OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — Just call Nicholas Welch the Merrill Lynch of Andersen Air Force Base men’s basketball. When he talks or plays, his teammates and coach Gerry Barnes tend to pay attention.

Welch has the pedigree for it: A 2007 Air Force Academy grad, Welch was selected 2004 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year when he led the Falcons to their first NCAA tournament bid in 42 years and then in 2007 to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals.

“He brings everything to the table,” said Barnes, who’s coached basketball in Pacific Air Forces since the 1970s. “He’s a 6-foot-7 point guard. He dribbles, distributes, executes, hits the boards, plays defense. He’s a great fit for us.”

He’s helped Andersen to a 17-3 record in three Pacific interservice tournaments thus far this season, and earned MVP honors in the Yokota Warrior Classic in Japan and Andersen’s Thanksgiving Turkey Shootout. But it’s the leadership he brings that makes Andersen a better team, one Bombers teammate said.

“His presence makes me want to play harder,” Andersen guard Julian Phillips said. “He’s going his hardest, so why can’t I give my hardest?”

For his part, Welch doesn’t view himself as anything special — just somebody who brings the importance of teamwork, something he says every coach he’s had has instilled in him.

“I’ve had good coaches, especially Joe Scott,” who coached Welch at Air Force Academy in 2003-04, Welch said. “I try to instill in the guys, we make sure there’s mutual respect for each other and play for each other. When a team plays as a cohesive unit, then it will be successful.”

Welch, of Fort Worth, Texas, first became interested in basketball as a high school freshman, after, he says, he grew nine inches in 18 months.

“I was big into football, but I quit and went to basketball,” he said. “I had a 6-foot-5, 175-pound body that was gearing toward basketball.”

Now a 26-year-old first lieutenant and an aircraft maintenance officer, he’s currently deployed to Andersen from Barksdale Air Force Base, La.

In his first year of active duty, he was picked for the All-Air Force team, but arrived at training camp fresh off attending the Air and Space Basic Course at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. He played only the last game of the 2008 All-Armed Forces tournament, which Air Force won at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

Now with a wife, Annie, and a 1-year-old son, Nick Jr., Welch says he’s focused more on “taking care of my body” and debating whether to hang up his playing shoes and lean toward coaching. “I’m hoping to teach my children the game, give them a better advantage than I had,” he said.

Welch will be at Andersen until March. Until then, Barnes said, he and his players hope to learn much from him.

“He’s been an inspiration to a lot of guys who have played base-level ball, but not Division I ball,” Barnes said. “I’ve seen improvement in many of the guys just because of his presence.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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