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Viking Hall Of Famer, Alum Derek Nesland Gives Back With Courts For Kids
Author: Mike Lund
Posted: February 9, 2016

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The year was 1995. Future PSU Basketball Hall of Famer Derek Nesland was playing basketball at Evergreen High School in Vancouver.  He was on a senior laden team that went 26-0.     

That also was the year Portland State hired Ritchie McKay as its Head Basketball Coach. McKay's job was to build a basketball program that had been reinstated at the school after a 15-year hiatus.     

Among McKay's recruiting stops for the Viking program was to watch an athlete at Evergreen. That athlete was not Derek Nesland, who had been lightly recruited because of the firepower on that Evergreen squad. At the time, McKay had only four players on board.     

McKay's target that evening was injured and Nesland started in his place. "I scored 47 that night. It was the biggest game of my high school career. They offered me (a scholarship) that night," said Nesland.     

Even at 6'6", Nesland ended up as the Viking's point guard.      

"He was our best point guard. They kept trying to play him at forward and other positions, but he always ended up back at point guard," recalled long-time Viking Media Relations Director Mike Lund.     

And, Nesland did a pretty good job.     

During his freshman season, Nesland hit a desperation three-point field goal at the buzzer against Northern Arizona, sending the game into overtime. The Vikings went on to win the game 72-68, over the defending Big Sky Conference champions.    

The following season, he hit another landmark three-pointer with three seconds remaining to defeat the University of Oregon at McArthur Court, the first time the Vikings had ever defeated a then Pac-10 team.     

As a senior in 1999-2000, he earned first team All-Big Sky Conference honors after establishing career highs in scoring (13.8 ppg), and three-point field goals (57). He was named Portland State basketball's first-ever Academic All-American after his senior season. 

A four-time Academic All-Big Sky Conference selection, Nesland ranks among the all-time leaders in games played, assists, three-point field goals made, blocked shots and steals.

It isn't those moments that he remembers, though.     

In his very first game and the Viking's first game of the new era, Ole Miss was the opponent…in Mississippi.     

"Since we were just starting the program, there was no film of us playing. They knew nothing about us. They were a good team and had a guy named Ansu Sesay, who went on to play in the NBA. But, they couldn't figure us out," said Nesland.       

PSU slowed the game down and with almost no time remaining it was tied. Nesland was fouled.       

"I missed one of the shots. There was no time on left on the clock when a member of their team just heaved a one-armed toss at the basket.  It went in. An official waved it off. Time expired. Another official came running across the court and said it was good. There was no instant replay and the referees just ran off the court and it was counted. We ran the film later and the first ref was right."        

It would have been a major upset. There were 306 teams playing Division One basketball that year. PSU was picked 306th.         

"Still, it gave us a lot of confidence. We won nine games that year, but it was still enough that Coach McKay finished as a finalist for Coach of the Year," said Nesland.      

Another year, Nesland remembered, PSU was playing Duke, the number-one ranked team in the country.      

"We were all snapping pictures of each other because we were playing the number one team in the country. I knew we were in trouble, but we were just excited to be there. Well, we lost by 50 points, then went back to our hotel and watched the evening sports shows. We expected to see some highlights of our game. But, they just showed the score and the sports caster said: 'Mouse Davis brought the Run and Shoot to Portland State, and today they did the Run and Hide'."     

On the academic side, Nesland wanted to go into engineering, but found the lab-heavy load and the demands of basketball too much. So, he switched to math. "Mom and dad were math teachers so I thought at least I could do that."       

At the same time, though, he wanted to give back, take a different path than his parents… "although as teachers you can have a pretty big effect on kids' lives."     

The summer of his freshman year at PSU, he got an opportunity that changed his life. He was on a team that played in Bosnia in Eastern Europe, just after the Bosnian civil war had ended.      

Every building was destroyed, he remembered. "It was my first time out of the country and seeing the leveled buildings and the level of hatred in peoples' eyes really opened my eyes to the big world that was out there. I got the travel bug."     

His senior year at PSU, there was another life changing event. After a home basketball game, Nesland proposed to his wife Selene in a very public manner. He got her on the court immediately following the game, got down on one knee and proposed to the cheers of the crowd. It made the papers and television sports news.       

For the next seven years, Nesland took every opportunity to play basketball in Europe and Eastern Europe, playing often on Athletes in Action squads. He even made two trips to China when the Chinese government paid for an American and a German team to come to China. The rest of that team were professionals.     

Selene traveled with him whenever she could and eventually the two founded the not-for-profit Courts for Kids organization, based in Vancouver, where they both grew up. It was an idea which actually found Nesland, rather than the other way around.     

Someone in the Philippines said there was a town there that needed a basketball court. So, Nesland gathered together a group of friends and high school coaches and athletes he was mentoring. They went to the Philippines over the summer and laid down a concrete court.      

"That went really well and the next thing was we heard from people in Honduras, Costa Rica and Indonesia. I went to Indonesia and saw how much interest there was in basketball, but there was no safe place to play. It was a dirt court at a school and the hoop was attached to the side of a school building, maybe 11 feet off the ground. But the kids were really trying and I could see what they could gain," he said.     

Today the organization puts in concrete courts for other sports as well (mainly volleyball) and the towns also use them for their celebrations.      

This year, Courts for Kids completed its 100th project in 22 countries and has involved 2,000 volunteers to help make it happen. Most have been in Latin American (where they'll do 20 projects this year) but they've built in seven African countries and several in Southeast Asia.       

He always involves high school students in his projects and that's part of the payback for him.     

"I want them to have the experience I had in Bosnia," he said.

To learn more about Courts For Kids, go to www.courtsforkids.org.