It's all fun and games for Stauskas

Nik Stauskas

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There's not a lot you can do to faze Nik Stauskas on the basketball court.

Face-guard the Michigan sophomore guard, limit his touches and make one of the nation's best players look average (which Duke did) and he'll high-five your fans.

Have him play in the national title game, an exhibition against Concordia College or in Saturday's matchup with No. 1 Arizona and he's excited for those 40 minutes all the same.

None of that gets to him.

Because to Stauskas, "it's just hoops."

It's a pretty remarkable sentiment for someone at his level who has dedicated his life to this.

Yes, he was the kid who had just three hours of sunlight after school in Canada and spent two of them shoveling the snow in his driveway so he could use the last hour to get some shots up. Yes, basketball took him away from his family to two prep schools on the U.S. East Coast at 15 years old. And yes, basketball could be how he eventually makes his living. Or not.

"It's not who I am, it's what I do," Stauskas said. "And when you look at it like that, when you realize your life will be good with or without it, then it just becomes something you like to do."

"It is what he loves to do, don't get me wrong," his mother, Ruta, added. "When he's saying it's just hoops it's not that he doesn't care about it. He cares about it so much, but he realizes that it's not life. Hoops is what he loves to do and wants to do.

"But it is just hoops."

Stauskas has always had that kind of attitude.

Even at a young age, nothing ever really got to him. He and his older brother, Peter, would play one-on-one for hours every day. Nearly every day, it ended with Peter losing and Nik having basketballs thrown or kicked at his head.

The game came with a price.

"There was a point in time pretty early on when he pretty much just started whopping my ass," Peter said. "But I'm the older brother, so I obviously got a little bit pissed off, so I started chucking balls at him. Once, I chased him with a shovel."

Every day, Nik would want to play again. Even knowing the outcome, even knowing he'd have to run for his life. To him, it was worth it.

There was a period when Peter hit his growth spurt and he picked up wins here and there. So when the boys came into the house, Ruta and their father, Paul, would look to Peter to find out who had won and who had lost. If they looked at Nik, they wouldn't be able to tell anything other than he had just played ball, something that has stuck with him at every level.

"He has always wanted to keep himself even-keel, not to get too high, not to get too low," Paul said. "It helps him survive. There are a lot of games where he has played horribly and he doesn't want to stay in the dumps for a week. So he developed that mentality of 'It is just hoops, I will live to tomorrow, the sun will rise.' "

But like most rules, there are exceptions.

And though it might be tough to find things that rattle Stauskas, there are a few.

Ask him about his Christmas present when he was 15 -- when he and his parents went to Cleveland to see a Cavaliers game so he could watch his idol, LeBron James, in person. Paul had gotten the family tickets near the player tunnel so that Nik could, he hoped, get a high-five or smile from James.

Ask him about James exiting the court after the game, making eye contact with Stauskas, taking off his game-worn shoe and throwing it right to him.

Then, ask him how -- with what was possibly the most important pass of his life -- he dropped it.

"I was devastated," Stauskas said.

The shoe bobbled off his hands and eventually was grabbed by someone a row or two behind him.

"To this day he cries about that," Ruta said. "He said he would've slept with it."

He's considered the Wolverines' resident NBA junkie. He has been obsessed with the league since he was young.

To Nik as a child, it was a fantasy. These guys get to play hoops all day, every day, and make a living off it.

He wanted to do that someday, make those shots, play with those guys. Ruta and Paul would smile when he talked about his NBA dreams -- and then they'd bring him back to earth.

"You need to recognize that so many kids have that same goal and so few make it," Ruta would tell him. "Just realize, in the back of your mind, if it comes, that's wonderful and if it doesn't, it's not the end of the world.

"There's life beyond that."

With that in mind, Stauskas kept with it. The NBA would be his Plan A and his parents were more than supportive. But, if that were his Plan A, he needed to concede that someday hoops might no longer be a possibility and come up with a Plan B, one that he could be just as happy with.

But Plan B was hard to keep in perspective when he watched James play.

For James, it was never about just hoops. James and so many other players didn't or don't have the luxury to look at the game as anything other than Plan A. Stauskas knows this, and knows he's fortunate to be afforded more than one plan.

He hasn't needed hoops to get out of his situation or to leave his neighborhood. His and his family's futures aren't riding on his basketball career.

And because of that, Stauskas is able to do this for fun. He's able to look at it as just hoops. He's able to see it not as life, but as a part of life.

"He looks at the big picture, life in general," Ruta said. "If you lose a game or have a poor game, what's it going to do? Has somebody died? Has somebody's health deteriorated? Has some horrible thing happened in the world? No. We've always talked about things being in perspective."

If it was his parents who gave him perspective, it was his best friends who kept him grounded in it.

If you were sitting courtside at Barclays Center for the West Virginia-Michigan game last season and thought it odd that two Michigan fans were heckling Stauskas, just consider it an introduction to two of the people who know Stauskas best.

Yes, the two guys shouting "Go back to Canada!" every time Stauskas touched the ball are his best friends, Andreas Valhouli-Farb and Harrison Prins.

The three met at St. Mark's School in 2011, a year after Stauskas had moved away from his parents. Stauskas never had a group of friends as close as they would become, and Valhouli-Farb and Prins -- though they had known other athletes who had transferred to the prep school outside of Boston -- had never known an athlete who could be just as happy without his sport.

"It's just basketball," Valhouli-Farb said. "Yes, it's the thing he loves to do the most, but it's just basketball."

It's not hard to keep basketball in perspective when those closest to you jokingly taunt you for every accomplishment. But Stauskas wouldn't have it any other way.

When he's playing -- whether it's in Atlanta for the national championship or at a rural Massachusetts carnival, shooting for a stuffed animal -- they get in his ear. They come up with the most ridiculous insults they can conjure, just to see if they can get a smile out of Stauskas.

But they don't poke fun out of jealousy. It was never like that.

Valhouli-Farb and Prins would only make the JV team at St. Mark's, and when they'd occasionally go one-on-one, they'd play what Stauskas called "100 to 1," meaning in order to win, Stauskas needed to score 100 points before his opponent got to one point.

Loser bought dinner.

"It was basically a way for him to get free food every night," Prins joked.

So they made it to every one of his varsity games and yelled at him from the sidelines. He'd laugh and joke back.

"We try to keep him as ..." Prins said, looking for the right word, "... as grounded as possible."

Following Michigan's victory over Florida in last season's NCAA tournament, in which Stauskas went 6-for-6 from 3-point range, Valhouli texted him, "Nice free throws."

Stauskas had gone 2-for-3.

After the Wolverines' loss at Duke earlier this month, Prins texted Stauskas to check in. This was a time when they were unsure how Stauskas would respond. It had been one of his least productive college games and the criticism would likely pile up soon. They didn't want to seem too insensitive.

"How's your ankle?" Prins texted.

To which Stauskas responded, "Be honest with me. Do you think I'll be on 'SportsCenter' Not Top 10 for throwing my shoe into the crowd?"

This summer, Stauskas elected to stay in Ann Arbor and work with the strength-and-conditioning staff at Michigan. He started meeting with a sports psychologist on campus every week. And he began reading a book, "Do You QuantumThink?"

Stauskas carries around a notebook so when he sees a sentence or thought, he can jot it down and commit it to memory.

"The main thing I'm learning from it is throwing away all the preconceptions that you come up with, I guess ... it's hard to explain," he said. "Kind of just learning how to live from not knowing."

The preconceptions of what a basketball player should or shouldn't be, how he can or can't approach a game, what the No. 1 team or an unranked team will or will not accomplish -- those kinds of preconceptions.

But, like all things, it's teaching him about the bigger picture, too. Stauskas explains how one chapter is about life being whatever you want to make it. Right now in the long term, for him, it's the NBA. If that doesn't pan out, he'll make it something else.

In the short term, it's the Arizona game. It's him getting a chance to play the game he loves in Crisler Arena with his teammates.

"I'd love to get that win on Saturday," Stauskas said. "Win or lose though, I'll definitely be good."

It is, after all, just hoops.