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How ‘Nana’ Helped Build the Foundation for Penn State Guard Jalen Pickett’s Success

“I heard you were gonna call me and talk to me about my baby?”

If you walk past the automotive warehouse and lumber store on West Main Street deep in the heart of Rochester, New York, you will come across Nick Tahou Hots. It’s a diner of sorts, tucked away inside of a red brick building which boasts more boarded up windows than functional ones. If you didn’t know any better you would think it was closed.

And if you didn’t know any better you would miss out on the Garbage Plate, a Rochester staple, something of a quintessential American cuisine that would have given the late Anthony Bourdain a rush of pleasure food adrenaline. The official description reads like a menu itself, a dare as much as a temptation.

“A selection of home fries, macaroni salad, baked beans and French fries topped with meats of the customer’s choice. The dish can be garnished with mustard, chopped onions, ketchup and the venue’s signature hot sauce, and is served with bread and butter. The Garbage Plate is typically mixed together by the diner before being eaten.”

As Bourdain himself once said of Waffle House, something of a second cousin to Nick Tahou Hots, “It is indeed marvelous.”

For Penn State guard and Rochester native Jalen Pickett, this is what you must have at least once before you die. Have it a few more times and the Garbage Plate might make that decision for you, be it now or a few years down the road.

“It smells so good when you first get it,” Pickett says, daydreaming.

But of course if Pickett was back in Rochester, it wouldn’t be the first place he’d go. He’d be at Nana’s, because that’s where the real food is.

Legally the world knows her as Claudia Austin, but everyone else knows her as Nana. Pickett’s maternal grandmother, Nana is as much the root of Pickett’s basketball life as she is anything else.

But back to the food.

“Chicken wings,” Pickett says smiling. “Sweet potatoes, cornbread, mac and cheese, little sweet tea on the side.”

Maybe the Garbage Plate will have to wait.

Austin and Pickett after a game at Siena.

Knowing Pickett is to know Nana. In many ways they are two peas in a basketball pod. If every superhero has an origin story, every good basketball player has their hoops sensei. Don’t let the inevitability of age fool you, Nana can get her some buckets and, an avid watcher of the game, she knows a hooper when she sees one, and that wide smiled grandson of hers is a hooper.

As for Nana herself, there is something fitting about the fact she helped raise one of the best point guards in college basketball. Being a point guard is to endeavor into the service of others; it is getting what you can but looking to help first. Good point guards make everyone else around them better. They are the engine that makes the whole operation go.

And Nana? Well, she knows a thing or two about helping. Her resume is a story of it. Working with troubled youth at Hillside Children’s Center, a summer camp counselor for years, counseling and social work have given her many of the same skills point guards need. They have to be able to read the room, to understand what needs to happen next, to be connected to those around them, to make the right call in moments when the right call is needed the most.

So Nana, the sister of six brothers, all of whom took to sports — racing cars included — found her way to basketball, coaching a girl’s youth team of her own, although she emphasizes the word coaching loosely.

“I wanted to give them something to strive for other than makeup and stuff like that,” she says. “You know, there are other things to look forward to and you can do after high school. You know, try for a scholarship and to do something, to try to help yourself moving forward.”

It’s hard to know exactly the moment that Pickett caught the basketball bug, but it happened early. Nana remembers when Pickett wanted a whiteboard at just a few years of age, drawing up plays of his own. They would go to games and Pickett would bring his whiteboard, someone would say “is that the coach’s?” and Nana would just smile and say “No, it’s Jalen’s.”

A young Jalen Pickett.

Then there were the driveway sessions.

“I would lose to my brother and she would tell me that this isn’t easy,” Pickett recalled with a smile and a laugh. “And then she would always tell me to keep working. Keep working and I’m gonna get him one day and I’m gonna be big one day. I never got to beat my brother one-on-one. Once I got to be the same height he stopped playing.”

But when there was nobody else to play, there was always Nana.

“He always had somebody to play with, his older brother or the neighborhood kids would show up, but if there was nobody who could play of course I played,” she says fondly.

Did she have a nice jumper?

“Not anymore,” she says with a laugh. “Layups are better.”

All these years later it’s sort of amazing to see how far Pickett has come, a long way from watching old NBA games — by Pickett’s recollection there was always a game on at Nana’s house. Not that anyone failed to believe in him. His mom did, Nana did, his half-dozen de facto uncles did. But still there is an unstated understanding of the odds that lie ahead of anyone trying to do anything in sports. You start, and there is the assumption that you will fall short of those goals. It’s not because you didn’t care or didn’t try, but there are fewer than 500 players in the NBA, and you will likely not be one of them.

But then Jalen Pickett, that bright, smiling boy from the heart of Rochester made his way into college basketball, landing at Siena for a few years before ending up at Penn State. A long way to go from sneaking WWE action figures into Nana’s purse, only to be discovered by airport security — a story for another time.

Now fast-forward to 2023 and there are people postulating that Pickett might just possibly be the best point guard in America. One thing hasn’t changed though: Pickett still loves some Monday Night Raw.

But is he the best point guard in America? It’s subjective, impossible and unnecessary to determine, but the fact you have to ask says enough about how he has played this season. You try, Pickett tries, everyone tries, not to think about the future, but how can you not? How can you spend your life chasing down a dream and ignore the fact it’s closer to you than it has ever been before?

You try, at least you tell everyone you try.

“I honestly try not to because I feel like sometimes it’ll take away from the betterment of the team,” Pickett says, a point guard, forever looking for the things his team needs.

But press a little harder.

“I would love to play in the NBA if I ever got a chance to,” Pickett says with a smile. “That would probably be — it would be filled with emotions on both sides for them [his family] and for me to finally get there. So if I’m grateful if that opportunity happens.”

Pickett’s mother [left] and Austin [right]

To slow things down a little bit, there is still work to be done at Penn State, Pickett knows this, and anyone who has basketball dreams has dreamed of the NCAA Tournament. It’s interesting that Pickett knows — unprompted — that the Nittany Lions haven’t been since 2011, because he was a million miles and years from Penn State when that happened.

And yet, he’s taking on that burden, which is a lot for anyone who aligns themselves with the historical shortcomings of Penn State men’s basketball. Fortunately for coach Micah Shrewsberry, it’s Pickett’s calming presence in the moments of good and bad that could help the Nittany Lions take that final step.

“He’s even-tempered,” Nana says. “And he’s got a good sense of humor and kindness. He’s just even keel; he stays about the same. He takes a loss really, really hard, but give him a minute to get over it and realize that’s the past, move forward, and you’ll come back around.”

The nice thing for Nana is that, unlike Pickett, she can enjoy aspects of the moment much more than he can. He will always be that little boy she played basketball with, that little kid with a broad smile just waiting for the next time he could get up shots, draw up plays, dream up the biggest dreams. He might make it to the NBA, he might not, but battling a cold as Penn State took on Purdue at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Nana turned on her TV and there he was. There was that little boy, growing into something so familiar, and yet so new and exciting.

“I wouldn’t say he exceeded my expectations because he always had a goal in mind and it was basketball,” she says. “That was his goal. That was his love. Ever since I can remember, ever since he first had a basketball —to see his dream comes to fruition is beyond my imagination.

“It makes me feel proud that he was able to be focused and stay in touch with his goals. Just setting goals and saying this is where I want to go and this is how I need to get there. And the most impressive thing about him is that he remains humble. And he’s, you know, he’s low key. And I don’t know what’s going on inside of him when he’s playing. But he’s just so relaxed. It just seems like he’s so relaxed and so even-tempered.”

Penn State is in the thick of it, that much is for certain. The Nittany Lions are fighting for their postseason one week at a time. This weekend Nana was there to watch Pickett in person, yelling encouragement like always. The coach in her can’t help herself.

She also can’t help but give him a hard time in the ways that grandmothers do. She loved seeing him at the Big Ten Media Days, but she also couldn’t help but notice something else.

“I loved it. His tie was a little crooked though, but that’s OK,” she says with a laugh.

And Pickett wouldn’t have it any other way.

“She’s always been there pushing me to be better,” Pickett says. “That’s something I really cherish.”

But with work left to do, the two of them are still grinding away, through the wins and the losses. Don’t get too high and don’t get too low. Good thing Pickett is so even keel.

“Like I told him, build a bridge and get over it because the next one’s coming,” Nana says, wisdom in her tone.