Blaze Nield could have abandoned his college basketball aspirations at several key moments of his life.
- As the only son of a single mother.
- As a player who was smaller growing up.
- When he suffered an ankle injury on his Latter-day Saint mission and had to return home.
- Through two college transfers.
- When faced with double-hip surgery.
- When he became involved in organizing the Powder League, a competitive summer pro-am basketball league in Utah.
But the 6-foot-1 point guard has remained determined in his journey, finding ways to navigate each challenge and learning valuable lessons along the way.
Nield was Utah Valley University’s starting point guard when it opened the season at Boise State on Tuesday. He’s grateful for the experiences that have led him to this point in his life.
“I’d say that hard work and sacrifice brings in success,” he said. “That making right choices and being a good person can take you a long ways in life.”
‘He was always at our house’
Marquelle Nield gave birth to her son, Blaze, while living in Denver in 1998. Blaze has never had a relationship with his father, although the two have met.
Blaze was only a few years old when he and his mother moved to Utah to be closer to her family. They found a home in Lehi.
Because Nield didn’t have any siblings, he spent most of his time in a gym.
“That’s where I found my joy and relief,” he said. “That’s how I made my first friends.”
Frank Jackson and Tyler Cook became two of his closet friends, and in many ways he saw their fathers — Alvin Jackson and Bruce Cook — as his own.
“I had a lot of close friends. Their families were super supportive and took me in,” he said. “I was like one of their own.”
The boys’ birthdays were two days apart, so they celebrated them together. They did a lot of Latter-day Saint church activities together and Jackson often gave Nield a priesthood blessing at the start of each school year. Whenever Jackson learned that Nield was not respecting his mother, he spoke to the young man. Bruce Cook filled a similar role for Nield, and the young man often went to both Jackson and Cook when he had difficult questions.
“He was always at our house,” Alvin Jackson said. “Not only were we friends, but I considered him my son. I kind of mentored him throughout most of his growing up. We’re still involved in his life.”
Cook was one of Nield’s basketball coaches. He remembers Blaze was one of the smaller players but also one of the hardest workers.
“He always approached things as, ‘Hey, I can do this,’” Cook said. “He never took no for an answer and just never gave up.”
Marquelle Nield gratefully acknowledged the support of Jackson, Cook, her family and other coaches and friends, but she was her son’s main pillar of support. Of course there were rough periods, but she never felt like he was a problem or that raising him was difficult.
“He’s had so many amazing men in his life that have provided fatherly advice, love, support, encouragement, even discipline here and there,” she said. “I feel like God blessed me with an amazing young man. He changed my life. All I cared about was being the best mom — and dad, I guess — I could be to him.”
‘The best decision I ever made’
While his buddy Frank Jackson went on to play at Duke and was drafted into the NBA, Blaze Nield served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Nield had always planned to serve a mission, but wavered slightly in that commitment as a senior at Lehi High School when he was considered one of the top point guards in the state and drawing interest from recruiters. After seeking spiritual guidance, he opted to serve a mission and was assigned to speak Spanish in the Washington, D.C., area.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “I’m super grateful I did and I learned a lot. It led me to where I am today. Everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”
One of those lessons was how to find joy in the hard times. Near the midway point of his mission, Nield tore all the tendons in his ankle while playing basketball on his weekly day off.
“I shot a step-back 3-pointer and ... rolled my ankle super bad,” Nield said. “I was pretty sick, almost threw up it hurt so bad.”
Nield was sent home to undergo surgery, but one doctor he spoke with recommended physical therapy in light of his plans to play college basketball. Feeling better two months later, Nield didn’t hesitate to return to finish his mission.
“Coming home in the middle you realize you’re not missing much,” he said. “I loved my mission, never wanted to leave.”
‘God blessed me’
Before his mission, Nield was recruited by Southern Utah. One of the assistant coaches who recruited him ended up at Utah State University Eastern, where Nield’s good friend, Neema Namdar, also happened to be playing. Conversations ensued, and without visiting campus, Nield committed to play for the junior college program in Price.
Within a month of returning home, Nield was back on the court. Despite his time away from the sport, he averaged more than 20 points, 4.1 assists and 1.6 steals a game in his one year at USU Eastern.
“I know God blessed me because I was better at basketball,” he said. “I came back bigger, faster, stronger, more explosive, and without even playing that much on my mission.”
One unusual thing happened while playing a game in Arizona that season. During the game, Nield became aware of a man cheering loudly for him in the stands. It was his father. The man approached him after the game and introduced him to other family members. Marquelle Nield said her son was “like a deer in headlights” as they interacted, but anyone watching might have thought the two had known each for years.
“Blaze was steady, calm and cool,” she said. “He played it off like it was no big deal, but he does not have a relationship with his father.”
Mark Pope’s first player to commit at BYU
Several programs recruited Nield following the 2018-19 season, including BYU’s new coach Mark Pope and UVU’s new coach, Mark Madsen. Nield accepted the offer to BYU — the dream school of his youth — and became Pope’s first player to commit, he said.
But the transition to hoops at BYU was not easy. Along with a steep learning curve, Nield was suddenly competing with veteran guards like T.J. Haws and Alex Barcello, which left the sophomore with limited playing time. He had hoped for a bigger role.
The Cougars had a memorable season, finishing second in the West Coast Conference with a 24-8 overall record. BYU anticipated an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament but the Big Dance was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although BYU coaches encouraged him to return, Nield wanted to “branch out.” He entered the transfer portal and reconnected with Madsen at Utah Valley. Along with liking Madsen as a coach, he loved the idea of staying close to home so his mother, family and friends could watch him play.
“I thought a change would be good,” he said. “I wanted to go back to a place where I could play like myself and be me, regain my confidence.”
Utah Valley, COVID and double-hip surgery
Nield said his first year at UVU got off to an “uncertain” start. The majority of the players were new to the team. Some games were canceled due to COVID-19 and players missed the noisy fans. Nield said he was the first player on the team to get a mild case of the coronavirus and it seemed like someone was always away in quarantine.
“It was just stressful not knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “Everything was up in the air all year long.”
But the Wolverines came together to clinch a share of the Western Athletic Conference title. Nield played in all 22 games and started 17, averaging 4.4 points and 3.3 assists per game as the team’s floor general.
Madsen was most impressed with Nield’s 3.22 assist-to-turnover ratio, which was ninth best in the nation at the end of the season.
“If you’re a point guard that does not turn the ball over, you have extreme value in any program in the world,” Madsen said. “Not only does Blaze not turn it over, but he can make a 3, he’s a great passer, and he can make his teammates better. ... It shows how much he studies the game, how much he cares about his craft, and how much he works on things on his own.”
Following the season, Nield made the big decision to have double-hip surgery. A pain he started to feel in his left hip while at BYU was getting worse. An X-ray revealed that the top of his femur bone was not perfectly circular like it should be, and it was sticking out, where it would grind against his labrum and pelvic bone and cause pain, he said.
The solution was to shave the bone down some to make it more circular so it fit better. This was done to both hips, Nield said.
“It sounds serious, but I was back playing pretty fast — within months,” he said.
As a returning player and the starting point guard, Nield is expected to contribute to another run for the conference championship this season, Madsen said.
Helping to build the Powder League
In the middle of his college career, Nield was approached by two friends — Neema Namdar and Keegan Rembacz — with the idea of helping them start a competitive summer basketball league. Nield thought it was a good idea but didn’t hop on board at first.
His friends started what became the Powder League, a summer pro-am featuring teams loaded with current and former local college stars, a few NBA players and many who play professionally overseas. Nield eventually joined his friends as a partner.
“It’s a competitive opportunity,” Nield said. “Whether you are in college or a pro, you don’t want to be playing pick-up ball at the church with 40-year-olds who don’t know how to play. You want to play in an organized setting where you can get better and still have fun.”
Nield’s duties last summer included meeting with potential investors, recruiting and communicating with players, scheduling, designing jerseys and coordinating a livestream of the games, among other things. He was also involved in getting the event sanctioned by the NCAA. Rembacz referred to Nield as a “operations specialist.”
“He’s a hard worker, he has great ideas, and he knows how to get stuff done,” said Namdar, who plays professional basketball in Brazil. “He does a lot of the hands-on, dirty work that doesn’t really get noticed. Whatever needed to be done, Blaze did that.”
The business opportunity has been something of a summer internship for Nield, allowing him to develop skills and solve problems.
When jerseys weren’t delivered on time, Rembacz found a box of 200 jerseys from the previous year and the partners scrambled to iron on numbers and sort jerseys before the first games that night.
“It was the biggest headache in the world, but one of those stories you look back on as a startup,” Rembacz said. “You are happy that you are surrounded by positive people that were able to help you with it.”
What can you learn from Blaze Nield?
What those who know Nield best find most admirable about him are the little things.
“He has made good decisions for himself. Not all of them, but for the most important things, in terms of the young lady he married, going on a mission,” Alvin Jackson said. “He’s gotten the most important things right. I’m really proud of him.”
The word that kept coming back to his mother’s mind was “steady.”
“He’s not a big personality. He’s always been a leader but in a quiet way,” she said. “He’s always been steady, calm and cool.”
UVU teammate Colby Leifson agreed.
“He’s always been encouraging, always looking to set all of his teammates up for success as a point guard, on and off the court,” he said. “He’s a great leader.”
What has Nield learned from his journey?
“What I’ve learned is that Heavenly Father has a plan for each and every one of us,” he said. “Trusting in him and his plan is always going to result better than any plan you could have imagined.”
Utah Valley hosts Antelope Valley for its home opener at the UCCU Center this Friday with tip off at 6 p.m.