Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
1/22/2007 11:08:00 AM
Blog Q&A With ... Air Force's Dan Nwaelele
Dan Nwaelele scored 11 points in Saturday's win over San Diego State to help drive the Falcons' record to 18-2 on the season.
As part of a series of Blog Q&As, I chatted with Air Force marksman Dan Nwaelele (pronounced Wah-LAY-lay) late last week. The senior wingman, who is averaging 15.2 points in Air Force's hybrid-Princeton offense -- the equivalent of averaging 19.1 at North Carolina -- is shooting 51.1 percent from long distance. We spoke while Dan was on a bus back to the Academy following a loss to Utah, only the Falcons' second this season. They're currently 18-2 and 5-1 in the Mountain West.
Luke Winn: Can you tell us about coach Jeff Bzdelik's Motown jones? We've heard that he's playing Motown music during your practices ...
Dan Nwaelele: He does -- he puts it on every once in a while at the beginning of practice. It's mostly the Temptations that he has going. It's kind of chill, and everybody enjoys the music. It sets a good mood for practice, but I haven't caught anybody dancing.
LW: Bzdelik was quoted as saying that shooting was about rhythm, and music might help the rhythm. Seeing that you're the Falcons' most accurate gunner right now, what would your your ultimate shooting-rhythm music be?
DN: I'm not sure. I usually shoot with no music at all. But [the ultimate] would just be something with a little beat to it -- hip-hop or rap, probably.
[Someone is yelling "country" next to Nwaelele on the bus at this point.]
LW: Who's saying country music?
DN: That would be [Falcons forward] Jake Burtschi [from Chickasha, Okla.]. He's after me about country music. He tries to get everybody on the team to listen the country songs he's playing. I don't even know any country artists. I try not to listen to them.
LW: You've kept country off your iPod, then.
DN: I'm probably like the only player on the team that doesn't have an iPod.
LW: You're shooting extremely high percentages this year for a perimeter player -- 58.1 from the field, 51.1 from three. How did you develop such an accurate shot?
DN: When I was young, I tried to watch a lot of NBA games. I tried to look at players that I liked, like Michael Jordan, Anfernee Hardaway and Grant Hill. And I tried to emulate how they shot and how they played. I haven't always been a great shooter and tried to work hard at it. I get up as many shots as I can, after practice and out of season.
LW: Your country teammate, Burtschi, recently said he had heard Air Force's offense called "Princeton on steroids." How would you describe it?
DN: I'd say it's like the Princeton offense with a little bit of leeway. We're not running it down to the end of the shot clock like we did with coach [Joe] Scott and coach [Chris] Mooney [who left to take the Princeton job in 2005]. If we have an open shot, coach has the confidence in us to take it. So that's the leeway.
LW: So it's safe to say you like it better than the orthodox Princeton offense you used before Bzdelik arrived ...
DN: I like it a lot better -- It's definitely a much more fun version.
LW: You're listed as part of an "inspections team" at the academy. What does that entail?
DN: I was on it last semester. I was a replacement for anyone who couldn't do the inspections -- so I didn't have to do anything. We have inspections of [cadets'] rooms and uniforms, and you go around and grade the room or the person with the uniform on. I was trained to do it, but I didn't end up having to.
LW: What's your real duty, then?
DN: I was like an athletic clerk, or an athletic non-com officer. Now I'm athletic officer of my squadron. There's a physical test you have to take, year-round, stuff like push-ups, sit-ups, standing long jump, and a 600-yard run. We're not exempt from it as athletes, either. I also have to coordinate with everyone and make sure they're doing things like playing intramurals.
LW: I've been asking a few players this question lately: If you had to pick a "dream" college team that included you and four other players -- but no one else from Air Force -- whom would you pick? Take positions, including yours, into consideration.
DN: Well, first, I like that Kevin Durant kid at small forward. He's got the whole package, and can score in so many different ways. Then Greg Oden -- he's a grown man already. He looks like he's 40 years old, but he's just 18, right? At power forward I like the big, strong dude from Florida, Al Horford. He's solid. I'll take the two spot, so I still need a point guard. I guess I'll go with another Florida guy -- Taurean Green.
LW: Would anyone at Air Force be allowed to grow a beard like Oden has?
DN: Not one that big. You can get a shaving waiver. If you have one you don't have to shave every day, but you have to get the waiver from a doctor, for something like ingrown hairs in your neck.
LW: I'm assuming, given the spelling of your name, that you get some rough pronunciations from public-address announcers. What's the worst one you've heard?
DN: I'm almost to the point where I don't even notice it, or hear what they say; when they announce my name I know it's my name and leave it at that. But the worst ... probably something like Nah-wheelie.
LW: Can you explain the heritage of your name?
DN: It's Nigerian. My parents -- who now live in Bothell, Wash. -- were born in Nigeria, and came to the U.S. when they were 18 or 19. I went to Nigeria once, when I was 5, but I can barely remember it.
DN: What I did remember, just now, is another shooter I liked. My favorite, actually.
LW: And who's that?
DN:Ray Allen. I just like the way he gets his shot off. It's such a nice, quick release. It's the purest form I've ever seen. I'd like my shot to be that smooth.
Having taught at the Air Force Academy, I can tell you one thing about the players that most often gets overlooked by unknowledgeable fans and sportswriters--these men and women are true student-athletes. In fact, that's true about each of the service academies. There is no recreational studies major at the academies. They take tough classes, usually 18 hours or more per semester, and they are also required to do a military training curriculum AND athletics.
Further, any athlete signing on to play a sport at the academies knows full well that going pro is not an option--serving your country in the military for seven or so years lies ahead. By and large then, you don't get the flashy athletes, the sure-pick first rounders in the draft, the fastest, the largest, and most powerful. However, you DO get some of the most motivated individuals you'll ever encounter, who are out to prove that teamwork is more important than sheer skills, that there are still those in the sports world who play out of the love for the game not the dreams of riches.
During the last few decades, sports has become little more than Big Business with lots of dollar signs. . .both pro and college worlds. Yet, when you see a service academy play, they do it for their team. The next time you watch a service academy game of any sort, notice how they never stop, never quit, never give in. Oh, they may lose by four touchdowns or by 15 baskets, but the other team knows they never stop coming at you. Now, that's the sort of team worth rooting for.
Thanks for humanizing one of the key players on USAFA's basketball team. These men (like their counterparts on all sports teams at the academies) are not automatons or robots or unimaginative. Actually, they are far less so than the athletes at a more traditional school. They simply work harder to accomplish what they can. My hat is off to them for the effort they put in every day just to show up, much less win.
It's so rare to see a sports writer, outside of Colorado Springs, take the time to talk to an AF player. The AF academy is always overlooked since it's "way out west" and it's great to read something about a player that loves the game and is willing to service his country after graduation. Thanks SI!
How did David Robinson get drafted in the NBA if he was supposed to do his service? I don't doubt anything old red said and have tremendous respect for those at the academies, but how did he get out of it?
Old red, your comment "...any athlete signing on to play a sport at the academies knows full well that going pro is not an option..." caught my eyes. Ah! Did you forget David Robinson? He was a graduate of the Naval Academy who played for the Spurs.
Yes, it is no doubt difficult to go pro from the academy, however, it is possible. A number of academy graduates currently play or have played professionally in various sports. Fisher with NFL's Seattle Seahawks is a recent Air Force Academy graduate. I am sure there are many more current and former professional players who attended the Service Academies.
I too agree that the current Air Force team is special. All four seniors starters on the team have a potential to score a 1000 or more career points by season's end. This is very unique considering the offense they run. Air Force is a deceptively athletic team that has earned the respect that is reflected on their ranking.
As a matter of fact, it won't surprise me if one or two of their current players is/are drafted in the 2007 NBA draft. That would be a fitting end to a perfect story that would undoubtly help Air Force in future recuitment.
I read in one of the articles that the seniors on this team also had their best GPA of their college carrer last semester. 18-2 record, best gpa...the story is to be continued. Thanks for letting us know a little bit more about one of them.
I had a flight home to Seattle with a cadet who is the younger brother of the player highlighted here.
He also went to the Academy with the idea of playing basketball and was a very good player in the state of WA who could have played at numerous other institutions, but he stopped playing basketball to concentrate on his dream of becoming a doctor.
Let's just say the teammates I've had in college wouldn't dream of quitting hoops to focus on education. I have no doubt both brothers will be tremendous success, as they are incredible human beings.
David Robinson was released by the Navy for a couple of reasons. He was too tall for sea duty, so he was limited to shore duty. The Navy also recognized the recruiting potential of having a grad in the NBA. IIRC, they waived his duty commitment after he served two years. I think he also had to spend some time in the Reserve component.
An athlete can pursue athletic dreams upon graduation from an Academy. As the talent level at USAFA has increased, athletic opportunities after graduation are beginning to open. I understand that Antoine Hood (graduated last year)is currently on the roster for the developmental team run by the Denver Nuggets. So, in addition to whatever military obligations he may have, he too is able to pursue his basketball dreams. A big THANK YOU to Air Force brass for recognizing that this helps promote the academy athletic programs.
David Robinson got a "one-time good deal." He grew at the Naval Academy and was too tall for Naval flight standards. He served on active duty for two years, then was allowed to fulfill the rest of his commitment in the Naval Reserve.
Thank you for a great article about a fine young man on an outstanding basketball team. I enjoy watching Air Force and the other academies play sports, because they are some of the last true student-athletes. They have military duties every summer, so they can't play in summer leagues like the players on other college teams. They don't have any "easy" academic courses or get preferential treatment by their teachers. Practice time is minimal compared to other teams, and they have military duties on top of the tough academics. What the Air Force team has accomplished is remarkable, and Dan Nwaelele is a major part of that success. Thanks again!
I did strongly suggest that service academy grads don't have the option to go pro when, in truth, the occasional player does. But it is a very rare occurrence. As others have noted, David Robinson was an exception due to his size, no doubt helped along because the Navy knew he'd be a great recruiting pull. Chad Henning was an outstanding DE at Air Force who went on to be a good player for the Dallas Cowboys for several years. However, he actually served his time (as an A-10 pilot during Desert Storm if I remember correctly) before pursuing his dream. So, yes, it is possible to go from an academy to the pros, just highly unlikely. Please understand I'm not denigrating other schools' sport scholarship students nor the topnotch athletic programs; I simply have a great deal of respect for those men and women at the academies. And to read an article that humanizes them is icing on the cake.
Last summer, Dan and two other players took a mandatory 3 sem hour course in astronautical engineering--so they wouldn't have to take it during the school year. Danny did quite well, as did the others. ALL cadets have to take at least two semesters of calculus, then at least one course each in electrical, mechanical, aeronautical, civil, and astro engineering--along with physics, bio, etc. Jake Burtschi's taking Astro Engr this semester while playing. I'm sure he's the ONLY Div I player in the nation taking such a course while on season.
I'd love to see an article on the entire team. Each of the 5 starters are playing such great team ball. Can't SI do a piece on the whole Falcons team and their outstanding coach. I think it would be an excellent read and quite different from the normal articles in SI.
I saw AF come to Stanford earlier this year. During the warmups, everyone around me was commenting on how small and slow AF was... then the game started, and we saw one of the best-coached teams I've seen in years absolutely destroy the Cardinal using uncontested layups mixed with 3-pointers - it was a truly great thing to watch. This is now my 2nd favorite team in the country.
As an AF grad, my heart swells with pride reading both Cadet Nwaelele's interview as well as the various reader comments. This is a special team with a neat story . . . I hope they go far this March so more of the country can become aware of what these young are all about. And for those who are dismissive about Service Academy athletics, consider the following quote . . . "On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory." (General Douglas MacArthur) Keep that in mind as you're enjoying the freedoms that these young men are training to someday protect.
How many other schools' basketball teams can go on the road, blow out the home team and leave the gym as most of the home teams' fans' second favorite team?! I absolutely love to hear announcers badmouth AFA players' "ability" and then see them consistently blow out other teams with highly recruited players. Anyone that doubts the athleticism of this team needs to go to a game and see them in person. Nwalele is the real deal and he should go in the 2nd round! Every time this team beats a UNLV or a San Diego State they are scoring a huge win for true student/athletes that attend class, complete their own schoolwork, and eventually contribute to society. If they finish the season 33-2 and the NCAA truly does value academics, then they deserve a #1 seed.
Very proudly, Nigeria continues to churn out stellar collegiate atheletes, superior scholar atheletes (in the vein of Emeka Okafor) and all around great citizens of the US and the world. Good luck to Dan Nwaelele.
In a day when the dollars are glamorized and character minimized, this story is refreshing. It excites me to read about a team comprised of true student/citizen/athletes. These young men are the cream of the crop. Great students, who are great citizens and lastly great athletes. America should be proud.
This is a fine young man. He represents the best that America has to offer. I wish more of these young people would stop thinking that college is about drowning themselves in beer and dope at Frat parties. Not only is he competing on the Div I level, but he's taking challenging classes. The Service academies have curriculums that are just as tough, if not tougher, than the Ivies. One day at a Service Academy is like none other. People don't understand what these guys deal with on a daily basis. Thanks for the excellent blog on this kid.