By Adam Rossow
If Iowa State forward Abdel Nader feels nervous coming home for the Sweet 16, he masterfully hid it Thursday afternoon at the United Center.
In the first few minutes of practice, Abdel (pronounced Ab-DOOL) poked a ball away from a teammate, dribbled it simultaneously with the ball in his other hand, before jokingly tossing up right- and left-handed jump shots that came nowhere close to swishing through the net.
The antics provided comic relief for his Iowa State teammates and seemed to squash any notion that playing top-seeded Virginia would overwhelm the former Niles North standout. If the Cyclones win Friday, they would advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000.
“I’m pumped. I’m ready to go,” Nader said. “I wish we played today.”
After practice, Nader said playing the Sweet 16 game less than 20 miles from where grew up was going to be emotional. He didn’t want to “bring too many” friends and family to the regional semifinal on Friday, he said, because he wanted to focus on defeating Virginia.
His teammate, junior guard Monté Morris, said he expects Nader to be poised and productive in front of his hometown fans.
“When we got off the plane, he said, ‘man, I’m home,’ and whenever you get to come back home, I feel like you get very comfortable,” Morris said.
Nader’s journey began when he moved with his older sister, Sheri Nader, and his mother, Amina Rehama, to suburban Chicago from Egypt when he was a toddler. He didn’t start playing basketball until middle school, first shooting hoops at a local park and then joining a Maine East team as a 13-year-old.
“This kid was basically [for] first time playing basketball in junior high and 10 years later he’s in the Sweet 16 – that’s pretty special,” said Glenn Olson, who coached Nader at both Maine East and Niles North. “He kept growing and developing.”
Olson remembers when Nader, as a high school sophomore, hit three 3-pointers in a summer league game against Zion-Benton with future Ohio State guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. “That’s when we knew this kid could be something,” he said.
A few months later, during a regular-season game against Glenbrook South, the then-6-foot-4 Nader asked to guard 6-foot-9 future Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley. “Abdel was like, ‘Coach, I got him,’” Olson said.
That year Nader became “our stud,” said Olson. “He took off, dunking, making threes, having a body with arms that don’t quit.”
When Olson left for the head coaching position at Niles North a year later, he took Nader with him. His star player averaged more than 20 points per game throughout his two seasons there. In his senior year, he led the Vikings to a 24-6 record and the first sectional and league championships in school history.
Initially, the 6-foot-6 forward signed with the University of New Mexico, but then decided to stay closer to home at Northern Illinois. Following two tumultuous seasons on and off the court in DeKalb, however, Nader transferred to Iowa State.
“I went to Ames and met him [coach Fred Hoiberg], and it was great,” Nader said. “It was the atmosphere that the whole place provided. It just felt like home.”
After sitting out the 2013-14 season because of NCAA transfer rules, Nader played in 32 games and averaged fewer than six points per game last year. This season, by contrast, the redshirt senior emerged as a major offensive weapon, averaging 13.2 points and five rebounds per game.
— Adam Rossow (@AdamJRossow) March 24, 2016
As he tries to extend his breakout season in the regional semifinals, he will be able to see Olson in the stands at the United Center.
“He mentored me basically since I was 12 years old, so he’s a big part of my life,” Nader said. “He’s a father figure to me, and I am glad to have him here.”
The two text or talk by phone after every game, said Olson, who brought his whole family to Ames in February to watch Nader play against Texas.
“He’s not the most emotional player on the court,” he said. “But he’s as jacked up as he can possibly be.”