Basketball was an acquired taste for Nick Richards, the heir apparent to Bam Adebayo, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins as Kentucky’s freshman big man.
Soccer was Richards’ first sport, which he played in his native Jamaica as a 9-, 10- and 11-year-old. He was a goalie and midfielder. He speculates that stopping scoring attempts as a soccer goalie contributed to his basketball ability.
“I think that’s where I got my shot-blocking mentality from,” he said.
Although he had success as a soccer player, Richards had no problem moving on to other sports.
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“It was the first sport that I did, but it really wasn’t what I loved to do,” he said. “It was something I just liked being around.”
Richards is still a soccer fan. As the Big Blue Nation has learned, Cristiano Ronaldo is his favorite athlete.
“Just the way he makes it look so easy,” Richards said of Ronaldo. “And I just like him as a person, too. He does a lot of stuff around the world, especially for his country.”
A native of Portugal, Ronaldo is known for philanthropic work as well as soccer.
Richards also was a track athlete. He competed in 400-meter races and was a long jumper and high jumper. In the high jump, he sometimes used the Western Roll technique, and sometimes the Fosbury Flop.
“I wasn’t the best at track and field,” he said, “but I always tried to do my best at whatever I did.”
As with soccer, Richards saw a background in track and field as a help in basketball.
“It definitely did,” he said. “The high jump, it made me jump as high as I do, now. Running 400 meters helped me run up and down the court as well as I do now. I guess the long jump helped me do that, too.”
Richards took up basketball after he moved to the New York area for high school. He made the team as a ninth grader.
“I didn’t really like it,” he said. “Eventually, I grew a love for the game. My passion is getting stronger every day that I’m here for the game. And I just love basketball.”
When asked why it was not love at first sight with basketball, Richards cited his stature at the time: 6-foot-10, 180 pounds.
“Being pushed around by a lot of people,” he said. “That’s not fun. Then you hear a lot of haters. ‘You can’t do this.’ You want to prove them wrong. You work hard for something and eventually you fall in love with it.”
By his sophomore year of high school, Richards was doing the pushing around, he said. UK lists him at 6-11, 240 pounds.
Of course, Kentucky and Lexington, as Bill Walton said earlier this preseason, is “the center of the basketball universe.” Richards said he was happily adapting.
“Just to know that there’s basketball 24/7, it gets you accustomed to the life of basketball,” he said.
Associate coach Kenny Payne has helped Richards adapt.
“Kenny Payne, that’s my dude right there,” Richards said. “I talk to Kenny Payne about anything. He’s always there for me. He’s more a father, and he tries to play a father figure role when it comes to the ‘bigs.’ When I have issues off the court, he’s probably that guy I’d turn to to talk about it.”
Payne is more than a human comfort pillow, Richards said. Payne can provide the high-volume tough love, too.
“He does that, but at the same time he knows when to pick his spots,” Richards said. “I know when to pick my spots with him.”