Jerry Nichols, by growing up in the Greenwood of the 1960s, clings tightly to memories of a much simpler time.
Among them are the walks to the basketball courts at Isom Elementary School to hoop alone or with friends in all sorts of weather conditions.
The asphalt surface soiled the boy’s hands while his skills evolved.
“My family moved from Indianapolis to Greenwood in 1959. I think about 2,200 people lived here,” Nichols said. “There were just a couple of housing additions and the rest was pretty much farmland. It’s been neat to see the transformation.”
The one involving Nichols has been much more gradual.
Fit at 60 years old, the only Indiana All-Star basketball player — male or female — produced by Greenwood Community High School, looks like he might still create matchup problems posting his 6-foot-6 frame against someone much younger.
“Jerry still maintains the same weight he did in college, which is upsetting to me because I haven’t been able to do that,” John Garrett, the former 7-foot center for Peru High School and a teammate of Nichols both on the 1971 Indiana All-Star Team and later Purdue University, said with a laugh.
“He is just a very good friend and a very good person,” Garrett said. “He and I roomed together a lot on the road when we played at Purdue.”
Garrett also mentioned another point of contention — Nichols’ golf game.
Although Nichols doesn’t play as often or take the game as serious as he once did due to work and family obligations, he maintains a 7 or 8 handicap.
It was once as low as 5.
“Jerry is a very good golfer,” said 25th-year Greenwood boys basketball coach Bruce Hensley, who was a Woodmen sophomore during Nichols’ senior year. “He’s the kind of guy that anything he does he wants to be as good as he can at it.
“Jerry is very competitive, but in the right way.”
Nichols, like many athletes of his generation, spread himself as thin as possible — one season’s source of sweat and dedication in time giving way to whatever sport the calendar called for next.
Playing football, basketball, baseball and track and field earned Nichols a total of eight varsity letters at Greenwood.
The sport Nichols believes he was his best — baseball — was played only his ninth-grade season. Three springtimes as a member of the Woodmen track program saw Nichols, possessor of a 39-inch vertical leap, compete in the high jump, hurdles and as a member of assorted relay teams.
In 1970, Nichols’ junior season, he made it to the IHSAA Boys Track and Field State Finals in the high jump, having Western-rolled to a top height of 6-5.
However, once at Tech High School, the finals site, his plan for success backfired.
“I kind of choked,” he said. “I had done 6-5 and passed to 6-1 to try and save energy.”
Knowing he had a scholarship to Purdue lined up, Nichols didn’t participate in track and field as a Greenwood senior.
Basketball had become his focus.
This made sense considering Nichols had helped lead coach Jack Nay’s 1969-70 team to an 18-7 record and the Franklin Sectional title. That Woodmen starting lineup included guards Bill Hensley (Bruce’s older brother) and Mike McClain, along with forwards Greg Morrison and Phil Mize.
Nichols, Hensley and McClain returned the following winter to help Greenwood post a 21-4 mark.
As a senior, Nichols averaged 21.8 points and an eye-popping 18.9 rebounds, credentials more than worthy of receiving a telephone call from Don Bates, former director of Indiana’s efforts in the annual June series against the Kentucky All-Stars.
Smiling, Nichols said, “I remember that call.”
His All-Star experience proved memorable because of the honor, but it was bittersweet overall.
Projected as a starter for the game at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Nichols unfortunately sprained his ankle in a practice that week and only played a few minutes in Indiana’s 115-99 victory. Kentucky gained revenge a week later by beating the Hoosier boys 110-91 at Freedom Hall in Louisville.
Nichols still has his No. 5 All-Star jersey.
He’s a Boilermaker
Nichols entered Purdue at a time when athletes weren’t eligible for actual game competition until their sophomore season.
Along with Garrett and others, Nichols helped comprise the Boilermakers’ freshman team coached by Dave Toney. The next season (1972-73), Nichols blended in with head coach Fred Schaus’ more-established talent as Purdue finished 15-9 overall and tied for third in the Big Ten Conference standings.
Nichols’ most enjoyable college basketball experience took place the following season.
As a junior, Nichols teamed with Garrett, Frank Kendrick, Bruce Parkinson and David Luke to produce a 21-9 record and lead the Boilermakers to the 1974 NIT championship at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
In those days, the NIT stood much taller than today in terms of status and fan interest. For it would be five years before the epic showdown between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson ignited the incredible national exposure the NCAA Tournament has enjoyed ever since.
Purdue’s NIT conquests that season were North Carolina, Jacksonville, Hawaii and Utah. Nichols blew out his left knee during the semifinal victory against Hawaii — a team that defeated the Boilermakers earlier that season — and missed the championship game against the Utes.
For Nichols, playing North Carolina meant defending Bobby Jones. Earlier that season there had been a game inside a deafening Mackey Arena in which Nichols found himself assigned to guard North Carolina State All-American David Thompson.
Thompson was the collegiate version of Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan.
“Of course, David had a vertical jump of something like 44 inches,” Garrett said. “But on David’s first shot, Jerry was right there and I think might have blocked his shot. Jerry was one heck of a jumper, too.”
North Carolina State escaped with an 86-81 win. Led by Thompson, 7-4 skyscraper Tom Burleson and 5-7 point guard Monte Towe, this same Wolf Pack team would go on to finish 30-1 while winning the national championship.
Nichols’ career in gold and black concluded following the 1974-75 season. Purdue won 65 percent of its games (53-29) with Nichols on varsity.
“I tell people that even with the injuries I had I would go back and do it again,” Nichols said. “The family atmosphere we had at Purdue, we were all so close. We were like brothers. To win the NIT championship back then was probably the most memorable thing.”
Bleeding Greenwood green
Nichols currently works as a strategic account manager for MIQ Logistics, a Kansas-based company specializing in providing global, transportation and distribution services in North America and abroad.
When time permits he attends Woodmen boys basketball practices to quietly observe Hensley working with his players. Nichols also sits on the bench during Greenwood games.
“Jerry sees little things I might not have the time to see if I’m working on something else,” Hensley said. “He understands the game of basketball very well.”
“I just try to be there to support the kids and go to their games to provide any insight I can,” Nichols added.
This is an exciting time in Nichols’ life. He and his wife of 29 years, Mary, recently learned they will become grandparents for the first time in September.
So much to look forward to.
In the life of Jerry Nichols, looking back has its benefits, also.
He played a major role in one of the most cherished eras of Woodmen boys basketball — a time of innocence in which a few buddies, a ball and a goal with decent netting were enough to consume an entire afternoon.
“It was great. Of course in those days the whole community came to be around the team. Just being able to play a game with your friends and entertaining the community was wonderful,” Nichols said.
“When we were playing, sports was it. And playing in front of standing-room-only crowds was fun.”