It was a very unseasonably warm afternoon in February 2020 when I found myself at Frankfurt airport with my son as we were in Terminal 2 watching planes land from far away places like Hong Kong and Los Angeles and planes take off to far away places like Buenos Aires and Sydney. Life was still feeling good as COVID-19 had struck in the far east, but was still a few weeks away before totally paralyzing the rest of the world. After watching some planes, I went inside and watched my son play in the indoor play ground and in the corner of my eye, I saw a giant waiting to get some food at a take out place. I knew instantly that that person was a basketball player and not too long after, I recognized a familiar face in Fraport Skyliner power forward Niklas Kiel. Right away his young career flew through my mind like lightening and my first thought was “How much misfortune can a person only have”? Here was a 22 year old 207cm power forward who could have had everything he wanted as a basketball player, but just like thousands of players who asked themselves in March 2020 “what could have been with our season had COVID-19 not been reality”, Kiel and many more will wonder forever where his career would have gone had he been able to continue his career until retirement in his 30´s. Instead the big friendly German will have to look for a new job as he announced his retirement at age 22, 2 days shy of his 23rd birthday. Anybody that knows me as a basketball journalist might have expected me to go over to Kiel in the food line and be a semi pain in the neck drilling him with questions about his medical condition. Instead I walked over to him smiled and said hello. We had a little small talk and then said goodbye. I respected his privacy and for once in my life didn´t have interview plastered all over my face. “I have never known a player that had as much bad luck as Niklas did. I seriously believe that if he hadn´t had all these health complications that he could of reached a Euroleague or even a NBA team. That is just how good he was”, stressed Fraport Skyliners captain Quantez Robertson.
Kiel was born on September 4th, 1997 in Herford and began his basketball career at BBG Herford. He learned quickly what it meant to play with men as he played with BBG Herford as a 15 year old and overall played 27 Regionalliga games between 2012-2014 while also playing for the Paderborn(U-16) youth team. Before he even landed in Frankfurt, he was a huge basketball prospect and had experienced a lot. Before coming to Frankfurt, he had played 2 U-16 European championships, played a few JBBL(U-16) championships where he was named MVP in 2013 posting 26.9ppg, 20.0rpg stats and in 2014 he was named NBBL rookie of the year with impressive 15.1ppg, 13.5rpg, 2.3apg, 1.3bpg stats. He also played at the famous Albert Schweitzer Tournament in Germany (Unofficial World Championships U18) in 2014 putting up strong 12.7ppg, 10.7rpg, 2.3apg, 1.3bpg, FGP: 44.6%, 3PT: 20%, FT: 66.7% stats. He came to Frankfurt in 2014 with a lot of self-confidence and put up solid numbers for the farm team Juniors averaging 9.6ppg, 6.3rpg, 1.6apg, 1.0spg, FGP: 44.4%, 3PT: 19.6%, FT: 70.8%, and also played for the Skyliners U-19 team and also celebrated his first BBL game in October 2015 against Tuebingen and nailed his first shot which was a three pointer. “I can still remember a young Niklas when he arrived in Frankfurt. He was excited and had so much energy. He was so happy to be part of a high level organization like the Fraport Skyliners”, remembers Quantez Robertson. In his second season, he continued to get extended minutes with the Pro B farm team and had his break out there playing 24 games averaging 14.1ppg, 7.3rpg, 2.0apg, FGP: 53.0%, 3PT: 28.8%, FT-2(90.4%). He was still getting groomed as a future BBL player and was only inserted into one BBL game scoring 5 points in 8 minutes in a crushing 92-64 victory over Tuebingen. In his third season he had his break-through as he played 27 BBL games averaging 6.4ppg, 2.9rpg, FGP: 55.9%, 3PT: 32.4%, FT: 79.0%; in 14 minutes per game and also got his first taste of international club basketball playing 12 Basketball Champions League games averaging 2,8ppg and 2,3rpg in 12 minutes per game. During this time, he was living with a host family. It happened to be with his teammate Max Merz and he saw close hand how quickly a career can end as Max´s brother Jakob had to retire at age of 17 on account of massive cartilage damage in both legs. Merz wasn´t the only young Skyliner that had to retire because of injury, but it also had happened to other players Dominik Hennen and Kirsten Zoellner. Kiel was already a good kid from nature, but this experience showed him up front how valuable an education was and he proceeded to finish school and have a degree in his pocket.
The 2017-2018 season was when the basketball God no longer looked after him and the annoying misfortune came and just wouldn´t leave him alone. After a solid third season, the expectations grew for the talented German who was a modern day forward that could score in the paint, rebound, pass and hit the three pointer. His goals were clear. He had to continue to develop and wanted to test the NBA Draft in 2019. But instead of steady development came constant agony. He suffered his first concussion in preseason as he got a unintentional elbow to his face from teammate Mike Morrison in practice. Instead of taking more time to analyse his condition, he was back on the court a few weeks later. It didn´t take long until he suffered his second concussion in his 3rd game back and then he sat out for 3 months. All in all, the big man played only 10 games in his fourth season averaging 1,1ppg and 1,6rpg. In the summer came concussion number 3 as he suffered dizziness and fell on his head. This was the absolute down point in his young life. He had to sit in a dark room for many weeks as his sense of balance and ability to smell were damaged, his sight was limited and he had severe physical and coordination deficits. He never gave up and fought his way back in the 2018-2019 season and made his come back on March 29th against Rasta Vechta playing 12 minutes 316 days after his last game. He finished the season strong considering all that he had suffered in the last 12 months averaging 4,8ppg, 4,1rpg and 1,2apg. He had 2 9 point games against Wurzburg and Bremerhaven. In August 2019, the Fraport Skyliners announced that Kiel wouldn´t be in their plans for2019-2020 season. Obviously his health wasn´t 100% as his concussion history must of continued to give him set backs. I reached his ex coach Gordon Herbert in Russia today and one could feel just how much respect and love he has for his ex player. “Niklas was a tremendous prospect with a great future. A very sad situation that ended his career. He is a great kid that faced tremendous adversity and fought his way through it a couple of times. The last time was just too severe with the after effects. He was a great inspiration to all of us that saw what he went through. He is a young man with great human values which is a reflection of his parents. I wish Niklas all the best going forward”, stressed ex Fraport Skyliners head coach Gordon Herbert. Despite Kiel playing his last BBL game in May 2019 and having had all that health baggage accompany him, his teammate Quantez Robertson still saw a lot of growth in his game. “He was a hard worker and tough. He always crashed the boards strong and was a good rim protector at times. He was that modern day power forward, a player that could score with his back to the basket, get to the rim and hit the occasional jumper. He was working on his three pointer the most at the end”, added Quantez Robertson.
I never had that special one on one relationship with Niklas Kiel, but it was nothing personal, because it has always been the Americans that I have clicked best with. But any encounter I had with him was always positive. He was always friendly and had good manners the way any young person should be. I remember seeing him play every weekend in his first 2 seasons sometimes 2-3 times because he was playing for many teams like the Pro B team Juniors and NBBL(U-19) youth team. I saw Niklas grow as a player and like so many other basketball junkies am very disappointed that I will never see how he would have turned out as a player. Obviously the most important thing is that he can have a healthy life after basketball and be able to matriculate into a profession where he will be content and happy. His ex teammate Quantez Robertson is sure that Niklas will go his way successfully after basketball even if it won´t be a cake walk at the start. “It will be tough for him to get over this. It will take some time. It took him this long to decide to retire. That just shows how much he really loved the game”, stressed Quantez Robertson. The German goes into retirement having played 49 BBL games for the Fraport Skyliners, 51 Pro B games and 12 Basketball Champions League games. Fans will remember him as a hard working player that had a lot of talent, but just couldn´t shake the injury and misfortune bug. Gordon Herbert surely could of mentioned many fondest moments with him, but instead will always remember 2 qualities of him that defined him as a player and person. “: “I will remember most how he competed overall and how much he wanted to succeed”, warned Avtodor head coach Gordon Herbert. His teammate Quantez Robertson stayed brief about his fondest memory, but it was one that clearly showed how he saw life. “Niklas always had a big smile and was just a happy kid. That is how I will remember him most”, stressed Quantez Robertson. I wish Niklas Kiel all the best and maybe he will come back every now and then and watch some home games. I´m sure that that big smile will still be on display.