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Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard during the second half of a game against Loyola Marymount in Spokane, Washington, on Feb. 27. Young Kwak/AP Photo
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Andrew Nembhard and No. 1 Gonzaga are a great fit after his transfer from Florida

Surviving a life-threatening condition demonstrated his quiet resolve to succeed

Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few went to one of his freshman guards Jalen Suggs for his opinion on Andrew Nembhard.

At the end of May, Nembhard withdrew from the 2020 NBA draft and entered the transfer portal, looking for a fresh start with a competitive team. The point guard played two seasons with the Florida Gators, where he earned SEC All-Freshman honors in 2019.

Nembhard chose Gonzaga and acquired a waiver for immediate eligibility in November, granting him the opportunity to play. This occurred toward the beginning of the Bulldogs’ season, prompting Few to ask Suggs whether he was all right with Nembhard being eligible.

The Gonzaga head coach will always remember Suggs’ response.

“He just got a big grin on his face and said, ‘Of course, that’ll be awesome,’ ” Few said. “I think that says everything about our team, says everything about Andrew. I mean he’s been huge.”

Gonzaga guards Jalen Suggs (left) and Andrew Nembhard (right) during a game against the San Diego Toreros on Jan. 28 at the Jenny Craig Pavilion.

Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire

Few recalls this story at the podium on a Zoom postgame availability after the Bulldogs defeated the Santa Clara Warriors 89-75 on Feb. 25. Gonzaga is currently a perfect 24-0 and the No. 1 team in the country.

Nembhard’s role with the Bulldogs is different compared to his days with Florida, but his impact is monumental on a team looking to win its first national championship in school history.

To understand Nembhard’s connection to basketball and his competitive spirit, travel more than 1,865 miles from the Gonzaga campus in Spokane, Washington, to the small town of Aurora, Ontario, where a father introduced his son to the hardwood, beginning a love affair with the sport.

Balling from the start

Claude Nembhard and his wife, Mary, moved from Toronto to the sleepy town of Aurora on Jan. 15, 2000.

At 10 that night, Mary Nembhard’s water broke and the couple rushed to North York General Hospital in the north end of Toronto, close to where they used to live. At 7 a.m. the next day, the proud parents welcomed Andrew, their firstborn son.

Claude Nembhard is an influential basketball coaching figure in the southern Ontario area. He bought Andrew a Fisher-Price basketball net, his first introduction to the game, for his first birthday. Whenever his father played and coached, young Andrew watched the game from afar in the gym.

Nembhard got his first taste of playing on the hardwood as a 3-year-old in a house league, before graduating to his first rep team at age 5. In those formative years, his father coached his teams, developing their special bond on and off the court.

“It was very natural,” said Claude Nembhard on easing his son into basketball. “This is a story where a dad loves a sport and his son falls into it. He was very athletic. Anything that involved sport he was in love with. It was very smooth to fall into basketball.”

The Nembhards lived in a newer subdivision of Aurora. With a population of more than 60,000 people, Aurora is a place to escape the bustling Toronto metropolis. It blends picturesque nature trails and farming fields with local industries, restaurants and shops.

When Aurora is mentioned in the sports context, hockey comes to mind, not basketball. Given the cold temperatures, coupled with the prevalence of ice rinks and ponds, the locals are taught how to skate and shoot the puck at a very young age.

When the Nembhards moved to Aurora, they were one of the few Black families in the town. According to Statistics Canada, Aurora remains predominantly white (73%). Only 2% of the population is Black.

Nembhard didn’t interact with Aurora kids much. While they were socializing with their friends, he spent his time on the basketball court. This often occurred in towns surrounding Aurora, where he developed relationships with players and learned the game.

“Because of my ties in the basketball community, a lot of the basketball wasn’t in Aurora,” his father said. “We traveled all over the province, which made up his framework for basketball.”

When Claude Nembhard coached Andrew, he expected a lot out of his son. This involved placing him in an environment where he played with older kids. Being around mature kids gave Nembhard a plethora of basketball knowledge at an early age as he learned the importance of being unselfish on the court.

But his father knew when to draw the line. He pushed Nembhard when he was on the court, but away from the game he supported his son with love.

“It’s a fine line with parents,” Claude Nembhard said. “At the end of the day, we are very, very close. I tried to make sure that he busted his ass on the court, but on the car ride home, he’s my son.

“It was very natural. This is a story where a dad loves a sport and his son falls into it. He was very athletic. Anything that involved sport he was in love with. It was very smooth to fall into basketball.” – Claude Nembhard

“I’m a stickler for fundamentals, so I need him to be fundamentally sound and play the right way. Right now, he’s understanding what it takes to train hard and that takes time to process.”

Nembhard credits his dad for inspiring him at an early age to pursue basketball.

“He just put his time in to help me stay in the gym and do everything he can in his power to make basketball easy as possible for me,” Nembhard said. “He gave me all the opportunities so I can be where I am today. He put in a lot of work for me.”

A star in the making

Gus Gymnopoulos remembers watching Nembhard and his brother Ryan play basketball in elementary school.

Gymnopoulos grew up in Toronto, attending Victoria Park Secondary School. He played on the basketball team and often competed against Claude Nembhard, who was a member of York Mills Collegiate Institute’s squad.

Fast forward to 2014 and Gymnopoulos coached young Andrew at Vaughan Secondary School, with father Claude watching in the stands. Nembhard ultimately chose Gymnopoulos’ program as it gave him the best preparation before going to the United States.

“At Vaughan, Andrew is going to absorb as much tactical knowledge as he possibly can,” Gymnopoulos said when pitching the school to the Nembhards. “When I say tactics, I mean skill and conceptual development. That is what convinced him to come.”

Florida Gators guard Andrew Nembhard (right) dribbles upcourt during the first half of a game against the West Virginia Mountaineers on Dec. 4, 2018, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

Every day, Claude Nembhard made the 30-minute commute from Aurora to Vaughan, dropping his son off at school and picking him up from practice. When he arrived at Vaughan Secondary, Nembhard started as the point guard and never gave up the spot in his two years playing under Gymnopoulos.

Not only was Gymnopoulos impressed with Nembhard’s basketball IQ, but his ability to play with selflessness with older teammates.

“Andrew had to learn as a point guard how to navigate those relationships with players,” Gymnopoulos said. “To this day, I think it’s one of his greatest strengths, knowing that a guy is feeling down for whatever reason. He senses it, gets the ball to him for a layup, and all of a sudden, the mood is picked up. Those are the intangible things that I think Andrew is really good at understanding.”

Gymnopoulos recalls the York Region High School Championship Game when Nembhard was in ninth grade. Vaughan Secondary squared off against its rival, Thornlea Secondary. With Nembhard taking on players who were in their fourth or fifth year of high school, he dominated from tipoff. In the first quarter alone, Nembhard put up 13 points, including a streak of 3s in the corner.

Hundreds of people packed the gymnasium. University and college coaches watched in awe as Nembhard demonstrated poise and calm under pressure, leading Vaughan Secondary to victory.

“For him to be calm, composed and to just do his job, it was amazing,” Gymnopoulos said. “I’ve never seen a ninth grader do that.”

Adversity away from home

When Nembhard moved to Florida to continue his high school basketball journey at Montverde Academy, he wasn’t the lone Canadian. Mississauga, Ontario, native RJ Barrett, who now plays for the New York Knicks, competed alongside Nembhard at the school.

As two rising Canadians on the basketball scene, having someone like Barrett helped Nembhard grow both on and off the court.

“From playing AAU basketball since the seventh grade to playing every summer together, we became really close,” Nembhard said. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of this Canadian group of players coming up.”

According to Kevin Boyle, the head basketball coach at Montverde, the bond between Nembhard and Barrett helped them push each other to get to the next level. They both received attention from nationally recognized schools, given Montverde’s reputation as a basketball program.

“Canada is making great strides as some of their players are doing really good in the NBA,” Boyle said. “It’s just the depth of competition that takes you to another level here. The culture of our school is always really good on and off the court.”

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (left) speaks with guard Andrew Nembhard (right) during the second half of a game against Dixie State in Spokane, Washington, on Dec. 29, 2020.

Young Kwak/AP Photo

Nembhard’s career at Montverde didn’t come without adversity. During his junior year at Montverde, he began experiencing flu-like symptoms and vomited for six hours straight after attending a banquet in Windsor, Ontario, to celebrate his brother Ryan competing in a tournament.

This wasn’t the first time experiencing this. Nembhard was sick on the plane to Argentina, representing Canada at the 2015 FIBA Americas U16 Championship.

The Nembhards didn’t know what was wrong with their son. Doctors diagnosed him with a condition called volvulus, where a loop of the intestine twists around itself, resulting in bowel obstructions.

“We almost lost a son,” Claude Nembhard said.

After surgery, Nembhard was transferred to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he began the recovery process. Initially, walking felt like a marathon. But one day, when he went down to the physio room and a nurse gave him a basketball, he began dribbling and gave his father a look.

“That was probably one of the first days you can see his recovery because he had a chance to dribble the ball for the first time,” Claude said. “He said, ‘OK, we’re ready. Let’s go.’ ”

Nembhard had to watch his Montverde team play in the GEICO National Championship Game from his home on TV. Despite Montverde’s loss, he never lost his determination to get back on the court.

“Listen, we’re going to come back next year, and we’re going to win,” Claude Nembhard remembers his son telling him. “He has a very tough mind. He’s a rock in the sense that nothing fazes him.”

A culture driven to win

Nembhard is fully recovered and grateful for the basketball journey he’s taken, from Vaughan and Montverde to Florida and currently Gonzaga. By entering the transfer portal and ending up with the Bulldogs, Nembhard is embedded in a culture driven to win.

It did not come without sacrifices. In two years with the Gators, Nembhard averaged 33.1 minutes per game. In 24 games played with Gonzaga, he’s averaging 27.9 minutes per game, due to coming off the bench more.

His impact, however, hasn’t declined. He remains one of the best passers in college basketball, using his vision to see the court and run the offense. In transition, Nembhard can use his quickness to get to the rim, as evidenced against West Virginia in December, when he put up his season-high 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field.

Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard (left) attempts a layup during the second half of a game against Pepperdine on Jan. 30 in Malibu, California.

Ashley Landis/AP Photo

Nembhard credits the players and coaches for buying into the goal of winning the championship.

“It’s the selflessness of the guys we have,” Nembhard said. “Everybody knowing their role and just bringing everything and competing at a high level, as well as having a coaching staff that puts us in a great position to succeed.”

Bulldogs redshirt junior Joel Ayayi appreciates the intelligence and the quiet leadership Nembhard brings to the team.

“He’s a cool guy,” Ayayi said. “He’s really laid back but you can feel his presence in the locker room. You are never worried when he has the ball in his hand. Something good will happen and that’s reassuring to me.”

With the stage set for Gonzaga to proceed on a deep run through the NCAA tournament, the pressure and stakes will undoubtedly rise. This is Nembhard’s specialty – competing in big games and showing the basketball world who he is.

Not only does Nembhard want to make the NBA but he wants to stay there. The unselfish brand of basketball, born from the countless hours practicing as a child, propelled Nembhard to being one of the top Canadians in college basketball this year.

Nembhard appreciates the love and support his family, Claude, Mary and Ryan, provided him throughout his basketball career. He appreciates his Canadian roots, being from a small town not known for basketball and becoming a premier talent.

Finally, he appreciates the opportunity he has to inspire Canadians with his work ethic and selfless play.

As Few affirms, it wouldn’t surprise him that when the game is on the line, he turns to a kid from Aurora, Ontario, who used a Fisher-Price net as a 1-year-old, to take the final shot on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Lukas Weese is a multiplatform sports journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Passionate about sports and storytelling, Lukas has bylines in USA Today, Toronto Star, Complex, Yahoo Sports, Sportsnet, The Hockey News, GOLF Magazine and Raptors Republic.