Nick Leon: 'Everything can turn out OK'

NEW YORK -- Just stay positive.

That's the mantra Saint Peter's point guard Nick Leon will carry with him when the No. 14 seed Peacocks take the floor against Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday in Chicago.

Leon knows 14-seeds are just 16-88 all time in the opening round. And he recognizes that the No. 3 seed Boilermakers are bigger, stronger and faster than the Peacocks at nearly every position.

But Leon remains optimistic about Saint Peter's chances Friday night, regardless of circumstance or seed.

"I think as long as we stay positive and stick together, we can play with them," says Leon, a member of two city championship teams while at Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High School. "As long as we don't get down on each other and don't panic we'll be OK. We just have to stay positive, no matter what."

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That upbeat approach has served Leon well, on and off the basketball court, helping him overcome long odds and plenty of obstacles en route to the Big Dance.

Leon, 22, has recently come to grips with one of the earliest and most painful obstacles from his past.

Leon said earlier this week that he was sexually molested as a young child by a "friend of the family" while growing up in Florida. He said that the man would touch him inappropriately while the two were alone.

"I didn't know what was going on," said Leon, who moved from Florida to Borough Park when he was 10. "I'm a little boy that's thinking that I have a friend. He just always wanted to be around me.

"But he was always feeling on me and things of that nature. ... I didn't want to go to [tell] my family because I was so scared; I didn't know what to do. He was telling me that if I go tell somebody that I was going to get in trouble."

Leon said the man molested him "when I was 5 or 6." He said that the perpetrator, who was in his late teens or early 20s, was later arrested for sexually molesting another boy.

"I used to think about it all the time. Sometimes I'd be up at night crying, like, 'Why did this happen to me?'" Leon said. "I just didn't want to talk about it because I didn't want anyone to think I was [homosexual]. I was scared. So I kept it inside and pretended I was just a regular kid."

Leon recently told a few close family members about the incident. He says he's talking about it now, on the eve of one of the biggest nights of his life, in part because he hopes other victims of child molestation gain strength from his story.

"I want them to know that it doesn't all have to be bad," he said. "They should know that everything can turn out OK."

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Leon has earned a degree in psychology from Saint Peter's. He has also transformed himself from an undersized shooting guard into a capable floor leader for the Peacocks.

Saint Peter's finished 6-24 in 2007-08, Leon's first season. The Jersey City school bounced back from an 0-3 start this season to win the MAAC championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in 16 years.

Leon, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound sharpshooter, finished with 15 points and three assists in the MAAC championship game, a 62-57 win over Iona.

"He transformed himself from a player who can shoot 3s into a pretty good point guard," said Saint Peter's coach John Dunne. "He made all the right plays for us in the championship game."

Earlier this week, Leon called Dunne "a father figure, a best friend and a brother."

That statement had more to do with the guidance Dunne provided Leon off the court than anything the coach taught him about basketball.

Three days into Leon's freshman year at Saint Peter's, the NCAA ruled him academically ineligible. He couldn't play basketball his first year at Saint Peter's. He also lost his four-year scholarship.

Making matters worse, Leon's father, Eddie Leon, began serving a prison sentence on federal drug charges weeks before Nick was ruled ineligible.

"It felt like I just lost my whole world," Nick said, recalling the day Dunne informed him of the NCAA's decision. "I felt depressed. It took everything out of me."

With his father in prison, Nick had to choose between paying $40,000 to attend Saint Peter's or leaving to go to junior college in North Carolina.

Leon decided to stay at the Jersey City school in part to stay close to Brooklyn and help his stepmother, Gina, care for his three younger brothers and younger sister. Gina was pregnant when Nick's father went to prison in 2006.

"I couldn't leave my family, there was no way," Leon said.

With financial help from his stepmother and constant counseling from Dunne, Leon completed the requisite coursework and qualified for the four-year scholarship he was promised.

"He just needed to buckle down and focus," Dunne said. "He had a lot at stake and sometimes when you're 18 years old you don't understand that."

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Leon is now working on his master's degree in education. His father was released from prison last June, one month too late to see his son walk in the Saint Peter's graduation ceremony. Eddie was in the stands for Saint Peter's senior day Feb. 25, and he thanked Dunne for helping his son earn a college degree.

"I respect [Dunne] because he promised my son would get a degree and he did," Eddie Leon said through tears during an interview this week. "I made a mistake in my life, I know that. But my son, he's made it. I'm so proud."

A dozen or so family members will make the trip to Chicago to watch Nick play Purdue on Friday. But Eddie will have to watch from the living room of his Borough Park home. He can't leave the state due to the terms of his early release from prison.

"I'll be yelling here, calling plays from my couch," he said.

No matter what happens against Purdue, Nick Leon hopes to play professionally, possibly overseas, after his college career. If that doesn't materialize, he'd like to stay involved in sports in some capacity, possibly as an athletic director.

"I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm just going to stay positive," he said. "I've been through a lot, but I've always tried to just stay that way. Sometimes you don't like what's put in front of you but you just have to handle it. That's what I've tried to do."

Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.