April 23, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Nico Ponce is a basket-making machine waiting to return

At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Castaic, the muffled sound of a bouncing basketball can be heard in the backyard of the Ponce family home. It’s winter break for junior guard Nico Ponce of Bishop Alemany High, and he has promised to make 1,000 baskets each day for two weeks.

Somehow, someway, he’s also found time to get A’s in advanced-placement American literature, honors pre-calculus, AP U.S. history, AP seminar, honors chemistry and honors religion. That is worth a 5.0 grade average last semester.

“I’ve been trying to stay positive and consistent in my thinking, but there are some days it gets to where I’ll be missing basketball,” Ponce said. “The bright side is the NBA is back and I get to satisfy that craving.”

Despite 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic disrupting school and high school sports, Ponce refuses to give in. He stays on a path to better himself and prepares for the day he can return. He made a school-record 111 three-pointers last season. His range has gotten even better, and he can’t wait to show how spending hour after hour in his backyard has produced positive results in his shooting form.

“I’ve worked to extend it from anywhere inside the half-court line so the defense has to respect it and play up,” he said. “I’m aiming, if we have a season, anywhere from NBA three-point range and 3 feet back so the defense will have to extend out there.”

Ponce is the son of two Alemany grads. His father, Manuel, and mother, Michele, were water polo players and swimmers. Manuel is a professor at Loyola Marymount and Michele is an educator. Ponce has relatives from Mexico and the Philippines. When the family moved to their new house four years ago, his parents decided Nico and his younger brother, Gabriel, could use an outside court. They bought a regulation basket and put in a special purple and gold surface court. It has been invaluable at a time when gyms are closed and games postponed.

Add to that a makeshift gym with weights taking over space in a three-car garage. Manuel remembers the desperate search for sold-out lifting equipment when California’s COVID-19 lockdown began in March. “It was crazy,” he said.

The 5-foot-9 Ponce lifts weights almost every day, adding to the strength he’ll try to show off playing point guard for the next two seasons.

“I’ve learned to try to be safe and create a schedule for yourself throughout the day and stick with it, and it will become almost second nature,” he said.

There will be few shooters better than Ponce when high school basketball returns. As he practices in his backyard one day recently, he makes shot after shot with his father retrieving and passing him the ball after each swish.

Bishop Alemany coach Tray Meeks tells the story of how he found out about Ponce’s skills.

“He came out of nowhere,” Meeks said. “I didn’t know who he was until he came out to our varsity camp. He’s been a gem. People don’t see him coming. He’s not super athletic. He’s not super tall. But he works so hard. It’s amazing what this kid is doing quietly, and he’s a heck of a basketball player. People still don’t know who he is. The people in our league know who he is.”

Ponce moved up from junior varsity as a freshman and played alongside Montana guard Brandon Whitney last season as a sophomore. Leave him open and you’re in trouble. He shot 51% from three-point range.

“His threes, when left open, are pretty much layups,” Meeks said. “That’s how automatic he is.”

Bishop Alemany guard Nico Ponce at his family’s makeshift gym in their three-car garage.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Ponce said he has academic interests in architecture and human anatomy, which he plans to study in college. And his parents are trying to give him every chance to keep playing basketball.

“They’re just worried about me having a good time and fulfilling my dreams and chasing after it,” he said. “I would like to play college basketball and anywhere basketball will take me.”

For now, studying at home on a computer and playing basketball on his outside court are what he does. He eagerly awaits the day he can join his friends back in the classroom and in the gym.

“We’ve been able to talk over the phone or different apps,” he said. “It’s tough not being able to see them for this amount of time. I’m just trying to make the most of what comes to me. You can’t control what the world will bring. You have to make the most of the opportunities that are given.”

Meeks makes it clear Ponce will be heard from.

“These next two years you’ll be able to see his true skills,” he said.