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Nafis Ricks was able to turn struggles into a career

43 days ago
SEC Staff
Photo: Missouri Athletics

The following story, written by Gabe DeArmond, was originally published

On Friday afternoon, Nafis Ricks earned his Master's Degree in educational, school and counseling psychology from the University of Missouri. He completed that work over the last two years while serving as a graduate assistant for Cuonzo Martin and the Mizzou men's basketball team.

Ricks always saw basketball as a part of his future. The rest of it? Not so much.

"I would be like that's crazy," Ricks said. "I would have said that. I actually had a teacher in high school, he was a doctor and I would tell him 'I would never go to school for 10-plus years in college.' And now I'm looking at myself and I just laugh about it."

It hasn't always been easy to laugh. To recount the times Ricks could have given up, could have fallen short of where he is now, seems almost foolish. It would be, perhaps, easier to examine the times it wasn't a struggle; there are probably fewer of those. But a journey that has taken him from one coast to the other and halfway back made Ricks the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college. And the struggle is a big part of it. Probably the biggest part.

Nafis Ricks was born in Philadelphia on December 10, 1987. A few years later, after 17 years together, his parents split up and his father, Graddie, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Graddie got custody of Nafis and his younger brother, Amir, to move them away from a city whose streets are often unforgiving for young men, especially young African-American men.

"The violence level in Philadelphia is just terrible," Graddie Ricks said. "North Carolina's a breath of fresh air compared to Philly. Philadelphia's a rough spot."

Nafis and Amir would return to Philadelphia in the summers and over some holidays to visit their mother, Robin Bell. Their brother, Michael Cole, who was five years older than Nafis, stayed in Philly and lived with Robin.

"I had the best of both worlds," Ricks said.

Graddie Ricks ran a tight ship. He is a self-admitted disciplinarian. School came first.

"He's the best dad ever, the best dad I could have had for my kids," Bell said. "What doesn't work between me and him doesn't have anything to do with the kids."

Graddie almost speaks in proverbs at times, recounting life lessons he imparted to Nafis and Amir growing up (for example: "I always told him be a capitalist for knowledge and you'll never go bankrupt"). Amir, now 30, is a chef at Drexel University. He traces the beginnings of his occupation back to those days in Charlotte.

"I've been cooking all my life," Amir said. "My dad and my grandpa taught me how to cook. My dad always told me if something ever happened to him or my mom, I would have to be the one to take care of my brothers.

"He basically molded us into men."

Nafis was the middle child. He fit the role. Michael was the confident one, the talker. Amir was the strong-willed one who took after his mother, the boy trying to keep up with two older brothers. Nafis was quiet, the middle child who blended in and didn't make waves - the glue that made it all work, his mom says.

"He's always been a kid that's always been the one that deterred trouble. If there was trouble he turned the other way," Robin Bell said. "Nafis was always the kid that always wanted to please me. He always wanted to be perfect. Always."

Nafis never caused others problems and never shared his own. He kept his emotions in check, chose his words carefully and used them sparingly. He was the introvert striving, as his mother said, for perfection. Nafis got good grades, seemed to have everything together. If there was one issue, perhaps he was not quite as mature as other kids his age.

"I kept him back in first grade," Graddie said. "He was really upset with me. They wanted to pass him, but I didn't think he was ready to be passed."

Nafis and Amir lived in Charlotte for close to a decade. In the fall of 2001, Nafis was 14 and Amir was 12. And then the streets of inner city Philadelphia reached all the way to North Carolina to violently yank two teenage boys back home.

The date was October 18, 2001. Amir Ricks did something he never did. He got out of going to school by faking illness. He was expecting a pair of Jordan brand shoes in the mail from Michael Cole. He wasn't missing that delivery. He wasn't waiting an extra three or four hours until school finished to take those shoes out of the box.

Between 11 a.m. and noon, Amir recalls, he got a call from Michael. "Did you get the sneaks? Yeah, I got the sneaks."

The 12-year old was on cloud nine. Michael was supposed to call him back later that afternoon. The call never came. Another one did.

"Maybe two or three hours later I received the phone call my brother had been murdered," Amir said.

Michael wasn't really involved with the street life in Philadelphia. He had a steady job. Just as Graddie did in North Carolina, Robin Bell kept a short leash on Michael in Philly. Michael was murdered in an argument over a girl.

"My son had no involvement with anything," Bell said. "He just happened to be somewhere, a sister telling a brother, 'I wish you'd go beat this guy up.' He brought a gun to the street fight. It escalated. He shot my son."

The death of a child is always tragic. Maybe in no way more than what it does to those who are left behind.

"I was mad at the world," Graddie said. "He's a good son. He just didn't deserve to die like that. Going to the courtroom and seeing the guy get life in jail, you know, him and my son could have been friends. He was a product of his environment."

Graddie said the family did some grief counseling but it seems likely none of those left to deal with Michael's death were able to do so properly in its immediate aftermath.

"How does a mother lose a son and not grieve?" Bell said. "But I didn't have a lot of time to grieve because I still had two sons who were in high school that I had to push on for."

Shortly after Michael's murder, 16-year-old Nafis and 14-year-old Amir moved back to Philadelphia. Their mom needed them. Of course they were moving back.

"They felt like it's time for me to be home," Bell said. "I need to be with my mom. I need to take care of my mom.

"They always say the middle child is like the special child. They're the ones who keep the older and the younger and the middle all together. When we lost the older one, Nafis was the middle child, but he had to take on that bigger responsibility. Now I'm the older brother."

The streets of the inner city offer two choices: Join them and risk falling prey to their dangers or find an outlet to occupy all of your time and keep you away from them. Nafis Ricks found an outlet.

"He would play ball all day, play ball all day, watch basketball, watch basketball," Bell said. "I used to tease Nafis, do you even change your clothes? All he wore was ball shorts. I don't even think he has a wardrobe. He wore ball clothes all the time. He said 'This is what I like. This is what I'm going to be.'"

"Every kid's passion is to go to the NBA and that was my goal," Ricks said. "I'll use it as a lifelong opportunity of maybe go to the NBA. If not I can use my education as a way to get me to where I need to go. At the time I didn't know, I just was playing basketball and see how far it would take me."

It took him a long way before he even left Philly. Ricks averaged more than 34 points a game as a senior at Lamberton High, more than any other player in the state of Pennsylvania in 2006. Ricks was more than a scorer; he grabbed 11 rebounds a game and dished out 8.2 assists as well. But for the second time in his life, Ricks knew he wasn't ready to jump ahead. He enrolled in prep school at Maine Central Institute, pushing back the start of his college career for a year. Before the end of that year, he was back in Philly working for UPS after having left MCI in December.

"Maybe I overshadowed them. I did things that much more because my son was murdered. I'm not going to no way, no how let my boys get caught up again. I did everything for Nafis," Bell said. "So when he left I don't think he was as mature and he probably was still going through the trauma of losing a brother."

"Everybody was asking why are you not in school?," Ricks said. "You get those questions, there's a lot of pressure toward you."

There wasn't much danger-or at least less than there is with a lot of inner city teens-that Ricks was going to fall into the street life. Being back in Philadelphia showed him one thing: He didn't want to be there.

"I seen examples in the street of guys that I looked up to who didn't make it," Ricks said. "They always said 'I wish I could.' We had a lot of stories like that in Philadelphia. They were my examples to do the opposite of what they were doing. I took it upon myself to get out of that environment, to see something else so I wouldn't be caught up in what was going on.

"It's kind of like you're in survival mode the whole time. My survival mode was going to college."

So Ricks packed up to move to Overland Park, Kansas, determined to rehab his transcript and polish his game with the goal of landing a Division One scholarship via Johnson County Community College, a detour he now calls "the best thing that happened to me."

He averaged a team-best 15.4 points per game and was named the East Jayhawk Conference freshman of the year in his first season at JCCC. The team finished 14th in the country and Ricks was an NJCAA Division II all-American.

His sophomore season was even better. Averaging 17.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals, Ricks was named the NJCAA Division II Player of the Year and then won MVP honors in the national tournament as the Cavaliers won the whole thing.

College coaches came calling. Creighton and Colorado State wanted him. He visited Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Georgia State and North Texas. But a coach who knew something about growing up in a tough town in a single parent home won Ricks over.

"You learn those things in building a relationship over time, for us not only talking to Nafis and talking with his mom, talking with his dad," Cuonzo Martin, who had just completed his first season as a head coach at Missouri State, said. "His AAU coach was very instrumental from a leadership and educational standpoint. You'll find a school, but his AAU coach is really big on being in the community, building young men. The basketball stuff will take care of itself."

"We connected from day one," Ricks said. "To be honest, I really picked him. I really didn't pick Missouri State. I wanted to be coached by somebody I could relate to or if something happened back home I could talk to and it would be an open dialogue. I don't want you to just coach me on the basketball court. I need you to coach me in my life."

He'd done it. Nafis Ricks had escaped Philadelphia and its dangers. He had earned a Division One basketball scholarship and was halfway to his college degree. It was everything he'd set his mind on years and years ago.

And he was miserable.

Ricks had been the best player on his team for years now. Suddenly in Springfield, he was surrounded by talented players and playing for a coach who demands a lot and promises almost nothing.

"We won a national championship and I was the number one player at Johnson County," he said. "When I transferred over I thought I was working hard and I was sitting on the bench. He actually sat me. He didn't promise me anything. The one thing he said was we're going to get you to graduate."

"There was a practice where you could blow on him and he'd fall. He really struggled," Martin said. "Sometimes you go through stuff and that's why I say to this day, you never know what young men and women are going through. Sometimes you won't find out about that until years later."

Ricks couldn't take it. He was doubting himself. He started fearing practice. He didn't want to play anymore.

"I wasn't mentally ready," he admits now. "It was a lot on me. I had stuff I had to deal with. I had a breakdown and almost dropped out of college.

"I was angry. I used to cry because I couldn't finish workouts. I used to have anxiety. I was just so nervous about finishing. I started doubting myself.'

Looking back, Bell saw the signs when her son was still in junior college. But for Nafis, the issues didn't come to a head until those first few months at Missouri State.

"I couldn't help myself," Ricks said. "I went to my assistant and just broke down and started crying. I want to go home, I want to quit."

He went to Martin to admit his struggles.

"I do recall him sitting down, coming in the office and saying some things," Martin said. "Sometimes you look at that, back then, as a young man is he trying to get out of something, is he not working as hard?"

That's when Martin made a suggestion that would change Nafis Ricks' life. He didn't tell him to work harder or find a flaw in his jump shot. He didn't tell Ricks to watch more film or spend more time in the weight room. Martin told him to see a psychologist.

"In that era, mental illness, those sorts of things weren't really talked about," Martin said. "Now, that is the first thing I would think of. Back then that wasn't really the culture."

A psychologist? That's what crazy people do.

"If you cry or you talk about it, you're not tough," Bell said. "People that see therapists and go through counseling, you're crazy.

"You're stuck with a label on your forehead and nobody wants to be called crazy."

"In our community, it's almost shameful if you have mental health issues," Graddie Ricks said. "The black male, we're like the alpha male."

The streets of the inner city make you tough. You don't talk about your problems. You solve them, often with fists or a weapon. Sitting in a stranger's office and baring your soul? Who does that?

"Where I'm from, we don't talk about mental health," Ricks said.

Ricks did it anyway.

The need for therapy doesn't arise overnight. Scar tissue takes time to build. Things like your brother being murdered when you're 14. Things like your cousin and your little brother's best friend being killed while you're halfway across the country in junior college. Things like growing up in an environment where talking about your problems out loud just creates more problems. Maybe even things your loved ones think they did wrong.

"We aren't born to be parents; we learn to be parents," Robin Bell said. "Maybe some of it was because of me. Sometimes a mom can be a little overbearing, but I don't think nobody ever sat down and asked me how did I feel about the trauma? I'm the one that lost a son. Sometimes your own traumas reflect on other people. I never said to him why don't you get counseling or do you think you need counseling because I was grieving myself. I was going through my own thing."

Ricks had never really shared his problems. He didn't want to disappoint anyone or burden them. He swallowed it all until he broke down. And in opening up, he found a path back to a better life.

Ricks was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder. He didn't tell many people he was seeing a therapist. The Missouri State coaches knew. His girlfriend and a lone teammate knew. His family didn't.

"I was struggling with my own things," Amir said. "We were so far apart, it's like we're basically going in two lanes on the highway. He's going his way, I'm going my way."

"I didn't feel comfortable talking about it because I didn't think it was going to be understood," Ricks said. "I waited until after college, after the success came."

He wasn't ready to talk about it yet, but the therapy was working.

"That's where everything started," he said. "I started unpacking my trauma from back in my childhood and I took off from there."

As he felt the burden of years lift off the court, Ricks blossomed on it too. He made the Missouri Valley all-reserve team after finishing in the top five for Missouri State in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals despite starting just three times and playing 19 minutes a game. The Bears improved from 11-20 to 24-12. As a senior, Ricks started all 35 games and increased his production in every statistical category. The team won 26 games and the Missouri Valley regular season championship, but was snubbed on Selection Sunday.

After college, Ricks played three seasons in Finland and Brazil, averaging at least 17 points each year. Following his playing days, he reunited with Martin, who was now the head coach at California. For the second time in his life, Ricks was going to use basketball to get where he wanted to go.

Nafis Ricks' social media accounts are like a commercial for the value of therapy. May is Mental Health Awareness month. He has tweeted daily - often multiple times daily - reminders about the importance of self-care. He hosts live chats on Instagram (Bell watches every one and says that Ricks tells viewers they know he is telling the truth because his mom is in the audience). He wasn't ready to admit he was in therapy for a while, but now he'll tell anyone who will listen.

"I share my story every day. I'm always open," he said. "It don't matter if I don't know the kid. I know if I post something it might reach somebody. My thing is just to be vulnerable enough to express myself because a lot of times we feel a lot of things and we don't know how to express ourselves. My best thing is to do that just to give back to the world."

"I'm so proud of him," Bell said. "When he was younger, I worried a little bit. Now that he's opened up and he talks, he's actually given me other tools to work with."

Ricks has spent the last two years as a graduate assistant for Mizzou. It is a position that is often occupied by young former players who are looking for their first break in what they hope becomes a life-long career in coaching. Ricks doesn't rule out that he will coach basketball in the future, but he has other goals. He is the founder and CEO of Collaboration Management, a company whose "primary goal is to reconstruct the narrative surrounding mental health and the African American male by providing tools through speaking engagements, workshops and seminars." With the Master's already achieved, Ricks will pursue a Doctorate of Philosophy in Counseling Psychology studying masculinity and self identity. He wants to work with coaches and athletes to find their paths in life, whether it's in athletics or somewhere else.

"Just to watch him grow from a young man into a father, start his own business," Martin said. "It's a beautiful thing. His background, where he came from and where he is now. I think he's really just getting started. He won't stop."

The kid who said he would never spend ten years in school is now a 32-year-old man about to start the pursuit of a Doctorate.

"I think education is so important," he said. "Not just getting an education for somebody else, but getting an education because it's something that you want to do and you can pursue that you like and you love. It's your purpose. I found my purpose."

If he didn't see this path for himself all those years ago, those around him certainly aren't surprised.

"I knew Nafis always was going to excel," Bell said. "Just because you say 'you come from the hood,' don't let the hood be your legacy. Get out of the hood, do what you need to do and excel. That's what he did. Once he skyrocketed, he just kept on moving. I kind of knew that Nafis would be the one that was gonna go ahead and do these things."

"I could have believed it," Graddie said. "He was a great kid. He thought about others. He put others before himself."

The introverted kid who never wanted to burden anyone with his problems is now making a career of talking about his problems. Nafis Ricks just needed to find his voice. Now that he has, he hopes to use it to tell everyone it's okay not to be perfect. None of us are. And in talking about the problems, maybe we can help each other. Ricks already has. Robin Bell says her middle son "is like my therapist."

"They can understand where I was coming from and going through my process," Ricks said. "The conversations are better now because I can explain myself to them finally and articulate myself in the right way."

"You can't know anybody else until you know yourself," Bell said. "That's what Nafis learned."