A fan approaches and asks to take a picture to share with his grandson. Two girls a few tables over sneakily snap pictures on their iPhones. Drivers passing by on the street tap their brakes and twist their necks for a view.
All of this activity centers on two young men sitting at a café table, but they’re not at all distracted. This is just a normal morning in Ames.
Iowa State men’s basketball seniors Georges Niang and Nazareth Mitrou-Long have embraced their celebrity status as Cyclones. Both are four-year Iowa State veterans whose bios in the roster are followed by long lists of awards, honors, and impressive career statistics. But off the court, these two players have capitalized on their local prominence, using it as an avenue for interaction and a way of giving back to the community they say has given everything to them.
“They do a great job of being ambassadors for the university, and I think that’s a responsibility you have if you’re going to play at a school like Iowa State,” head coach Steve Prohm says. “Guys like Georges, guys like Naz, they really embrace that.”
And for every interaction they have with fans, Niang and Mitrou-Long feel that they get something back.
“The fans here care for us as whole individuals,” Niang says, explaining that fans ask about their families and studies almost as often as they ask about Cyclone basketball. “They don’t realize how much that motivates our drive to get up every day and be better, not just for ourselves, but for them. The best thing we’ve experienced is seeing the happiness from the fans with us winning and with how we conduct ourselves. We never want to let them down.”
“There aren’t any professional teams in Iowa, so we kind of get treated like that. Love is the word,” Mitrou-Long adds. “It is wholehearted love and people will never truly understand what their support means.”
Niang and Mitrou-Long consider it a part of their duties to help spread that Cyclone love. Both regularly volunteer their time at events in the Ames community and beyond. If you spot them between classes, eating dinner or roaming the aisles of a supermarket, odds are they will be patiently fielding requests from fans with smiles and selfies.
Niang and Mitrou-Long make an effort to interact with fans through social media as well. Their Twitter accounts are used for behind-the-scenes glimpses into their daily routines and as a way to interact with fans far beyond the borders of Iowa. More than a few selfies find their way onto those pages, too. No matter the setting, the guys enjoy interacting with the fans.
“We love activities where we can be active,” Niang says. “We’re all competitive, so when we can participate, it’s the coolest thing. We can interact with fans or people that look up to you in a game setting – like playing softball. That really brings out who they see, and who we are on the court.”
But the community atmosphere isn’t the only thing that makes Ames a special place for Niang and Mitrou-Long. They thrive on the unique atmosphere of Hilton Coliseum as well.
“When you think about it, when we’re down is really when Hilton is the loudest, or when we’re going on a crazy run,” Mitrou-Long says. “I don’t think many places have an atmosphere like that.”
Niang says the crowd support often wanes for other home teams when Iowa State builds big-point leads on their courts. “But our fans really rally around us in that situation. They’re the only fans that I know where if I get scored on three times in a row, they’re cheering to me even louder,” he says. “The passion they have is second to none, and the world is just starting to realize what we’ve had the blessing to experience for four years.”
The sensation of fan support hit full force for Mitrou-Long during one of his first games as a Cyclone. “I remember being so nervous and looking around thinking, ‘Wow, this place is packed, this is more people than I’ve ever played in front of.’ The thing is, once I made my first shot, all the nerves just went away. It was a sigh of relief; it was great,” he says.
That feeling is something that both players share with new recruits. “I tell them you’re not going to find another place like this where good or bad, rain or sunshine, the fans are going to be right there with you. You won’t find a better place than this with a more
family-oriented feel,” Niang says.
And although their time at Iowa State is quickly drawing to a close, Niang and Mitrou-Long don’t plan to leave the Iowa State community behind altogether.
“It gives us something to cherish for the rest of our lives,” Niang says. “All those special moments that we’ve had together, as a team and with people in the community.”
“The people out here treat us like family. We’ve spent four years of our lives here and it’s been surreal,” Mitrou-Long says. “It’s crazy to think that it’s coming to an end soon, but Georges and I will always have an attachment to Ames. We want to be able to come back here and look up to the banners in Hilton and say that we’ve done things that will be remembered in this place forever.”