During a recent University of the District of Columbia basketball practice, Nigel Munson spotted a teammate open underneath the basket and whipped him the ball. Unfortunately, the player was unprepared for Munson’s pass and the ball glided through his hands and out of bounds.
“He’d have two or three more assists a game if these guys could hang on to the ball and make their shots,” grumbled Coach Jeff Ruland, the former Washington Bullets star who is in his third season at UDC, a Division II program.
Munson appeared indifferent to his teammate’s blunder as he hustled down the court to play defense. The former DeMatha standout whose career at Virginia Tech looked so promising his freshman year is just happy to be playing basketball, even if it is in a dingy gym located in an industrial park-like structure known as Building 47 on UDC’s campus in Northwest Washington.
It’s far from the glamour of the ACC. But it’s basketball, and that’s enough for Munson.
“I love basketball,” Munson said. “I’ve got a passion for it.”
Division II can be a refuge for players and coaches who, for whatever reason, lost their way at Division I. Three of Munson’s teammates are Division I transfers, and Ruland spent nine years as coach of his alma mater, Iona, taking the Gaels to three NCAA tournaments before being fired in 2007.
No one would have guessed Munson would wind up at a Division II school when he was at DeMatha. He was the point guard on one of the best teams in the area, if not the country. His final two years, the Stags went 63-3 and won two Washington Catholic Athletic Conference titles. His senior season, DeMatha was ranked No. 4 nationally by USA Today.
Several of his fellow first-team All-Met members in 2006 — Player of the Year Kevin Durant, Scottie Reynolds, Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes — would go on to have outstanding college careers. Munson, however, took a more circuitous path.
By most accounts, Munson flourished his freshman year at Virginia Tech. He averaged three points, 1.1 assists and 11.1 minutes. He made the game-tying free throw at North Carolina to help the Hokies upset the then-No. 4 Tar Heels in overtime.
“I thought everything was great,” said Anthony Langley, Munson’s AAU coach. “The next thing I know he’s like, ‘I’m not going back,’ and I’m in a state of shock. I think everybody was.”
Munson cited two reasons for his departure: He wanted to be closer to his family and he was unnerved by the April 16, 2007, massacre at the school that claimed the lives of 32 people.
“I think if the shooting didn’t happen and the family situation, I would have stuck it out at Virginia Tech ’cause I think it was a good fit for me,” Munson said. “Everything was so crazy. I wanted to come back home, and being homesick, all that played in.”
But Langley also thinks that Munson needed a break from the pressures and demands of high-level basketball.
“He had been on this whirlwind basketball, I guess, treadmill,” he said. “I think he just had to figure out what he wanted to do, and it basically took two years.”
George Washington appeared the front-runner to land Munson after he announced he was leaving Virginia Tech. George Mason, Georgetown and American also were possibilities. But Munson didn’t end up at any of those schools or any other for the next two years. Instead, he took a job with UPS. He later worked with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
All the while, Munson kept playing basketball, albeit at rec centers rather than college arenas. Although his competition had dropped off significantly, he tried to keep improving.
“I never needed nobody around me to work on my game,” he said. “So I would go to the gym and shoot, even if I couldn’t run up and down the court.”
Munson eventually decided to return to school and approached Langley to help him. They realized a Division II school was his best option, because it doesn’t operate under the same time constraints that Division I does. (An athlete must complete his five years of competition within five years of his enrollment in school, unless he is granted a medical or other hardship waiver.)
Langley started calling the coaches he knew. Former George Mason assistant Chris Caputo mentioned Munson to Ruland. Langley also called Terrell Stokes, an assistant on Ruland’s staff and former Maryland point guard.
Now, after two discouraging years — Munson missed the second half of his first season, in which the Firebirds went 1-20, and he was suspended for the first semester of his second season because of academics — UDC is on the verge of a special season. The Firebirds, who joined the East Coast Conference this season after years as an independent, won 11 consecutive games to rise to No. 22 in the polls until falling to Bridgeport, 77-75, last Saturday. The loss sent them tumbling out of the rankings, but their 90-58 win over Mercy on Wednesday improved their record to 14-2, 5-1.
Munson, 25, has played a big part in UDC’s success. He is the team’s second-leading scorer (19.5 points per game) and ranks seventh in Division II in assists per game (6.4). He twice has been selected the ECC player of the week. And despite all the time he has missed, he is just 29 points shy of 1,000 for his career.
After all he’s been through, Munson has proven he’s a survivor.
“I’m a better man,” he said. “Basically, I’ve learned how to not give up when stuff is thrown your way. Basically, not giving up and keep fighting through ’cause life is not perfect. You’ll have stuff thrown your way. You’ve just got to keep going strong and go hard.
“If you believe in something and your passionate about something, like I am about basketball, it was worth fighting for. I just wanted to stay with it because I love it so much.”