Naz Long

Max Dible

Nazareth Mitrou-Long never cared much for solitude.

“People always wanted to be around Naz, and he always wanted to be around other people,” said his mother, Georgia Mitrou. “He could never be alone. He never wanted to be alone.”

And so it was surprising that as Naz stood amid the sensory overload of his first Iowa State house party — wiser smiles beckoning the unknown and the thump of the music stirring tremors beneath his feet — he felt a pull toward seclusion too powerful to ignore.

It was then — in the dark, youthful hours of a Sunday morning in the fall of 2011 — the ISU recruit on his first visit to Ames asked his friend and mentor, Melvin Ejim, to drop him off at church.

Or at least, a place a lot like it.

The clock climbed toward 3 a.m. as Ejim’s car rolled into the Sukup Basketball Complex, guided by the white fluorescent light of the parking lot street lamps.

“You can go, it’s late,” Naz said. “I just need you to unlock it for me.”

Ejim obliged, and Naz strolled purposefully inside. For the second time in two days, the gigantic mural stretching the entire length of the east wall of the gym flooded his vision with images depicting the glories of Cyclones who had gone before.

“I just wanted to kick it in here,” Naz recalled, staring out across the same court four years later. “I wanted to think a little bit on my whole career, everything that got me up to that point.”

He grabbed a basketball off the rack, voices from his past echoing in his mind with each bounce off the hardwood — the ones who told him he’d never make it here, and the ones who always knew he would.

Naz pulled up for a shot.


“I’m going D-1,” a 15-year-old Naz boasted to his best friend, Alan Anderson, as the two walked home from St. Martin’s Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.

“Brother, you’re not going D-1,” Anderson laughed. “You’re staying in Canada, you shooter.”

“I promise you, I’m going D-1,” Naz insisted. “I promise you.”

“Yeah, sure. We’ll see,” Anderson said. “We’ll see.”

In Canada circa 2008, playing NCAA basketball was little more than a dream.

“No one outside of Canada knew what was happening [on the basketball scene],” Naz explained. “There were no coaches recruiting, no one really going Division I.”

Hockey dominated the sports scene north of the border, but after the turn of the millennium, interest in basketball began to grow among Canada’s diverse population. And with budding interest, budding talent blossomed.

Canada remained a relatively untapped, youth-basketball market until the early 2000s, when Canadian hopefuls realized they must begin pursuing the game in the United States well before college to maintain any hope of rising to the next level.

“What started happening was Canadians who were talented were looking at coming to high school in the U.S. to create more opportunities for themselves,” said ISU assistant coach and recruiting coordinator T.J. Otzelberger.

“As some of those young men started coming over and having good experiences, that opened up the door for more guys to come over and look at this opportunity. That probably started about 10 years ago.”

Ejim and others — like Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, who both ended up Texas Longhorns — were among the first to take that chance, helping topple the initial dominoes in a chain reaction that would become a movement.

“Being somebody from Canada, the biggest goal you could have was to go to the NCAA and then go the NBA hopefully,” Ejim said. “For a lot of us that seemed kind of far fetched, because it just hadn’t happened for a lot of people.”

While the early success stories of players like Ejim — who Naz grew up watching and practicing with — hadn’t necessarily paved the road for the next wave of hopefuls, they had at least cut a path, leaving a map for future journeymen. 

“Once they did that, they all got offers from [colleges].” Naz said, his voice swelling with respect. “That was like a dream come true for guys like myself, because we saw it was possible.”

The superhighways to stardom on American hard courts would be built by Naz’s generation, creating the booming outflow of Canadian talent for which NCAA coaches now scramble and on which NBA front offices focus a keen eye.

But as Naz closed in on the midway point of high school — his basketball elders already subtly eroding the aura of impossibility surrounding American hoop dreams — Naz encountered other obstacles of a more personal and specific nature.

The attitude with which he approached life outside the lines during his youth presented itself more problematically as it clashed harshly with his aspirations.

The same story emerges from everyone who knew Naz growing up. He was confident and mature beyond his years, at least socially. Anderson was two grades ahead of Naz and three years older, yet the two were best friends and remain so to this day.

But like many 15-year-olds, Naz lacked an understanding of the bigger picture.

“Naz lived legit 30 seconds from school, but he never came to school on time — ever,” Anderson explained. “I used to tell him, ‘You’ve got to at least come to first period.'”

Naz’s grades were mostly Ds and Fs, with the occasional C mixed in. As a 10th grader, Anderson said Naz was already probably the best player on the team — second perhaps only to Anderson himself.

Hanging out with the older crowd emboldened Naz, and the man who has proven through three years in Ames that he’ll never shy away from a shot took plenty of them on and off the court growing up in a Toronto suburb.

On one occasion Anderson recalled, a fire alarm went off at St. Martin’s, prompting students to pour out of the building. A group of them approached Naz and Anderson’s clique and started talking trash.

“Out of everyone, Naz picked the biggest guy,” Anderson said, “and clocked him in the face in front of the whole school.”

The principal and administrators held Naz back, pulled him into the office and explained what he was risking.

But their words fell on mostly deaf ears. It wasn’t until Naz ended up the following year at Montrose Christian, a prep school in Rockville, MD, that he finally began to comprehend the man he must become.

“That Montrose year really molded me and shaped me into understanding what real life was about,” Naz said. “My grades went from Ds and F’s to As and Bs like that, because they told me, ‘This is the clearinghouse. You say you want to play D-I ball. If your grades stay like this, you might as well leave after this year, because you’re not going to do it.'”

A stringent schedule, daily practice and conditioning, lights out at 10:30 — Montrose wasn’t a boot camp, but for an individualistic Naz, it may as well have been.

Jewelry was as forbidden as facial hair, and an untucked shirt or an unmade bed got players one thing — in better shape — because they’d run all day for such transgressions.

“It taught me a lot that I can’t just be the free-spirited kid. I had to be a well-structured man,” Naz said. “At the time I hated it. I felt like what they were doing was wrong, but it made me a better person. Living in the houses with [my teammates], hearing their stories and where they came from, it made me appreciate that family is everything.”

Naz put up a few more shots inside Sukup as the clock struck 3 a.m., then made his way over to the padded foldout chairs emblazoned with the Iowa State logo that line the west side of Sukup’s east gym.

He gazed back across the width of the court and up at the wall.

“I wanted to be up on that wall,” Naz said. “I wanted to leave my mark at a place I had mistaken for Ohio State. I didn’t even know there was a state of Iowa. I hadn’t known, but [at that moment] I wanted to know. I was so eager to know more.”

Earlier in the day, Naz experienced his first college football game at Jack Trice Stadium. It was a spectacle unlike any north of the border save for professional hockey and baseball.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” Naz said. “The athletics out here, you can’t compare to Canada, so when I saw Jack Trice and the football game, I fell in love with that.”

Thoughts of glory danced in Naz’s head as he sat alone, an inclination beginning to build in his miind. He picked up his phone and called his mother, Georgia.

It was 4 a.m. outside Toronto, and rousing her from slumber required several calls. As the phone rang over and over in his ear, Naz recalled the first time he’d phoned his mother from the United States.

More than 50 people gathered at the Mitrou-Long household to wish a 16-year-old Naz well on the day he departed for Maryland.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence now nor was it then for dozens of people to flock to the home whenever Naz was around. Any time he’s in Mississauga, his mother leaves the door unlocked. It’s just easier that way.

“On a given day when Naz is home, there’s always 20 or 30 people around,” Georgia said. “I always say I could become a millionaire by selling the shoes piled in front of our door.”

On this day in 2009, the crowd was even larger. Georgia stood at the top of the stairs and watched her eldest son share hugs and loving words amid a slew of emotional goodbyes.

“As we were backing out, he was in the back seat. Everybody was waving at him, kind of walking with us as the car backed up,” Georgia recalled. “I could see him choked up. He was watching them out the window, but as we started driving away, he looked down.

“He didn’t want to cry.”

But by the time the family reached the airport, the tears wouldn’t stay dammed any longer. They started flowing before the gate, and, for Naz, they didn’t stop until he arrived at Montrose.

“It’s such a tough dynamic to think about,” Otzelberger said. “You’re talking about kids who are 15, 16-years-old leaving the stability of their household and the school that they’re at.”

The first night was the hardest. Never in his life had Naz appreciated Alexander Graham Bell’s crowning invention more.

“It was kind of surreal, because I wasn’t really ready. I wasn’t mentally ready. I was terrified,” Naz said. “There were nights when my mom would literally stay on the phone with me all night.”

His first evening in Maryland was one such occasion. Naz and Georgia spoke for hours before Georgia heard heavy breathing on the other end of the line. Believing her son to be asleep, she hung up.

But just as she would roughly two years later, she received a late-night call from Naz.

“Why’d you hang up?” he asked frantically. “I wasn’t sleeping. Just stay on the phone.”

So that’s what she did. Naz would snore, Georgia would doze off, and then one of them would wake up.

“Hey, are you there?”

And the conversation would begin again. What they were talking about didn’t matter. It was therapy for both of them. It was home’s comfort wrapped in the sound of a familiar voice, bridging a gulf spanning two countries and hundreds of miles.

“It was like two teen-aged friends on the phone all night,” Georgia laughed. “That’s what it felt like.”

A 13-year-old Naz shot baskets at the YMCA as his father looked on. Playing on the kids’ side of the court, Jersey Long watched as three men in their early 20s, who had just lost a pick-up game on the adult side, approached his son.

The conversation quickly turned into a challenge from Naz to one of the men — a game of one-on-one. Jersey took in the interaction intently. The man smirked to his friends.

“This little kid is going to play a game with me?” the man asked his buddies derisively.

Jersey, a practitioner and teacher of both kickboxing and Tae Kwon Do, valued toughness. He thought perhaps he should allow the situation to play out, let his boy learn something.

“Are you ready?” Naz asked.

He was, and promptly built a 7-0 lead over his youthful challenger.

This would be a valuable teaching moment, Jersey thought.

The older man missed a shot. Naz rebounded the ball and netted his first bucket. 7-1. Swish. 7-2. Nothing but net. 7-3. All day. 7-4.

The game ended 11-7 in favor of the 13-year-old. It had been a teaching moment, only not for Naz.

“He taught me something that day,” Jersey admitted. “Since then, I started looking at him differently. I’ve watched him train endless hours in the gym by himself with so much focus.”

Whether the 11-0 run on a man almost 10 years his senior was the birth of that focus is impossible even for Naz to know. But not long after, he wrote a wish list — one Georgia still keeps in her home nine years later.

At the top of that list, a young Naz wrote that he wanted to attend a prep school in the United States and eventually move on to a Division-I program.

The journey had begun.

Yet as Naz’s 11th grade year approached, the opportunities to come to the United States remained elusive, and the possibility grew more precarious with each passing day.

As the end of August gave way to early September, no schools had yet come knocking on Naz’s door.

“I’m scared, mom,” Naz confided. “I’m worried.”

“You don’t have to worry,” she assured him. “Your time will come.”

Naz’s time arrived with a phone call from Stu Vetter, the head coach at Montrose Christian at the time — a school that wasn’t even on Naz’s radar until suddenly, it was.

Mike George — who coached Naz as part of the Canadian AAU team CIA Bounce, and who is now an agent for Canadian NBA players Anthony Bennett and Tyler Ennis — told Naz and Georgia of Montrose’s interest in acquiring a point guard.

A few calls were placed back and forth before George approached Georgia with a proposition that demanded haste.

“Can you get Naz to Montrose to check it out and see if they like him?” George asked one day.

“Well, when?” Georgia inquired.

“He can go tomorrow morning,” George replied.

Georgia wasn’t sure she could make an international trip happen on such short notice with three other children in the house.

But as luck would have it, her friend, Melissa McCutcheon, had just begun working for Air Canada. McCutcheon arranged a flight that evening, flew with Naz to Maryland, rented a car and delivered him to Montrose in time for his visit.

McCutcheon’s role proved crucial, as Naz’s one day at Montrose was enough to leave an impression on Vetter. Other players were competing for the same roster spot, but Naz’s personality in the flesh was enough to win over a man who would later drive Naz near crazy with his constant and clichéd motto:

“My way or the highway.”

Through the year Naz spent under Vetter’s tutelage, he grew into a better basketball player and a better man.

“All the lessons they were trying to teach me came down to, ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the culture of the team and the program, and doing things for the guy next to you,'” Naz said.

“I’ll never forget that year.”

Naz would also never forget his first game at Montrose, when he squared off against future North Carolina star Kendall Marshall.

“He whupped my tail,” Naz said. “After we lost that game, and he did what he did to me, I knew I had to stay because I had to get better. That’s kind of what got me over the hump.”

It wasn’t just Marshall who woke Naz up and toughened him up simultaneously, helping him to put homesickness behind him in favor of aspiration. Several ventures into one of the toughest cities in the United States served the same purpose.

“I played against some serious point guards — I’m talking about from the slums of Baltimore — in hostile environments. It looked like there was a crack house on every other corner,” said Naz, remembering his view as the team bus rolled through the projects of West Baltimore.

“Goons were in the crowd swearing and cussing at me. I responded well in some, and some I didn’t.”

Those small but raucous gyms prepared Naz for the crowds he’d see once he joined the Big 12.

“It doesn’t matter how big the crowd is now, I’m not nervous anymore,” Naz said. “I never will be.”

After an 8-point, 5-assist year at Montrose, Naz played his next season for legendary Findlay Prep in Henderson, NV.

He didn’t see much of the court that year, as he found himself slotted behind a roster full of future Division-I and NBA talent that included Bennett, Myck Kabongo, Nick Johnson and current Jayhawk Landen Lucas.

Yet Naz still credits that season as by far the most important in his on-the-court development.

“That year was the year that I took the jump of becoming a way better player than I had been in the past,” Long said. “These guys were 6-feet-7 or 6-feet-this, 6-feet-that. I’m looking around like, ‘Wow, this is the size of people in the NBA and in college. This is going to get me prepared.'”

And when it came time for Naz to make his mark the next summer, the preparation paid off. The culminating tournament of the summer AAU season is the Nike Peach Jam, featuring the best players from across North America.

Naz’s team, CIA Bounce, earned a spot in the tournament, which was held that summer in Virginia. Embarking on the final campaign of his AAU career, Naz was still without any offers to play D-I basketball.

But then he took the court against the Boston-based BABC team that featured a standout recruit by the name of Georges Niang — and everything changed.

Naz scored 16 points and dished out 7 assists in that game, hitting a floater over current Philadelphia 76er Nerlens Noel to send the contest to overtime. CIA Bounce lost in double overtime, but, in front of a packed house, several prominent coaches witnessed what the young point guard could offer a team.

Naz caught the eye of one such coach who was there to watch Niang play — second-year head man at Iowa State, Fred Hoiberg.

“Naz’s teams always seemed to win,” Otzelberger said. “He was a big part of it. He wasn’t the go-to guy but was always doing important things. All the coaches he played for remarked about his intangibles, telling us he’s a winner and a great teammate.”

In the wake of the Peach Jam, Naz received about 10 offers  — including one from Ames.

“Naz was close to 6-foot-4, and he could play some point guard,” Otzelberger said. “[Along with the intangibles] that’s what made him intriguing.”

Naz’s maturation was complete, his worth proven. He’d pried open the doors to his dreams, and they were plenty. Now all that remained for Naz was the decision.

Where would he go?

The first place he decided to visit was one with which he was quite familiar. 

Two years after saying tearful goodbyes in his front yard to dozens of loved ones, Naz finally felt secure enough in his basketball future to return home to Mississauga.

He had seen his family sparsely over that span — only a handful of visits throughout his two years in the United States. It was time.

Reclassified when he got to Montrose, Naz had one season of eligibility left despite having been in high school in one country or another for four years. He chose to use that eligibility at St. Martin’s and finish his academic requirements in Canada before moving on to college.

“After I got those offers, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m good,'” Naz said. “The main reason I went home for my senior year was so I could play every game back home, and my parents could be at every one of them.”

Of course, Naz’s best friend Anderson was there too. And the soon-to-be-Cyclone had only four words for the buddy who had teased him about his improbable D-I dreams.

“I told you so,” Naz said with a smile.

It was 4 a.m. when Georgia groggily answered her phone.


It was Naz. He was still at Sukup — still sitting on a foldout chair, basketball in hand — still staring up at the mural on the wall.

“Is Dad next to you?” Naz asked. “Put him on speaker.”

Georgia obliged, and that’s when the Mitrou-Longs’ heard the news for the first time.

“Mom, Dad, this is where I want to be,” Naz said emphatically.

“Are you sure?” Jersey asked. “Maybe come back and take a couple of days and think about it.”

“No, no. This just feels right,” Naz insisted. “When I’m in the gym, I don’t want to leave.”

“OK. If you truly feel that way, then commit,” Jersey said.

Georgia agreed, and Naz committed to Iowa State the next day.

He could finally leave the gym. He knew he’d be back a whole lot over the course of the next four seasons.

Ejim knew it too.

“That night he kept saying, ‘I just have to get in the gym, I’ve got to get in the gym,'” Ejim recalled. “That’s when I knew he was someone we wanted on the team. He wasn’t worried about playing time or who was coming in at his position. He just wanted to get better.

“It showed how dedicated he was.”

Four years after that phone call, Naz is entering his senior season at Iowa State. He’s not on the east wall of Sukup, because that part of ISU history has already been written. But during his three years as a Cyclone, Naz has helped write some history of his own.

He averaged 10.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2 assists per game during his junior campaign. He was also a 40 percent 3-point shooter at high volume as a starter at the off-guard position.

Naz helped lead the Cyclones to their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and second straight Big 12 tournament title in 2014-15, after the team finished alone in second place during the conference’s regular season.

And as Iowa State’s tradition of excellence grows, so does its art collection. Naz and his teammates now have a few murals of their own.

“We have two pictures on the wall of our first team that won [the Big 12 tournament], and in the locker room over at Hilton there’s a picture of me with my arms open. As soon as you walk in you see it,” Naz said proudly. “I remember when that wasn’t there. Now I’m up on the wall, and I’ll be there for years to come.

“It’s humbling. It truly is humbling. And it’s a dream come true.”

Despite all his accomplishments, the perception of Naz today is strikingly similar to that in Canada when he was 15-years-old. There are still people who don’t believe, people who think Naz’s career — or at least the last part of it that matters — will end with this season.

The notion is compounded by the exit of Hoiberg to the NBA and Naz’s return from dual hip surgery in the offseason. But Naz said his health is of no concern, and over the course of the last seven years, he has shown nothing if not a proclivity to adapt to change. 

The people who know Naz believe his best is yet to come. 

“I believe that he hasn’t even shown his real skills yet. Naz isn’t just a shooter,” said Anderson, who used to tease Naz by calling him exactly that. “He could always shoot, but he had more to his game. I feel like he’s going to break out and show the world what he can really do.

“He always tells me, ‘Just wait. Just watch. This is the year.'”

Naz has developed into more than just a legitimate starter in the Big 12 and a fan favorite in Ames. He has become an ambassador for Iowa State, hailed both by Hoiberg and new ISU coach Steve Prohm as a leader of men and a crucial presence inside the locker room.

“He’s got everybody’s ear. Everybody respects him,” Prohm said. “Naz brings a different level to this team. He just brings a leadership and a toughness to this team — and a mindset that every great team has.”

As for the community, it has embraced Naz fully and created for him a home similar to the one he left seven years ago at his journey’s outset.

“Just to be a part of this place man, it’s special,” Naz said. “I came here because of the fans — the love and support they showed me on my visit, and when I was a freshman and didn’t even play. They’ve really welcomed me as part of the culture and as a family member. This place will always be a second home to me.”

The Cyclone faithful gather in droves to watch Naz inside Hilton Coliseum, just waiting for him to inevitably catch fire — much as his first family in his first home gathers in dozens to watch his games any time they can find them on television.

“When his games are on TV out here, all his friends go by his house, and we watch it all together,” Anderson said. “The whole city supports Naz. Only a few out here made it.”

Anderson added that the fame Naz has achieved in central Iowa is crazy to witness first hand, but Naz is always patient, always amiable.

He’s always more than happy to stop and sign an autograph or smile for a picture with a mother and her children, all clad in cardinal and gold.

Whether he’s in Mississauga or Ames, his first home or his second, Naz is a celebrity. He’s a magnet for those who love and adore him, be they family, old friends or new friends he simply hasn’t met yet.

And that’s how he likes it.

Nazareth Mitrou-Long never cared much for solitude, anyway.