PROVO — Nick Emery first noticed the loss of circulation in his arms just before his senior year at Lone Peak High School.
“It’s a sensation of being numb. You can’t feel anything,” said the 6-foot-2, 180-pound freshman guard who will begin his BYU basketball career this fall. “Your hands get white and there’s no blood flow.”
If the condition affected him at Lone Peak, it didn’t show. Emery played through it and finished with a school-record 1,953 points and also set a state record with 269 career 3-pointers. He helped lead the Knights to three straight state basketball championships and the 2013 MaxPreps national high school basketball championship. Emery was named the Deseret News’ Mr. Basketball as a senior in 2013.
Still, it begs the question — how does a guy play basketball, especially at a high level, with numb hands?
“You get used to it, whatever environment you’re in,” said Emery, the younger brother of former Cougar star Jackson Emery. “You’ve got to adapt.”
While playing basketball he felt cold, so he adapted by wearing long sleeves during games, which helped his circulation. He saw doctors, but they weren’t too concerned about the ailment.
Emery left on his LDS mission to Frankfurt, Germany in May, 2013 and was enjoying his experience for more than a year when the circulation problem and the pain worsened.
“It got to the point where I almost lost all feeling in my arms,” Emery explained. “I would carry a backpack. Every time I put that backpack on and wore it for long periods of time, that’s when I would feel it. I’d get that tingling sensation.”
Emery confided in his mission president, Ronald Stoddard, about his health issue. Stoddard, a neonatologist and medical director of the newborn intensive care unit with Intermountain Healthcare before becoming a mission president, strongly advised that Emery return home last August to undergo surgery.
“You never want to hear that as a missionary,” Emery said. “I told him, ‘No, I’m going to wait it out.’ But it got to a point where I’d lift my arms and I’d have no pulse. He said, ‘This could lead to other things if you don’t take care of it.’ It could have led to other things if I would have had waited. He called doctors here in Provo and helped set up the surgery. He’s a doctor and he’s one of my heroes. If I hadn’t come home, I don't know if I’d be able to play basketball right now.”
Emery has been diagnosed with Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), caused by compression of the nerves or blood vessels due to an inadequate passageway through the thoracic outlet between the base of the neck and armpit. Symptoms of TOS include numbness in the hands and fingers, as well as neck, shoulder and arm pain.
After receiving a medical release from his mission, Emery underwent surgery in Utah that resulted in having two ribs and scar tissue around his lungs removed.
While it was the right decision, coming home early from his mission was tough.
“It was difficult to come home from something you dream of from a young age,” he said. “What helped me was to see the greater picture in life and see what’s really important. Those two years are really just a short time. When you’re out there, it seems like forever. But those are two short years. I wanted to give it everything I had.”
That’s why Emery was determined to heal up after the surgery and return to his mission in Germany, which he did in early October.
BYU coach Dave Rose was impressed with Emery’s attitude and determination during a challenging time.
“I really admire the fight he put up with that because it was so painful and so difficult,” Rose said. “The mission president made the decision for him, that he needed to come home and get these things fixed and try to relieve that pain. After he had those operations, he hadn’t completely recovered but he gave me a call one night and he told me, ‘Coach, I’m going back out there. I’m going to finish this and make it the best possible experience with this challenge.’ I really admired that. It showed a lot about his character. Those are character traits that will make him a really good player.”
While resuming his mission, more complications arose, which forced him to come home from Germany in early January.
“I’m forever grateful that I chose to go back out,” Emery said. “I learned a lot of things.”
He’s also grateful to the doctors and trainers who have helped him deal with his health problems.
Last winter, Emery could not participate in practices with the team, but he was able to watch practices and work on his conditioning. His health has improved dramatically in recent months.
“Physically, I’m feeling great. I haven’t felt this way in a long time,” Emery said. “I’m finally getting my circulation back and I haven’t had any nerve problems the past couple of months. It was definitely a big scare for a while. But I’m back on track to where I want to be … At first (TOS) was that mental block. But now, it’s at a point to where I don’t think about it anymore. That was the goal of the doctors and my goal as well. It’s progressing at a good rate right now. Before, it was a constant thing. Now, it comes and goes. I can never tell when it comes. When it does come, it doesn’t affect the way I play at all. It’s just more on the annoying side, where it kind of bugs you.”
In the first couple of months after Nick returned from his mission, Jackson spent a lot of time with Nick to help him get back in shape.
Jackson has been there for his brother through all the ups and downs.
“To have that physical issue that he was going through tells a lot about his character in terms of keeping his focus,” said Jackson, who is regarded as one of the best defensive players in school history and helped lead the Cougars to the Sweet 16 in 2011. “For him to come home and take care of it was definitely difficult. But for him to decide to go back out, not a lot of people would do that. Especially when you’ve been out 14 or 15 months and then you’ve been home two months. He could have easily said, ‘I served more than half my mission and I’m done.’ But he said, ‘I’m not done yet. I need to go back out.’ To go back out and have complications again, it tells you that he’s resilient.”
Nick is thankful to have his older brother to rely on.
“I’ve always said that he’s the biggest mentor that I’ve had. He’s kind of paved the path for me,” Nick said. “Through high school I watched him play and here at BYU I watched him play. I kind of reaped the benefits. Jax has been a huge part of the success I’ve had. He’s always there to help.”
Rose sees a lot of similarities between Nick and Jackson.
“They have great leadership qualities. They look outside themselves to see how they can reach the group,” he said. “Nick is really committed to his game and improving his game. I look forward to seeing how he fits. Jackson was as good of a competitor as anyone we’ve had from Day One. I think Nick will be the same way.”
Jackson said Nick’s skill set will benefit BYU.
“He’s got a lot of power. He’s able to stretch the floor as well. He’s a fantastic shooter and is able to drive to the basket using his strength. That’s something he and I are different in — we’re built differently. He’s a little stockier. I’m a little leaner and a little more athletic in terms of jumping and stuff. His power and his distance are really what defines him as a player.”
Nick said one of his strengths as a player is his competitiveness.
“I’m very competitive. I’m a lot like my brother, Jackson, where on the defensive end I can get after it and on the offensive end, I can play point and run the offense or if they need me to score, I can score. I’m a very confident person in basketball. All the guys we have will help the team come together."
Nick added that he’s comfortable playing both the point and shooting guard positions. “I can come off screens, or I can bring the ball up,” he said. “Whatever I’m asked to do, I’ll do.”
When asked what he wants to accomplish during his BYU career, Nick said he’s set goals.
“I’ve sat down with the coaches and my brother. I’ve had some thoughts about that and what I want to pursue as a player. But every personal goal I have leads to the team and winning. We were successful at Lone Peak in winning. That was what was the best. That’s what was the most fun. So these goals are relating to the team. I’m excited to be better as a person and a player as well and help the guys around me.”
Of course, helping his transition to college will be newly hired assistant Quincy Lewis, who turned Lone Peak into a national basketball power.
“The coaching staff here at BYU is the best, honestly. All of them are great guys, and to add Quincy to the mix makes it that much better,” Emery said. “He knows me as a person and my weaknesses and strengths as a player. What’s cool is that we’re carrying that on from high school — what I needed to get better on in high school, he’s working with me now. That’s how all the coaches are. They’re all willing to help and they’re all there to help us reach our personal goals.”
Next year, Emery will be reunited with a couple of former Lone Peak teammates, guard T.J. Haws, who is serving a mission in France, and forward Eric Mika, who’s serving in Italy. They have been playing together since elementary school.
“We don’t really care about the personal accomplishments as we did about the team,” Nick Emery said. “We knew if we cared about the team, all the personal accomplishments would come after that. We all had that goal in mind. We’re all best friends. We always hung out off the court. That chemistry just built up over a long period of time.”
It’s a little ironic that after taking a couple of years away from basketball to serve a mission in Europe, Emery will resume his competitive career in Europe — Spain, to be specific.
In August, the Cougar basketball team will travel to Spain for a series of exhibition games.
“I’m working hard to get to that. It will be fun,” Emery said. “The coaches are taking 9-10 guys. I’ve talked to some members of the (LDS) Church (from Germany) that will probably go to Spain. It’s only about an hour plane ride. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see some members that I got really close to.”
Naturally, Emery can’t wait for his career to officially start this fall. The future of BYU basketball, Emery said, is bright.
“These next four years are going to be really exciting. I’m looking forward to it. Our fans should be looking forward to it. Now it’s putting the pieces together and chasing that championship … I believe that we can do something big.”