When Nick Kazemi was in fifth grade, his teacher had him write down where he saw himself in 10 years.
He wrote “playing basketball for UCLA.”
A decade later, he crouched down at the scorers’ table at the Honda Center, about to enter the game.
He’d traveled down a long road to reach that moment, even though the game was less than 15 minutes from where he grew up playing in Tustin, Calif.
Kazemi, a walk-on, entered an insignificant 2011 game UCLA would eventually win 82-39 and grabbed a rebound in 120 seconds of play. It was the first and last time he would see the floor in his freshman season.
Despite only being on the court for a flash, the miniscule amount of playing time was well worth it to Kazemi.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an escape, but it’s something where I feel like I’m in my own world,” the sophomore guard said.
“You can’t get (the feeling) anywhere else other than stepping onto that court, playing in front of alumni, fans that love the game and support the team just as much as you do; all that molds together and creates that feeling that’s indescribable.”
That feeling, however, is just part of the reason he puts in so much work for so few seconds in “his world.”
Every time he steps on the court, he said, he has a very special person in mind.
It was his grandfather who first put a basketball in his hands.
To lighten the load on his stay-at-home mother, who looked after his sister, Kazemi offered spend time at his grandfather’s house after school when he was younger. There they would play their share of cards and pool, but basketball dominated their time together.
The bond Kazemi and his grandfather shared over basketball before his grandfather died established a connection between sport and family that Kazemi carries on to this day.
“He got sick, so when he was going to the hospital, one of the things I said to him was that I was going to make this a career and be successful because of him,” Kazemi said.
“I do this not only for myself or my family, but knowing that he’s watching me and he’s always in the back of my mind when I’m playing.”
What Kazemi gets out of basketball when he’s on the court hasn’t come without a cost.
Kazemi had what he called a fairly successful high school career, but it wasn’t good enough to garner immediate offers from anything other than “small-time schools.”
Rather than settle for a different college, Kazemi was intent upon fulfilling his dream of playing at UCLA. His next move was joining the team at Saddleback College, a community college in Mission Viejo, Calif. In the 2010-2011 season at Saddleback he worked on his skills, but didn’t play in games in order to preserve his eligibility.
Around April 2011, after his team’s season ended, Kazemi emailed UCLA about joining the basketball team the following year. Then the waiting began, as he didn’t hear back until mid- to late June.
“It was probably the most stress I’ve ever been through,” Kazemi said.
“During that three- or four-month period of waiting, you have moments when you sitting by yourself like “˜Man, I don’t know I’m going to do if this doesn’t work out.’ There’s a lot of doubt.”
However, according to UCLA assistant coach Scott Garson, who played a large role in Kazemi’s recruitment, there wasn’t much doubt, if any, for the Bruin coaching staff. They had seen his tape and knew he was a good player, Garson said, but what really impressed them was his attitude.
“It was very easy to tell from the second you met Nick that he was really enthusiastic about wanting to be on the team,” Garson said. “And (he) understood … when you’re a walk-on, it’s not easy, you don’t get all the glory sometimes.”
After a roller coaster of a year for Kazemi, the call from Garson with news that he had made the team felt like the drop down, he said.
“I clicked accept (on the call) and I gripped onto the steering wheel,” Kazemi said, describing with delight the phone call, struggling to tell the story coherently. “I almost wanted to, just like, “˜Yes!’ ““ you know, scream it out loud ““ but I tried to stay as professional as I could.”
Kazemi’s not shy when it comes to talking about the influence his family has had on him, whether it’s the time he spent with his grandfather, advice he’s gotten from his mom or the example his dad, an Iranian immigrant and owner of a car repair company, has set for him.
At UCLA, his outgoing personality has helped him get along with the rest of the team, duplicating the important atmosphere at his home away from home.
“He’s really close with his family, but he doesn’t have any brothers so I think him being on our basketball team ““ it gives him another sense of family, like a brotherhood,” said junior guard Tyler Lamb, Kazemi’s roommate.
And just like the family that raised him, Kazemi’s surrogate one in Westwood gives him support whenever he steps onto the floor.
“Everybody wants to see him be able to get into the games and score because of all the hard work he puts in,” Lamb said. “Because playing for UCLA is not an everyday thing. It’s something a lot of people dream about doing ““ putting on that jersey.”
So, that’s what it’s boiled down to for Kazemi ““ years of work for seconds of payoff.
A justifiable question would be “˜Why do so much for so little?’
When asked that very question, Kazemi’s answer is simple, though.
He cracked a wide smile and said, “Because I love it.”