needle. You’re going to go back to that day.”
Nowell, who scored a personal-best 32 points in his UW debut, has made the transition from high school to college appear seamless.
He’s tied for eighth in scoring in the Pac-12 — second among freshmen — while averaging 3.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
If Mike were here, he would probably congratulate Jaylen on shooting 49 percent from the field and 80.5 percent at the free throw line while admonishing his son for shooting 31.7 percent on three-pointers.
“I know Big Mike would be ultra proud of him, but he always wanted Jaylen to get better though,” Conroy said. “He’s not one of those dads who was content with what their son was doing. If Jaylen was killing it, Mike would be like, yeah, but he could be doing this too.”
Now 35, Conroy, a former Garfield and UW alum, is fiercely protective of Nowell and believes the soft-spoken 18-year-old has unresolved feelings toward Mike’s passing.
“That’s part of our jobs as mentors and coaches is to get him to open up and be a little more talkative,” Conroy said. “A kid shouldn’t carry that burden on his own. … But at the same time, it’s a little bit of his chip too. It gives more of a reason to play. He’s playing for something bigger than himself.
“I just don’t like for a kid having that stuff on his shoulders and carrying that constantly and feeling like he doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it because he has a whole family here.”
Nowell, a self-described homebody, admits it’s taken him awhile to talk publicly about losing his father. Even now, his voice cracks and he swallows hard to keep his emotions in check while reliving what he called “the hardest days in my life.”
Even though it’s difficult to discuss his loss, Nowell wants to be an advocate for others — particularly kids — who are coping with stressful situations.
“You’re never really healed after the death of somebody who’s been a part of your life since forever,” Nowell said. “I think about him every day. I think about what he would say and what he would do in these situations and try to be like him because he wasn’t just a good basketball player.
“He was a great person. Everyday I just want to be as great as him. I want to affect people the exact same way that he did. And I want to use basketball as that foundation to inspire kids.”
Big Mike would be proud.