Fourth-year Nate Hainje has hit thousands of jump shots in his life.
So when he takes the pass from second-year guard Jake Pancratz and settles in just beyond the arc at the top of the key, everyone knows that this one is going in.
Hainje comes from a basketball family. His cousins play, and he has called the hardwood home for a decade and a half, earning selections to his all-conference and all-county teams in high school before coming to the University of Chicago in 2004.
“Before we even started playing, I really enjoyed how close everyone was,” Hainje said of the Maroon squad. “It made coming here a lot easier because I automatically had 15 new friends.”
Since then, Hainje has developed into the go-to guy on the court. When the Maroons needed a bucket, he could find one with a drive to the basket, a fade-away along the baseline, or a three over a defender’s outstretched hand.
“You could count on him without hesitation on the court because he did it every day in practice,” second-year guard Jake Pancratz said. “During practice, he was the one to get us going. He was really intense with everything he did…[and] a leader in every way possible.”
This year’s team captain, Hainje began his career as a Maroon as a pass-first player, looking to involve his teammates before making his own move to the basket. The 2006–2007 season, however, saw Hainje add a new level of intensity and aggression to his already heady play.
“Nate’s always made good choices,” McGrath said. “I don’t think he became a better player; I think he became more assertive.”
After being shut out in all-conference voting his second year, Hainje catapulted to a first-team selection during his third season, averaging 13.5 points and six rebounds.
Along with the boost in numbers, Hainje found himself demonstrating the leadership that McGrath and his teammates had seen in him from the first time he donned the maroon and white.
“Nate’s had a presence on the team and on campus from the moment he [arrived],” head basketball coach Mike McGrath said. “He’s an energetic guy. He brings a positive spirit to practice and to campus, and he’s been a lot of fun to coach because of that.”
It was as much fun to watch Hainje from the stands as it was from the bench this season, as he averaged 16 points per game along with 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists. With his team needing wins to stay in the race for the UAA championship, Hainje notched six double-doubles in his final seven conference games, a streak that helped earn him UAA Player of the Year honors, along with a selection to the D-III All-America team.
But for the Indiana native who first came to Chicago looking to share the ball, the individual accolades are footnotes in the story of the Maroons’ trip to the title. On March 1, having outlasted all conference opponents but Wash U, the Maroons were one victory away from a second consecutive conference title. Playing all but two minutes of what would be the final game on his home court, Hainje helped the Maroons battle back from an early 12-point deficit with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
So, with the clock counting down the final minute of his career in the UAA and the Maroons hanging onto a one-point lead, Hainje did what he had done best all season, what those around him knew he could do when he first arrived on campus, and what the 1,500 fans in attendance knew he would do with the game on the line.
He stepped up, followed through with the unorthodox shot that Maroon fans have come to love, and buried a three-pointer with 49 seconds remaining, all but sealing the title for the South Siders.
“Once I got him the ball, I knew, everyone on the team knew he was going to hit that shot,” Pancratz said. “Once he hit it we were all going nuts….”
Amidst the roar of the crowd, Hainje can’t remember things quite as clearly.
“I kind of blacked out,” he said. “I can’t remember anything I was thinking for that 30 seconds.”
With the season coming to close a few days later after a first-round loss in the NCAA D-III tournament, Hainje has found himself playing a few more video games than he has in a long time.
“For the first time in a long time, I’m not working toward a new season,” Hainje said. “Life just got a lot slower.”
Graduating with a double major in religious studies and political science, Hainje plans to take a year off to consider his options for further education. He will depart in the school’s top ten in rebounds, assists, free throws, and three-pointers, and his 1,119 points will earn him the 11th spot in scoring.
Meanwhile, the Maroons will have to move on to next year short Hainje and fellow fourth-years Tim Reynolds, Zach Sheline, and Kirk Ellsworth.
“They’re a fun group of guys,” McGrath said. “Losing a Player of the Year of the UAA is a big loss competitively…but the personality gap is the biggest thing we’re going to have to show next year.”