Friday, February 26, 2021

Ahmed And JT3

The temperatures around here rose in the last few days to reach into the 50s, which, after the last few weeks, felt more like 80.

It's a sure sign that winter can't hang around forever.

TigerBlog doesn't mind riding his bike when it gets really cold. It's the snow and the ice that get in the way. Still, it's always better to ride when it's warmer, like it was this week.

He was out riding in the sunshine the other day when he saw someone jogging towards him. The closer he got, the more the jogger looked like one of TB's all-time absolute favorite Princeton athletes. 

Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be Ahmed El-Nokali. 

You remember Ahmed. He was a point guard for the men's basketball team and a member of the Class of 2002.

He came to Princeton from Chartiers Valley High School outside of Pittsburgh. It's the same high school that produced NBA player T.J. McConnell.

El-Nokali's breakout moment for Princeton basketball came in the famous comeback game at the Palestra his freshman year. After not playing at all in the first half, he was inserted by head coach Bill Carmody into the lineup for the second half. Princeton was 24 down at halftime by a 33-9 score and came back to win by one, 50-49. 

El-Nokali didn't come out at all in the second half of that game, and rarely came out at all after that. 

He was never a great scorer, but he was great at running a team. He played with a poker face, one that never changed no matter the situation and one that had a great calming effect on his teammates. 

His on-court persona was an extension of how he was off the court. Still today, he's just a very solid, very smart, very team-oriented, very, well, nice, guy.

TB has interviewed him at halftime of some Princeton games and had him on as a color commentator at other times. Much like Noah Savage, El-Nokali would have been a great TV announcer if he had tried to pursue it.

He was twice a second-team All-Ivy League selection, as a junior and senior. In that junior season, he was one of the main reasons why a rebuilt-on-the-fly Princeton team won the Ivy League championship and reached the NCAA tournament. 

The two key wins during that championship run were the games against Penn. In those two games, both Princeton wins, El-Nokali had this combined line: 31 points, two turnovers, 80 minutes. Not bad, right? He was also Princeton's leading scorer in both of those games.

The Princeton coach for his final two years at Princeton was John Thompson III, who would coach the Tigers for four years, winning three Ivy titles and taking the team to the NCAA twice and NIT once (a 66-65 loss at Louisville in El-Nokali's final career game). 

Thompson is a 1988 Princeton grad (he'd jokingly refer to the landing outside of the men's basketball office on the third floor of Jadwin Gym as "The Class of 1988 Lounge). He went on from Princeton to coach Georgetown, and he took the Hoyas to eight NCAA tournaments, including all the way to the Final Four in 2006-07.

He also won three Big East regular season championships and one Big East tournament championship, and his 278 wins with the Hoyas are second in program history, behind only his father.

Thompson is a rarity, the son of one Hall-of-Fame coach who played for a different Hall-of-Fame coach (Pete Carril, obviously) in college. TB has never found anyone else who has - unless he's overlooking someone obvious.

JT3 was the subject a feature story written by TB's colleague Elliott Carr as part of the Princeton Athletics Black History Month celebration. You can read it HERE.

As is the case with El-Nokali, TigerBlog can't think of a single bad thing to say about John Thompson III as well. He is an extraordinary person, one of the very finest TB has ever met.

You can read more about Thompson in Elliott's story. 

For all of JT3's accomplishments as a player and coach, that 2000-01 season is what stands out the most for TB. Thompson took a decimated Princeton team and led it to the league title and the NCAA tournament, all in his first season as a head coach.

TB will leave you today with one of his favorite moments from that season, which came after that first win, at the Palestra. 

Thompson was asked where the win ranked for him, and he responded with this: "Well, I have 11 now, and this is definitely in the top 10."

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