Hoops and heart: Nickerson balances basketball and family


For a time, Jon-Michael Nickerson looked destined to make his home on the diamond, but the Sandy Creek High basketball coach Jon-Michael Nickerson fell in love with hoops instead. Along the way he’s helped make Patriot basketball a family affair.

Nickerson grew up in a suburb of Montgomery, Alabama. The middle of 3 brothers, they lived on 9 acres and had a great neighborhood crew always looking to play any kind of sport they could.

“I had an awesome childhood,” he said.

At the center of it was his mother. His father died when he was just 7 years old,

“She’s my inspiration,” he said. “Raising 3 boys with a full-time job, it’s not easy.”

Because she had so much on her plate, she wasn’t going to coddle him.

“My mom always said you just better be better than everybody. ‘Whatever you decide, I’m going to support,’’ he remembered.

A two-sport star in high school, it was baseball that was the first stop on his journey. He was drafted by the Florida Marlins straight out of high school, and he played 3 seasons of minor league baseball. The time had its peaks, including being named the youngest Pitcher of the Month in team history, but he found himself falling out of love with the sport. Life as a minor league baseball player is tough, and his heart was pulling him elsewhere.

“I was ready to move onto something else, and I wanted to try college basketball before I got too old,” he said. “I loved the game too much, and I wanted to experience that thrill of college basketball.”

He went on Kennesaw State where he was a four-year starter for the Owls. After a successful college career he had opportunities to play professionally overseas, but his body was banged up and he was ready to focus on family with his then-fiancee.

He brings together a lot of pieces from coaches who have impacted him. He is old school, but he also gives his players a lot of freedom.

“Whenever I make a decision as a coach, I try to put myself in their shoes and I ask myself is this a decision that you would want your coach to make for you,” he said. “If I can answer that yes, that’s something I can do for my players.”

After several close calls over the years, the Patriots finally won their first state basketball championship this spring.

“I feel like I got a piano off my back.”

As nice as the hardware is, Nickerson keeps it in perspective. Another coach reminded him that hard losses happen to all of the best teams: “You won’t be the last big upset.”

“As a competitor and somebody who’s in love with basketball, your mind can just go 24-7. It’s hard to turn it off.”

He tries to read at least one book a week as an escape. Most of all, he likes spending time with his family. He loves that his kids get to be around the team and learn from the players. The Patriots are role models worth following.

Nickerson still finds joy in helping his players grow. If more championships come with it, great.

“It’s always a game of trying to improve from one performance to the next. I still get a rise of that and trying to get better.”

“The Honor Role,” an official podcast for Fayette County Public Schools, features employees, rotating through key stakeholders, including teachers, staff, nurses, custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. Join us as we dive in and learn about their journeys, their inspirations, and their whys.

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