Photo by Lance Winter
ALL FOR 22: Nijal Pearson plays for late brother’s memory, leads Bobcats to success
Twenty-two is Nijal Pearson’s why.
Every time Texas State’s junior guard dons his No. 22 jersey, he’s not only playing for himself but also his brother, Nicholas “Nico” Pearson, who wore the same number when he played for Beaumont West Brook High School. His oldest brother taught him everything, from the way he walks to the way he talks and smiles. Nico wasn’t just Nijal’s brother but also his best friend and a father figure.
Losing Nico to testicular cancer on Oct. 28, 2010 still weighs heavy on him.
“He’s why I play so hard, why I go hard every day, why I give all glory to God,” Pearson said. “He’s everything to me. He’s my motivation. He was my best friend. Losing someone like that, it’s rough on me. It’s still rough on me to this day and that was nine years ago. To this day, it’s still heavy on my heart.”
Nico put a basketball in Nijal’s hands at two years old, creating an instant bond between the brothers.
When Nijal was in elementary school, he would play basketball with Nico and his high school friends.
“Those two were inseparable, always,” said Stephanie Lartigue-Pearson, the brothers’ mother. “He and his brother did everything together. He and Nico were so much alike in so many ways.”
The two were so close people believed Nico was Nijal’s dad. When Nijal began playing basketball, coaches talked to Nico about how well Nijal was playing.
“They would go up to him and congratulate him like ‘Your son is really good,’” Lartigue-Pearson said. “That’s how (Nijal) got to playing (AAU) ball in the Houston area because some people approached his brother.”
A Way Out
Nijal describes his hometown of Beaumont as a rough place.
“In Beaumont, there’s not a lot of opportunity,” Pearson said. “I don’t want to talk down on my city because I love my city. But, I mean, it’s a rough place. There’s a lot of ‘come up to pull down’ type of stuff going on. It’s a tough place. When people make it out of Beaumont and most time people really stick together from Beaumont.”
Basketball was Pearson’s way out. During his senior year at Beaumont Central High School, Pearson tallied 18.5 points, nine assists and seven rebounds per game. He was named to the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches Class 5A All-State team and All-Region 3-5A team. Pearson was also picked as the Co-District 22-5A MVP and was magna cum laude of his class.
Pearson wasn’t heavily recruited, though. He garnered attention from Houston, San Diego and New Hampshire. But Lamar and Texas State went after him the hardest.
“(Pearson) had a reputation for not being able to shoot it well,” Bobcat head coach Danny Kaspar said. “He did not have a lot of suitors early. We were able to get him because we recruited him hard.”
Pearson liked the players at Texas State and wanted to be a part of the Bobcats. But, as a self-proclaimed ‘momma’s boy,’ he couldn’t be too far from his mom.
“I’m three hours away (from home),” Pearson said. “I’m not too far but I’m not too close. I can’t be right there. My momma, she’s going to be on me everyday. It’s good distance from her. It’s a nice city out here. There’s a lot of friendly people out here. It’s really a lot different from Beaumont here, well the college part of it. I just like that.”
On Pearson’s visit to Texas State, he asked Kaspar if he’d be able to start.
The head coach told him that starting as a freshman wasn’t something that usually happened. It would involve him putting in a considerable amount of work and learning a multitude of plays. Kaspar, however, envisioned him starting later in his career.
Pearson welcomed the opportunity at Texas State but he knew he could put in the work to start earlier than expected.
His teammates quickly took notice of him. Ojai Black, the team’s senior point guard during the 2016-17 season, was instantly impressed with Pearson’s work ethic.
“I’ve been playing basketball a long time, I’ve been on a lot of teams, been around a lot of players, for real, and I’d probably say Nijal is the hardest working dude I know,” Black said. “Like, a gym rat. No matter what time of day, what time we get back to the crib after a long day of study hall, practices, conditioning, ran miles, he’s still going to get his shots in. He’s still going to get his workout in. I’ve seen him with my own eyes, really countless nights.”
Pearson was named a starter for Texas State’s first game of the season against Florida Atlantic on Nov. 11, 2016. He started all 33 games for the Bobcats during his freshman campaign.
At first, Pearson was star-struck. He didn’t expect to start, nor did he think he’d be an impact player. He thought he’d a role guy. But he started scoring double digits on a consistent basis and realized his potential.
“I thought I’d be a little ‘glue guy’ into the starting lineup — just help us win,” Pearson said. “When I got to playing, I got to scoring, I was like ‘I can do this. I can make this who I am.’ I just kept working, kept getting better.
Pearson averaged 13.3 points per contest. He tallied a team-high 5.7 rebounds a game and also added 2.4 assists and 1.4 steals each time on the court. The 6-foot-5 guard became instrumental in Texas State’s 22-win season.
“He was a huge, huge impact,” Black said. “Him and Kavin (Gilder-Tilbury) were kind of the dynamic duo. Most games if him and Kavin didn’t score in double digits, it was like, 'it’s going to be tough for us to win.' He was really that second-leading scorer, that guy that we could go to. He’s a hard worker. He was coming into practice every day working and competing.”
“Some people wanted to write me off”
Pearson was named a captain at the beginning of his sophomore season.
With the loss of Black, guard Bobby Conley and forward Kavin Gilder-Tilbury, Pearson was thrust into a go-to player role.
His stats took a jump during his second season in San Marcos. Pearson started all 33 games and recorded 15.2 points and six rebounds per game.
But the season took a turn for him and the team when then-sophomore point guard Marlin Davis tore his ACL against Troy on Jan. 6, 2018. Then-junior guard Tre Nottingham moved from his normal role as the two-guard to the point, and Pearson also split some time at Davis’ position.
The loss of their starting point guard affected Pearson’s performance and led to the Bobcats finishing the season with a 15-18 record.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” Kaspar said. “Every good (football) team’s got to have a good quarterback. A basketball team’s got to have a good point guard … We played 12 games without Marlin (Davis). We were able to win a few of those but the longer you play and the more people watch you, the more they figure you out.”
Despite an improved stat line and being named to the All-Sun Belt Third Team, Pearson’s season appeared to be a sophomore slump.
“I played pretty decent for a sophomore but some people wanted to right me off,” Pearson said. “I kept working. I stayed in it, stayed at it. I kept getting better.”
Pearson believes he forced things during the 2017-18 campaign and at other times didn’t do enough. He learned to find a balance in his game. He found a belief and trust in himself that has helped propel his game to another level.
A Smarter Player
Pearson entered this season with 66 starts to his name.
All 2,259 minutes on the court made him a smarter player. He knows how to better approach games and what to look for to have success.
He’s the Bobcats’ leading scorer with 17.1 points per game through 31 games. He’s knocked down countless shots during his junior year. Pearson banked a game-tying, 30-foot, 3-point heave off the glass at the halftime buzzer to help the Bobcats to a 77-64 win over Arkansas State on Jan.19. He swished a game-winning 3 against Louisiana on Feb. 23.
Pearson wore a face-mask for weeks after breaking his nose against Georgia State on Jan. 5 because he knew his team needed him.
Pearson’s guided Texas State to a 23-win season and was rewarded for his success when he was named to the All-Sun Belt First Team on Monday.
“I appreciate the acknowledgement,” Pearson said. “I appreciate all the coaches who voted me in and whoever else voted me. It’s been a fun season.”
Nottingham described Pearson’s effort this season as unbelievable.
“When we’re having a bad practice, he’s one of the first people to call it out, like, ‘Yo, we’ve got to pick it up. This is not what championship teams do,’” Nottingham said. “He’s always the first person to say something about the way we’re guarding. He’s always the first person to give pointers and give examples on what we need to do.
“Nijal has been doing a great job this year, considering he’s only a junior too and he has the mentality and mindset already. It’s real good to have him on your side. He’s been real good for us.”
Clowns off the court
Black and Nottingham both call Pearson a jokester.
Sure, he’s mature for his age but he’s a funny guy, according to his friends.
“I’m not going to lie, we’re some clowns off the court,” Nottingham said. “We have fun anywhere we go. We play rock-paper-scissors at the airport, at the gym, at the house. We play Fortnite everywhere. We play Madden. We play (NBA) 2K. Like everywhere we go, it’s all jokes and laughs.”
Pearson listens to J. Cole, Meek Mill, Lil Durk and Kevin Gates to help motivate him. His go-to song was Gates’ “Great Man” a month ago. Now, he and his teammates listen to music by DaBaby, a Charlotte, N.C.-based rapper.
Although Pearson’s got jokes, those around him also know he’s a humble guy. He’s aware that he’s got family watching him and how he performs.
“He knows the sacrifices that have been made for him and he knows that a lot of little kids look up to him,” Lartigue-Pearson said. “And so, he really makes sure that he does things the right way. It means a lot to him because he tells me all the time, ‘Mom, I know, I’ve got a lot of kids, my cousins and all that stuff, that look up to me so I’ve got make sure that I set a good example for them.’ He’s very conscious about that.”
All For 22
Pearson has moved up the history books at Texas State.
He’s currently the program’s all-time leader in games started at 100. He’s proved the skeptics wrong as No. 2 in program history in 3-pointers with 174, draining 36.1 percent of his shots from deep for his career. He’s No. 5 in scoring at 1,509 career points.
His success comes as no surprise to Black.
“When I see it from him, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Seeing the work, it’s really translating on to the court,’” Black said. “We knew it was going to happen but it was like he snapped his fingers and it’s really happening now. We knew he was going to be big but we did not he was going to be as big as he is now. What he’s doing now is phenomenal.”
Pearson’s mom said it’s been awesome to watch her son succeed at the collegiate level. Lartigue-Pearson called her son after he was named to the all-conference first team on Monday and let him know that what he’s doing is helping her through Nico’s death.
“After losing my son, it’s been really hard on me,” Lartigue-Pearson said. “But seeing what Nijal is doing, it gives me reason to continue on. It gives me reason to know that everything is going to be okay. Sometimes I don’t want to continue on but watching Nijal work as hard as he’s working and knowing he’s doing it for his brother, he’s my reason for still continuing on because losing my son, it’s a daily process. I get joy every time I see an accomplishment that Nijal makes.”
All the success Pearson has attained during his Bobcat career has been for Nico. But Pearson isn’t satisfied with what he’s done so far at Texas State. He knows there’s more to do and when he achieves it, it’ll all be for No. 22.
“(Losing my brother has been) the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my life, no question,” Pearson said. “Me losing him, it broke me down but it also built me up. It made me grow up faster than I had to. It made me become the man of the house at a young age but it’s a part of the reason who I am now. The skills I have now on the court and off the court, it’s all because of him because a great loss became a great gain.”