He was called “Nick the Stick,” but to the people who knew legendary St. Michael’s basketball player Nick Pino, he was the “Gentle Giant.”
The 7-foot-1 Pino, a 1963 graduate of the school who held New Mexico’s single-season high school scoring record for 50 years and went on to play at Kansas State University, died Sunday afternoon at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center on his 75th birthday from complications from diabetes, said Alice Pino, Nick’s sister.
Alice Pino said her brother had battled the disease for several years and spent the past couple of weeks in the hospital.
“As a family, we always had hope that he would stabilize enough to go through some rehab therapy, so he could be independent again.” Alice Pino said. “He was a very independent person.”
Pino was a three-year varsity player at St. Michael’s and a part of the famous “Mighty Midgets” squad that featured no starter taller than 6 feet that ran and pressured opponents all the way to the Class 1A championship game in the 1961-62 season. He, however, was not a key member of that team because his lack of quickness offset his size.
That changed in Pino’s senior year, as he became the first player in the state to surpass 1,000 points in a season by finishing with 1,033 points. It remained the state record until 2013.
He also is one of two players to score at least 80 points in a game, which he did against El Rito on Jan. 12, 1963. The “Nick the Stick” moniker was affixed to him during his senior year because of his long, lanky frame.
David Fernandez, a 1962 St. Michael’s graduate, said Pino’s maturation as a player from one year to the next was remarkable to see.
“The following year, it was like day and night,” Fernandez said. “He became one of the beautiful players, just a really good basketball player.”
Kathleen Shelley, the daughter of legendary Horsemen head basketball coach Dick Shelley, said Pino was a fixture at her family’s home and was very close to her dad. In fact, coach Shelley flew him to Manhattan, Kan., to visit the Kansas State campus.
One of Kathleen Shelley’s first memories was of the giant lifting her one-handed onto the roof.
“He was just a humble man, very sweet,” Kathleen Shelley said.
Pino parlayed his basketball success into a scholarship to attend Kansas State after an intense recruiting period in which more than 100 colleges tried to woo him to their campus. As a senior, Pino was part of a team that won the Big 8 title in 1967-68, and he averaged 11.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
A knee injury late in Pino’s senior season had a lingering impact, as it affected him when he tried out for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers. He went into the insurance business, working in Kansas for a while before returning to Santa Fe.
While Pino’s size and skills on the hardwood brought him fame, his friends saw a kind person who was never cross with anyone he met.
“He was a gentle giant,” said Tommy Vigil, a 1963 St. Michael’s graduate and teammate of the 7-footer. “He was one of those guys who wasn’t a bully or anything like that. He was very nice individual.”
Alice Pino said his brother’s kindness knew no bounds, and he never let his fame affect him.
“He had a big heart, and it was as a big as his body,” Alice Pino said. “He was a big man with a big heart. He was an all-around kind person and that’s why he was ‘The Gentle Giant’ of our community.”
Fernandez said he and Pino became good friends later in life, so much so that they regularly had lunch with a group of St. Michael’s and Santa Fe High graduates on Fridays over the last several years that became a cherished routine. Often times, people approached the group, but always went to Pino first.
“Half the time, he didn’t know who the people were, but half the time, he did,” Fernandez said. “But he would always introduce them to us. ‘Do you remember David or remember this guy?’ Whoever it was that was with us. He was never someone who thought, ‘Oh, I should take all the glory.’ He was just very friendly and such a nice person.”
Alice Pino said the family is in the process of making arrangements and information for services will be available in the next couple of days.