At the end of last season, when the Sam Houston State men’s basketball team looked to fill the void left by senior guards Corey Allmond and Ashton Mitchell, Jason Hooten took a scouting trip to the NJCAA Region V tournament in Lubbock.

There was a long list of guards Hooten was interested in, but if there was any rooting interest, it was for his alma mater McLennan Community College. That’s where Nafis Richardson had just flourished as conference Newcomer of the Year, averaging 16.4 points per game.

“Fis,” as coaches and players call him, wasn’t at the bottom of the recruiting bucket list, rather as Hooten called it, “on the backburner.” He saw Fis play at Paris Junior College the year before, under Coach Ross Hodge, who eventually became head coach at Midland College.

Hodge could have taken Richardson with him, but decided against it – a decision he would soon regret. After Richardson’s breakout season with McLennan, Hodge phoned Hooten to tell him how much he thought the young man had grown over the year – that it was a mistake not taking him to Midland.

Hooten was already hiring one of Hodge’s assistants, Chris Mudge, so signing one of his former players was certainly within reason. Besides, Hodge was right.

Richardson had reality handed to him early in life and growing up fast has been the key to his success, just as it has been the focal point of his most trying moments.

He was raised by his single mother in Wilmington, Delaware. Richardson recalls playing ball as an 8-year old against 12-year olds, when he won his first MVP trophy. That’s where the competitive streak began. Fis went on to become a standout at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School. He averaged 23 points as a senior, earning Delaware Player of the Year honors in 2008. But junior college basketball in Texas was Richardson’s best option coming out of high school.

He had trouble qualifying academically for Division I schools, a concern that Richardson says Hooten tended to carefully. Hooten checked on Richardson frequently to make sure he was up to par in the books.

“If it wasn’t for Hooten, I wouldn’t be playing Division I basketball, simple as that,” Richardson said.

Hooten and Fis have more in common than it seems, which can get frustrating. While one is adjusting to playing the game in a new role on a higher level, the other is in his first year heading a program that was six points away from running the table in the Southland Conference last season. Richardson had to adjust the way he plays basketball and Hooten has had to adjust the way he coaches it. The Bearkat rotation continues to evolve.

Fis is a fiery player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. When he struggles, it shows in his body language – maybe a little swearing or throwing of the hands. But when he’s on, Richardson has an energy that reverberates and a grin that darts from baseline to baseline. He even admits how much he feeds off the crowd.

But Fis has a chip on his shoulder, still. He didn’t grow up with his father in his life until middle school. His mother played that role for years. To hear Richardson tell it, his dad reinforced a lot of what his mom taught him, like how to be respectful and personal responsibility.  

Those are the types of lessons Fis would need by the end of his 10th grade year, when his daughter Brianna was born.

“It’s a lot of people out here that have kids that don’t really have a father figure,” Richardson said. “When I was growing up, my dad wasn’t really in my life until I was in middle school or high school. So I really didn’t have the father figure or the groundings of a man. My mom really stepped in.”

The relationship with his father was short-lived. Richardson’s dad took his own life when Fis was 17. At one point he wanted to quit basketball, but losing his father under such harsh circumstances kept him motivated. The tragedy changed him personally as well as the way he approached basketball.

That’s the change Hodge noticed on the JUCO level. He was seeing a jaded young ball player not only carry the weight on his shoulders, but he was lifting it. Fis has been on a constant maturation course since he was playing against the older kids in earlier days.

He is doing the same thing with the Bearkats, learning the Division I game, which he seems to have a feel for now. He has found a comfort level running point guard through stretches in conference games.

“As time went on he figured out the other end of it (the game itself) and started to play pretty good,” Hooten said. “We tried to find places for him minutes-wise. When you bring him in that’s a little bit of a different mix because he has the speed and quickness, but he’s also 6’2 and strong.”

Fis is usually one of the more explosive, physical players on the court. He heads full steam with individual braids flapping from the back of his head, often making something out of nothing. Richardson keeps the defense honest, because they never know when he’s going to take off.

Almost as tough as he appears, Fis is covered in tattoos – all of which he says represent something he’s been through or something family related.

“I really started getting tats in high school, about ninth grade,” he said. “It was just like me and a couple of my teammates went one day and I got one. Then the next day we went, I got another one and it was just repetitive. I fell in love with it. I just like art.”

Brianna’s name is tatted across Fis’ chest with her date of birth centered below it. He doesn’t get to see her regularly so he says having her name on his chest allows him to carry her with him wherever he goes. Brianna lives in Delaware with her grandmother, the same woman who molded Fis into the success story he is today. He keeps his mother close to him as well - her name along with the names of his siblings are inked on the inside of his wrist.

“My family kept me in it,” he says.

Now Fis does what he can to keep the Bearkats in the Southland Conference race. He led the way in a victory over Southeastern Louisiana with 21 points on Feb 5. In a recent loss against McNeese, Fis scored another team-high 18 points. Richardson has played an important role into leading the Bearkats back into post-season play which will take place March 9-12 at Katy, Texas.

In college basketball, the formula for a postseason run is senior leadership, depth and guard play. Seniors Gilberto Clavell, Josten Crow and Lance Pevehouse witnessed this last season. They carry the leadership roles and do it well. As for depth and guard play, consider the void filled with a cutting edge; individual braids flapping and a widening grin darting from baseline to baseline.