Fittingly, Nikko Acosta's new digs are deep in the heart of Texas, where the sage in bloom is like perfume … and they'll always love Johnny Cash. Because young Nikko has been everywhere, man.
Kents Hill and Martinsville, Tallahassee and Panama City. And now Acosta's dreams have come true in Beaumont, Texas.
Acosta, born and raised in New London, a respectful and polite giant, all 6 feet, 9 inches, will be dancing in Dayton tonight. Acosta is a junior member of the basketball team at Lamar University, the brand new champions of the Southland Conference.
Lamar plays a first-round game against Vermont in Dayton before a date with North Carolina.
"I've wanted this since I was a little kid," Acosta was saying Sunday night from Beaumont, a city of a little more than 100,000 in southeast Texas, 30 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
"I always knew I'd be here," Acosta said. "I just didn't know the road. It's a different road."
It's a road that began, as all the great stories do, in New London. Acosta, who played for the Tar Heels and Noah James in youth basketball, grew up on Converse Place just off Pequot Ave. He attended Grasso Tech before New London High. His senior year for the Whalers, sadly, never happened because of a knee injury.
And so began Acosta's journey to Beaumont.
Start with a prep year in Kents Hill, Maine at Kents Hill School. Then to Martinsville, Va. and Heat Academy. From there, he earned a Division I scholarship to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, where a bad experience necessitated a transfer to Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City. It wasn't far from Pensacola JC, where his dad, John Hilgus, a Waterford High graduate, once played.
"Two high schools, two prep schools, a university and a junior college," Acosta said, chuckling.
Just the way you draw it up.
And then Nikko Acosta became Pat Knight's first recruit at Lamar. Knight, son of the game's most famous coach, got the Lamar job after coaching at Texas Tech.
Knight has surrounded his first recruit with solid players, led by Acosta's roommate, guard Mike James, who you really should make a point to watch Wednesday night. Acosta, who led his junior college in rebounds and blocked shots, averages seven minutes per game for the Cardinals. He played some in Lamar's win over rival McNeese State in the Southland tournament championship game.
Lamar, which hadn't made the tournament since 2000, wasn't threatening to alter history this season, especially after Knight's postgame oratory in late February. Knight, inflections in whose voice sounded eerily similar to his dad, called out his senior class. The Cardinals haven't lost since.
"Coach Knight really cares about us," Acosta said. "I knew people in the media would take it out of context. He wanted to motivate us. I don't think we'd be here if that didn't happen. From that day, it felt like the season started all over again."
Imagine, too, the odds of telling Acosta one day that his "this is your life" moment would come in Katy, Texas, site of the Southland championship game. It became the intersection for Acosta's whole life: his family, his dreams. In attendance on Saturday: Mom, Cindy Gaudenzi. Grandmother: Lana Gaudenzi. Brother: Adam. Father: John Wilgus. Stepmother: Brigit Wilgus. Sister: Jadyn Wilgus. The airline industry loves Nikko Nation today.
"The best part about that game, aside from winning," Acosta said, "is that after the game, nobody wanted to leave. I took pictures with everybody."
And now Bob Knight's favorite NCAA tournament team is off to Dayton. Maybe Acosta will be to meet the elder coach Knight again as he did earlier this season.
"Amazing," Acosta said. "He's one of the people you always see on TV and always wanted to meet."
Acosta has a year left at Lamar, not to mention considerable frequent flyer miles. Acosta has discovered better than anyone else that college is about self-discovery. There are parts of Nikko Acosta in Connecticut, Maine, Virginia, Florida and now Beaumont, Texas. He's done his family and hometown proud.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.