In terms of Sachem and New York sports history, the name Nicole Kaczmarski will go down as one of the greats.
She tore through gymnasiums on Long Island, ripped up the scoring sheet and left every opponent in the rearview mirror as she soared to great heights.
Her story has been told a million times, in a movie called “Running Down a Dream,” in thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and in basketball circles nationwide.
Which is why when she sat down for this interview during the 2010-11 basketball season it was peculiar for her to generalize the last 10 years of her life as trying to create an identity away from basketball.
“From when I was three years old I started playing until I was 26,” she said, sitting at a booth in the Lake Rock Diner on Portion Road, less then a mile away from the gym in which she gained national fame. “Basketball was everything. My process became to find out who I was, figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It’s what I needed. I wish I could have went longer with basketball and played a year or two in the league, but it wasn’t my path.”
From the mid-1990s until shortly after she left UCLA and was drafted by the New York Liberty of the WNBA, local media outlets were all over the Kaczmarski saga. But she faded fast after her plantar fasciitis and foot problems increased and passion for the game took a slight dip.
This year she surfaced again as a color analyst for MSG Varsity, broadcasting high school girl’s basketball, back with the game that made her “Kaz” and not just Nicole, involved with the game that indeed gave her an initial identity. But where was she for the decade before?
She graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in health science and continues to work there in the cardiac center.
“The MSG Varsity thing threw me for a loop because it’s not something I thought I’d be doing,” she said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to get back into high school basketball.”
Stony Brook is a long way from UCLA, the school that was last on her father Peter’s list, but first on hers and the farthest from Long Island. After the 2000 season, her only in California, she initially transferred to the University of Georgia, but her foot problems were too great to sustain a playing career at the time. At UCLA she played in 29 games, shot 40 percent from the field, 35 percent from three-point range and averaged 11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game, according to the school
“Leaving UCLA was difficult,” she said. “There were so many things that went into that whole process. Being at Georgia, it was an excellent program, but with the injury I was at a crossroads. I wasn’t really getting better. I enrolled in Stony Brook then and I was okay with that. I reached a point where it wasn’t fun anymore and I didn’t want to do it.”
She said choosing to attend UCLA was the first decision she was able to make on her own and she “wanted so much for it to work out.”
“Everyone was questioning my decision,” she said. “Everyone had a better choice for me. That was tough.”
She said it was best not to contact her father, who lives in Florida now, to comment for this story.
Leaving UCLA meant she had to look her coach Kathy Olivier, now the head coach at UNLV, in the eye and say goodbye.
“This vexed me for many years,” she said, wearing a pair of UCLA sweats at the diner. “I had a close relationship with coach on the court, off the court. I made a commitment to her and UCLA and feel I let them down. There was so much pressure and stress at that time. It was a year before I could talk to her. I didn’t get a chance to explain.”
Olivier praised Kaczmarski in a phone interview and pointed at external factors as a main reason for her departure from California.
“She’s kind of a character,” Olivier said. “Everything about her, her confidence, her aura, her thought processes, everything. It’s hard for a freshman to fit in right away and hard being from the east coast and coming to UCLA. She had a fun way about her and was a great player.”
Leaving UCLA abruptly wasn’t a shock to the people who followed Kaczmarski. She left Sachem for Longwood, left Longwood for Christ the King and returned to Sachem. It was an uncharacteristic story line of a highly touted player leaving schools long before it was the norm.
After the WNBA stint didn’t work out, she played in Europe for about six months, hitting the pro scene in Austria and Greece. She got a call from the LA Sparks and worked out with them for a month, but left after she realized being a starter and getting any real playing time was not in the cards.
“I felt like I didn’t have a real chance to make the team,” she said. “That’s not what I’m about. I was so miserable at that tryout. I was done.”
At Sachem, Kaz and her teammates, who won a state championship while she was in eighth grade, were rock stars. They signed autographs, packed gyms county-wide, went to elementary schools to read to younger students and were on television and radio all the time. For her teammates the limelight was equally as rewarding.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Tiffany Hughes, a Sachem alum from the class of 1999 who played with Kaz. “It was something some people never get to experience, never get to imagine and she was so humble about it.”
She was humble about returning to the game with her broadcasting debut in 2011 too. Sachem East girls basketball coach Matt Brisson, who was an assistant on the varsity at Sachem when Kaz played, told her that she never has to do another thing with basketball.
“She’s done more for girl’s basketball then she’ll ever know,” he said. “You’re talking about high school girl’s basketball and wherever we went you couldn’t get a seat. She had a following like no other. I haven’t seen anything like it since.”
In the last few years you hear names like North Babylon’s Bria Hartley now at UConn, Sachem East’s now at Boston College or Commack’s Samantha Prahalis now at Ohio State, but before those talents came the ultimate star.
“She’s the one who put it on the map and opened that door,” Brisson said. “You’d have to rip it out of her, but she would never tell you she’s better than all these kids. I appreciate her honesty and humility. A few years have gone by and hopefully she gets to look at what she achieved as a player and now put it in perspective watching these other kids.”
Here’s some perspective: MVP of the New York State Championships as an eighth grader, Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, First Team All-America by USA Today, Parade Magazine and Street & Smith’s, second all-time leading scorer in Long Island history, five-time All-State selection, four-time Long Island Player of the Year, was named New York's Miss Basketball in 1999, and was an All-Pac 10 Freshman Team selection at UCLA. Look for her induction into the Sachem Athletic Hall of Fame and a possible No. 23 jersey retirement in Black & Gold country in the near future.
“Nicole could have been Sue Bird,” said former Sachem coach , who coached Kaz, recently retired as the boy’s basketball coach at Sachem North and is referring to Syosset, N.Y. native Bird, a WNBA, college and Long Island legend. “She was a hard worker, a great player and a very good teammate.’
Kaczmarski could have in fact attended UConn where Bird was playing, or Tennessee where Pat Summitt was hot on her heals. To this day Summitt may be one of the highest profile coaches or figures in the sports world to ever enter the halls and gym of Sachem High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y.
A common theme in Kaczmarski’s sit down at the diner this past winter was having done everything for a reason and not having regrets. She’s at a good place, with a positive piece of mind, involved in the game again and continuing to improve on her new identity.
After Sachem won the state title when Kaz as an eighth grader, Atkinson told the team that a season like that would be like putting grape juice in a bottle. His metaphor can describe Kaz’s career too.
“You don’t understand how good it is until you let it age,” he said. “It means more to them now then it did to them then.”