The signs his son could have a bright future came early for Gerald Nickelberry.
His son, Josh, was just 7 or 8 when he started knocking on his parents’ bedroom door early in the morning, asking if his dad could work out with him.
Ten years later, Josh Nickelberry is a 6-foot-5, 190-pound guard with that same work ethic that helped him close in on his dream of playing Division I college basketball. The North Carolina native, who soon starts his senior year of high school at Northwood Temple Academy in Fayetteville, pledged to play for Louisville in late May, becoming the first high school recruit to commit to new Cards coach Chris Mack.
“He gets it,” Gerald Nickelberry said of his son. “He’s driven. He knows what he wants. Having a great work ethic is not something Chris Mack is going to have to drag out of him.”
In an interview this week on the Courier Journal’s CardsHQ podcast, the younger Nickelberry credited his parents with showing him what hard work looks like.
Gerald Nickelberry was a linebacker at Northern Illinois in the early 1990s, earning an honorable mention All-American selection as well as being named a freshman All-American. He is sixth in program history in career tackles and first in fumble recoveries. His 92-yard fumble return for a touchdown is still the longest the proud program has had.
Nickelberry’s mother, Jessie, was a track and volleyball star. She is also an Army veteran who now works at the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, the massive base known as the home of Army’s airborne units and special operations.
“They pushed me hard and I pushed myself,” Nickelberry said.
Nickelberry likes to work out at 6 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. He also tries to get in 500-1,000 shots per day, his dad said.
This month, after a strenuous summer of AAU basketball, Nickelberry is going to focus more on his body while he takes a short break from hoops. He wants to get up to 195-200 pounds before arriving at Louisville next spring, and he hopes a steady diet of pasta, potatoes and steak gets him there.
He spent the AAU circuit working on his ball-handling skills after teammate Ashton Hagans, Game Elite Gold’s primary point guard, reclassified and enrolled at Kentucky.
“He’s slowly evolving into a play-making two-guard vs. just a scorer,” Rivals.com recruiting analyst Corey Evans said. “When Josh is putting the ball through the bucket, he’s really special. Now it’s finding the efficiency of, ‘What’s the best shot to take, and when should I take it?’ But you can’t understate confidence in a scorer, and Josh definitely plays with confidence.”
Nickelberry will make his official visit, the campus trip schools can pay for, in late September, when Louisville football takes on Florida State. He believes fellow North Carolina native Jaelyn Withers, a forward from the Charlotte area, and five-star center Aidan Igiehon could join him that weekend.
After that, Northwood Temple Academy’s quest for a Class 1A state title in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association begins anew. NTA reached the quarterfinals this past spring and the semifinals the two years before that.
In addition to taking his team deeper in that tournament, Nickelberry said he wants to maintain his 4.0 GPA and contend for North Carolina’s Gatorade Player of the Year award.
This school year will be the culmination of all that hard work, all those tough mornings with dad.
Nickelberry started playing organized basketball at 8 years old. He quit football, his dad’s love, despite finding some success as a wide receiver. It wasn’t his passion, the younger Nickelberry said.
“Basketball was always my sport,” he said. “In basketball, I took my own path.”
There were no hard feelings: Nickelberry said his dad was the first to jump from his seat when his son threw down his first real dunk. That was in eighth grade.
Nickelberry has been considered one of the top prospects in the country since around that time. ESPN now ranks him 63rd in the 2019 class.
His recruiting took off early. The Fayetteville Observer wrote that Georgetown, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia Commonwealth and others already were recruiting him when he was a high school freshman.
But Louisville, as he said in May, just felt right to him, even after growing up in a state with four Atlantic Coast Conference programs.
Nickelberry said he never got into the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. But he did sound excited about the prospect of returning to the Tar Heel State a few times each season once he’s with the Cardinals.
“It’s going to be great,” Nickelberry said. “I’m ready for it.”
Nickelberry’s family will be there for those games.
And his dad’s mind will take him back a decade, back to when he saw the first chapter of his son’s story playing out in front of him.