Nick Willis: Detroit Pistons’ representative in the 2012 London Olympics

Nick Willis called me earlier this week from Italy.

“I’m only about 70 minutes from where Kobe was born,” said Willis, who was spending a few days in Spoleto.

Kobe Bryant was born in Philadelphia, though he grew up in Rieti, Italy, but that’s not what struck me about Willis’ description. What struck me was that Willis could have described his location in infinite ways (or not at all), but he chose to characterize it by its proximity to Kobe’s onetime home.

Nick Willis is basketball crazy. More importantly, he’s Pistons crazy.

Most importantly, he’s an Olympian.

Willis will represent New Zealand at the 2012 London Olympics in the 1,500-meter run, the same event where he earned a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing games. Willis, to me, will also represent the Detroit Pistons in these Olympics.

Willis came to the University of Michigan in 2003, just as the Pistons were entering a string of several successful years, including the 2004 NBA championship. Though he grew up an Allen Iverson fan in New Zealand, Willis became hooked on the Pistons after attending a game at The Palace.

“I was just really pumped to go to an NBA game, finally,” Willis said. “I always dreamed of being able to do that.”

The atmosphere at The Palace coupled with the urging of Michigan teammate Joe Shramski turned Willis into a Pistons fan and gave him a way to bond with his Ann Arbor friends. Yet, while rooting for a prime example of successful teamwork, Willis appreciated the Pistons’ elite individual skills most.

Willis, who grew up playing rugby and basketball, said he struggled with the “politics” of those team sports.

“When I’m in an individual sport, I control my own destiny to a degree,” Willis said.

So, one world-class athlete became drawn to other world-class athletes – especially Chauncey Billups. Willis even jokingly told his wife that their first child would be named Chauncey.

Wills was especially fascinated with Billups’ mental approach.

“He really just truly felt that he controlled the game and wasn’t intimidated by anyone,” Willis said.

In a sport like running, where mentality is so key, Willis tried to emulate Billups when he faced challenging fields.

Like many Pistons fan, though, Willis felt the team needed a change by 2009. So, when Detroit traded Billups for Iverson, his childhood favorite, Willis was all for it. As Willis and I discuss the Pistons – their ill-fated foray into 2009 free agency, their promising core, their 2012-13 outlook – it occurs to me how much Willis sounds like just another fan.

But he’s far from it. Willis is an Olympian, one of the elite athletes in the world, and he can relate to professional basketball players in ways we can’t.

Willis and Ben Gordon, getting to know each other at the Pistons open practice before last season, discussed meeting up in Olympic Village. But Gordon won’t play for Great Britain, and he isn’t a Piston anymore. anyway. The Pistons’ other Olympic hopefuls, Charlie Villanueva and Greg Monroe, didn’t make it to London, either.

That leaves Willis without any Pistons to find at the games, but obviously there will be plenty of NBA players around. When we spoke, Willis assured me that he views professional basketball players as just people, no different than anyone else. And then I look at Willis’ Twitter today (@nickwillis):

Just saw NBA stars Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, Ronnie Teriouf in the dining hall. Should have brought my cards to get signed!

Through Twitter, Willis has hit on all the right notes of joy and savoring the experience that we hope to see in our Olympians. If his Pistons ties alone didn’t convince you to root for him, his Twitter might. A sampling:

Want to give a huge thanks to NZ tax payers for the support you have given through Sparc funding these past 8 years @nzolympics

Sometimes wonder how tax dollars spent on me is a good investment, but I truly hope to return the favor by inspiring the nation.

Absolutely honoured to be named flag bearer for New Zealand at the#london2012 Opening Ceremonies.

Was asked in March, and couldn’t even tell my Dad until tonight.

And of course:

No matter how much running is going on, I never forget about my @detroitpistons though!

Even when we talked about Willis’ running, everything came back to the Pistons. Willis’ racing season begins in July, and next year, he wants a better way to occupy his time beforehand.

“There’s nothing late-May and early-June basketball on TV, in my opinion, “But without the Pistons there, its not really that exciting.”

I’ll echo those sentiments. There’s nothing like the Olympics. But without any Pistons there, it’s not quite as exciting.

Thankfully, the Pistons are represented this year.

Tags: Ben Gordon Charlie Villanueva Greg Monroe