Former U guard Nolen returns to his junior high -- as dean

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  • August 5, 2014 - 9:04 AM

Al Nolen remembers that first semester just as clearly now, seven years later.

Classes at the University of Minnesota were beginning, and the course loads were piling up as he headed into his freshman year with the Gophers. Nolen wasn't accustomed to studying as much as was necessary simply to pass. As the year, went on, his eyes grew wider. He saw other students around campus who seemed organized and completely under control, which couldn't have been further from how he felt.

"I was definitely overwhelmed," he said. "I kind of stumbled and had to find my way the hard way because I wasn't prepared mentally with the study skills I needed in order to be successful in school."

Now, two years out of his overseas basketball career, Nolen hopes to eliminate some of the struggles he went through as a kid from the inner city. Last year, the former point guard took a job as the Dean of Students at Anthony Middle School in South Minneapolis, not too far from where he grew up. 

In his neighborhood, there wasn't a culture of working hard in school, his said. The kids he hung with all wanted to go on to do bigger and better things, but instead of visualizing that ascent through school, they fantasized about becoming sports stars. Nolen hopes to do his part to snap kids' heads out of the clouds before it's too late.

He knows he was lucky. A basketball scholarship at a high-major university afforded him certain opportunities, and a safety net. After struggling to stay eligible at Minnesota, Nolen was forced to sit out the second semester of his junior year with inadequate grades. He left, a year later, a few credits shy of a degree

When he returned from playing overseas, the university paid for him to finish.

Other kids, he knows, won't have so many chances.

"I feel like a lot of inner city kids aren't taught or aware of the skills that are needed," he said. "It's not being pushed in their face -- they're seeing everything else except for that ... I thought that since I've been there and I've done it and kind of went through the gauntlet as you could say, I wanted to help out."

These days, any kid at Anthony who gets in trouble, gets frustrated in class or simply needs a break arrives in Nolen's office. Sometimes he'll hand out detention or call or meet with the parents. Other times, he'll simply talk. 

"Being a mentor, that's how I look at it," he said. 

The new position -- from point guard to counselor -- feels natural for Nolen, who hung up his high tops at the end of his 2012-13 season overseas. 

After his four years with at Minnesota -- he finished with the second most steals (205) in Gophers history despite missing half his junior season and much of his senior year with a broken foot -- Nolen initially signed with the NBA's development league, where he bounced around for half a year.

It was his first taste of professional basketball. At that level, the facilities weren't as nice. The trainers weren't as good. The team rode on busses rather than the private jets Minnesota chartered. Most of all, the team camaraderie he experienced in college was absent. 

"In the D-League, it's every man for himself," Nolen said. "It was a difficult experience for me because I'd never been away from home."

Soon, though, he went farther. He played a half a season in Germany -- he called it "total culture shock" -- before signing a contract with a team in the Czech Republic. There, two of his coaches didn't speak any English. He would watch other players to try and figure out the instructions in any given drill. And outside of the facility, few locals spoke any English. He held up lines at the grocery store, trying to figure out how much money he owed, and what that meant. The time difference was so extreme that he rarely got the chance to Skype with his parents or his sisters.

"As tough as it was to travel to Europe and to play basketball there, it's one of the things I will never regret in my life and its something I'm grateful for," he said. "I have a better understanding, more of an appreciation for America."

But, he felt, it was time to move on. He lived out his dream, played professionally, made some money, saw Europe. He was tired.

"It's a job now -- it's about the money," he said of his thinking."I kind of lost the passion for it ... it got to the point where basketball kind of just started to feel like I was forcing it, just forcing it because it was something I'd been doing all my life and it was the thing I was used to."

He decided to pursue a second dream: inspiring the next generation.

He moved back to Minneapolis, finished the six credits necessary for him to get his degree in business and marketing, and eventually was hired by Jackie Hanson, the principal at Anthony. Now, he's started an online basketball training company, Al Nolen Basketball ( to get his basketball fix. What's next? Getting his masters degree somewhere, he said, in hopes of someday becoming an athletic director. 

In the meantime, he's enjoyed keeping up with his alma mater, and new basketball coach Richard Pitino. He's been working out with the team some over the summer and has gotten close with new point guard DeAndre Mathieu.

"I like coach Pitino a lot," he said. "He really wants to see the best for the players, and he brings it out in them. He's hard on them but at the same time, he instills confidence in them ... I just really think he's going to bring new life into the Minnesota program and take us to the next level."

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