EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Sports

November 4, 2012

That's the Ticket:: Mayor Hoiberg, President Niang a winning duo

Few politicians are as beloved as the Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg.

In reality, he’s just a basketball coach, but when the kid from Ames, Iowa, became an All-American at hometown Iowa State University, he earned the moniker and the fans’ never-ending adoration.

Now the head coach of his alma mater, Hoiberg finally may have met someone who someday could unseat him.

You might call Iowa State freshman forward Georges Niang of Methuen “The President.”

He was president of his class last year at Tilton School in New Hampshire and carries himself like a statesman. He can reach across the aisle and work with anybody.

Nerlens Noel of the University of Kentucky, who may be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft, gushed over his former Tilton teammate.

He told The Eagle-Tribune in January: “He’s a one-of-a-kind player. I’ll be blessed if I can play with another like him in my lifetime.”

So who wields the true power, The Mayor or The President?

“I guess the president has a higher title,” said Hoiberg with a laugh during a recent telephone interview. “But he has to defer to me for a little while!”

A power struggle seems unlikely. It’s more a mutual admiration society.

It began in April of 2011, when Iowa State was the first bigtime school to offer the 6-7, 238-pound Niang a scholarship. Until then, Niang feared he’d have to settle for a mid-major school.

Other coaches thought he might be an inch or two too short or a step too slow. For Hoiberg, it was love at first sight.

“I talked to Leo Papile (Niang’s AAU coach with the Boston Amateur Basketball Club), who is a good friend of mine from my days in the NBA,” said Hoiberg, a shooting guard for 10 years with the Pacers, Bulls and Timberwolves. “He said, ‘I have a kid who is very under-recruited. I went to see him the following weekend. It was an open gym, but you could see all the things he could do.

“It wasn’t based on athletic ability. He just produced. He got his shot up over Nerlens Noel (the country’s top shotblocker). We offered that day. We were the first. And he remembered that.”

Cyclone through and through

Hoiberg may never fully comprehend what that first bigtime offer meant to Niang.

He had spent his entire career outplaying opponents but then still having the marquee college coaches swoon over them and pay him only cursory attention.

 Coaches are nothing if not copy cats. Once ISU offered, and Niang strung together a couple elite performances at top AAU events, the calls came pouring in. Suddenly, the guy who couldn’t get a date for the prom, was hearing from all the cheerleaders.

“There were a lot of people calling me,” said Niang, who is fired up to play in the Cyclones’ first exhibition this afternoon vs. Minnesota State. “When I committed, it was 100 percent. He said, ‘You are my Plan A and I don’t want a Plan B.’ It was just a perfect fit. This is just a great place to be.’’

So he said save your breath Iowa, Providence, Texas A&M, Seton Hall, et. al. He is, was and always will be a Cyclone.

“A lot of schools did call,” said Hoiberg. “He told everybody don’t bother calling. That’s the type of kid he is. That’s one of the things we love. The fans have fallen in love with him already. It’s a perfect marriage.”

Kicking it old school

The term that always comes up with Niang is old school.

The Iowa State commitment showed his old school loyalty.  

The decision to run for class president, when it began as a bit of a joke, and to win and pour his heart and soul into the position exhibited his old-school maturity.

The lack of tattoos and serious approach to academics shows an old school sensibility.

The cagey moves on the court, which make up for the lack of eye-popping athleticism, reveal an old-school game.

That last point is why his future appears bright.

“He has as high a basketball IQ as anybody for that age,” said Hoiberg. “He’s a throwback type player.

“I’m so impressed the way he’s produced whatever level. It’s amazing what he’s been able to accomplish. Watch his footwork. He’s able to block out bigger, more athletic players. He has the ability to pass. He does everything. I’m expecting a big year from him.”

Will play ‘major role’

Getting there is only the half of it, for a bigtime athlete like Niang.

College sports is a big business. For Hoiberg to keep his job, for ISU to sell out the 14,356-seat Hilton Coliseum, for the Cyclones to wrest the headlines away from the hated Hawkeyes, ISU has to do what every other big time basketball and football team has to do.

Win.

So unlike high school where mommy and daddy can cry about how Junior is being mistreated, there is no crying in bigtime sports. Help the coach win, and you’ll play. If you can’t, go find a seat at the end of the bench. Hoiberg thinks Niang can help bring a lot of wins to Ames. The Cyclones have to replace NBA first-round pick Royce White from a 23-11 team which made the Round of 32 in the NCAA tourney, losing to eventual national champion Kentucky.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” said the 40-year-old coach, “but he’ll certainly play a major role. Whether as a starter or key reserve. I could care less who starts. It’s who is in at the end. And plenty of times, Georges will be the guy.”

Until recently, others questioned him. Niang never did, though. During the recruiting process, he was asked by The Eagle-Tribune if he was concerned whether he could hang with all those great talents from Iowa State’s Big 12 rivals Kansas and Texas.

He humorously boasted, “You throw me into the jungle and I’ll come out 15 pounds heavier from eating these dudes!”

As for his role, he said, “I’m a four man (power forward). I’m someone who can score on the block and I can hit the jump shot and 3-pointers. I don’t know exactly how it will pan out, but I’m not too worried about it.”

Cyclone Fanatic blogger Chris Williams called the once overlooked Niang “the obvious headliner to Fred Hoiberg’s 2012 recruited class.”

 SU senior forward Anthony Booker told Williams, “He’s talented, that’s all I can say. He has some very fast and great post moves. It’s the best I’ve seen in some time. He’s going to be a staple in this program for the next four years.”

 

Culture shock

Was the move from Methuen to sleepy Ames a culture shock.

“Yeah, definitely,” said Niang, who arrived early in the summer. “You don’t see the Lawrence reservoir. You see a lot of corn! But I knew what I was coming out here for. The seniors helped show me the way.

“When I first got here, I walked into an economics class. There were 350 kids! I was pretty overwhelmed.”

He’s fallen for Ames and Iowa State, and, as Hoiberg pointed out, the school and community have fallen for him. But he’s still a New Englander at heart.

When asked if he’d still be watching his beloved Celtics, he insisted, “Come on, man! Of course I am.

“I’m real comfortable, but I’ll definitely miss the Gorman family, my mom, my dad, my grandmother, my prep school. I’m getting treated great, but I definitely miss my Methuen people.

“But this is for the better. Coach Hoiberg is like a dad to me. You don’t find that much. Usually it’s strictly business.”

Move over Obama, Romney

Hoiberg loves the fact that Niang was class president last year at Tilton.

Does that say anything about his leadership abilities.

“One hundred percent,” said the third-year ISU head coach. “It just shows he’s a well-rounded person. Then there is all the responsibility with the title. It’s a great experience. He’s such a popular guy. Everything he does and will do, he will be a success.”

Niang explained, “Someone nominated me. I didn’t want to do it. Then I figured I might as well do it. I had a great time. I took it seriously.

I learned to listen to everybody. Kids I’d never associated with, I got to know and they were pretty cool people. You understand everybody has a voice. I definitely learned some leadership skills.”

These days, The Mayor and The President hope Niang continues to lead. But not the school government. The Cyclones to the top of the Big 12 and some deep NCAA tourney runs.

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