With an Italian-born mother and American-born father, Nico Mannion is fluent in both English and Italian.
But he's not sure if there’s a direct Italian translation for “Bear Down."
"I don’t think there’s a translation,” he said. "I’ll get back to you on that one.”
Mannion, who just led Phoenix Pinnacle High School to its second straight 6A state basketball championship, will soon be headed to Tucson, where “Bear Down” has been the rallying cry for nearly a century. The 17-year-old is the nation’s No. 1 rated point guard and has committed to play for the Arizona Wildcats in the 2019-20 season.
"It’s finally sunk in, I’d say, and it feels great,” Mannion said after leading the Pioneers to a second state title. "It’s just the best way to go out, honestly.”
Pinnacle faced plenty of adversity in the 2018-19 season, including injuries to key players. No problem for Mannion, regarded as the nation’s top 2019 point guard. He tallied 34 points, eight rebounds, six assists and seven steals — and added a thunderous dunk late in the game — in Pinnacle’s 83-64 win over Scottsdale Chaparral at Tempe’s Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday.
"I was just doing everything I could do,” Mannion said. "But everyone played their role. Everyone stepped up and did something to help us win.”
With two state titles in his back pocket, Mannion now shifts his attention to bringing a second national title to Tucson.
Under head coach Sean Miller, UA has won five Pac-12 regular-season championships and three Pac-12 Tournament titles, and has advanced to three NCAA Tournament Elite Eights. But this season, the Wildcats are toiling near the middle of a mediocre (to say the least) Pac-12. The Wildcats' struggles are due in part to assistant coach Emmanuel "Book" Richardson’s arrest for bribery in 2017, a national story that significantly, albeit temporarily, hampered UA's recruiting efforts,
Miller and the Wildcats have dealt with one off-court distraction after another in the last 18 months, including a report last week that revealed Miller will be subpoenaed in an upcoming federal trial involving corruption in college basketball. But even with the clouds looming overhead, Miller has managed to piece together a five-man recruiting class that is generally regarded as the nation’s top class in 2019, with Mannion as the cream of the crop.
And despite all the outside noise, Mannion has never wavered in his commitment to Arizona — even after UA moved to terminate assistant coach Mark Phelps in early February, reportedly due to an academic transcript violation regarding a former Wildcat commit.
"I was really close to Coach Phelps, so that was a tough pill to swallow,” he said. "But I think whatever happens up there, they’re doing what they think is best for the program and best for the team. I trust Coach Miller and his staff up there 100 percent.”
After UA announced its decision to move to terminate Phelps, Mannion said he heard from nearly every member of the UA coaching staff right away — including Miller.
"When Phelps’ thing went down, I talked to Miller, talked to Coach A.C. (Austin Carroll), talked to (assistant coach Danny) Peters. Almost all the coaches called that day or the next day,” he said. "They’re really open about everything going on, and I really have no reason to worry.”
Miller said he didn’t have a chance to see Mannion’s championship-game performance, but he was watching when Mannion notched 42 points, six rebounds and six assists in Pinnacle’s semifinal victory over Gilbert Perry.
"Any game that I’ve really ever watched him — and I’ve watched him for a long time — he plays to win,” Miller said Monday as his Wildcats prepared to host ASU in their regular-season finale. "His team always seems to win. He has a way as a point guard of making the game easier for his teammates.
"Obviously, Nico’s play speaks for itself. We’re thrilled to be able to welcome him here. He’s a winner.”
Mannion could have played college basketball just about anywhere he wanted. He received offers to play for nearly two dozen universities, including defending champion Villanova. Nearby Arizona State offered Mannion early in his recruiting process, but he said he never seriously considered the Sun Devils.
Mannion said he made his final decision after the Wildcat coaching staff came to visit him at his home in Phoenix. He felt so sure in his commitment that he canceled a previously scheduled visit to Marquette, and became Miller’s first 2019 commit when he announced his decision in September.
"After the in-home visit, it just felt like home,” he said. "I was already close with the coaching staff. I’d been up there a couple times. I knew almost everyone on the team already. So, it just felt like a good fit. I was ready.”
If Mannion could describe Miller in one word, it would probably be authentic.
"Just his attitude, the way he’s always hungry to win, always hungry to get better,” Mannion said when asked what he likes UA's 10th-year head coach. "He’s just a great person. You can tell when you meet him and talk to him that he really wants what’s best for you. He’s not a fake person."
Among those joining Mannion in Tucson next season will be Josh Green, rated as the nation’s No. 2 small forward by 247Sports.com. Green and Mannion know each other well from playing for the West Coast Elite travel club.
"He’s honestly like a brother to me. He’s one of my best friends. I talk to him every day,” Mannion said. "Me and him already have a great chemistry. We know how to play together. In AAU, we just created that chemistry, so I think if we can carry that into Arizona, it’ll be a good time for the fans."
Along with UA’s staff, Mannion has been in touch with some former Wildcat players, including Stanley Johnson and fellow point guard T.J. McConnell. Mannion is more of a scorer than the past-first McConnell is, but said their games mirror each other in certain ways.
"I think the way we play — just pass first, aggressive, smart, high IQ. I think in that aspect (we’re similar),” he said.
Mannion hasn’t spent a lot of time in Tucson, and he’s only had one taste of Eegee’s. ("It was good, but it wasn’t my favorite," he said.) But Mannion is well aware that the Old Pueblo revolves around The University of Arizona, and UA basketball fans are among the nation’s most passionate.
"I love how much support the Arizona program gets," he said. "With whatever sport it is, it’s an Arizona town, it’s a University of Arizona town. Everyone’s behind the university and pushing for them."
Mannion’s favorite thing about playing basketball is his ability to "bring a thrill" to fans in attendance, and he’s looking forward to bringing some thrills to UA’s McKale Center. "I think I’m a high-IQ point guard,” he said. "I like to pass -- passing is fun to me -- but if I need to score, I think I can."
Mannion, who has dual U.S.-Italian citizenship, said his parents are the two biggest role models, and they’ve helped him grow on and off the court in different ways. Both of his parents are former pro athletes: His mother Gaia was a star volleyball player in Italy, and his father Pace played in six NBA seasons.
"My mom is just a great woman, been pushing me ever since I can remember. She doesn’t know as much about basketball as my dad, so she’s more the one pushing me to work hard, do the little things, stay humble, stuff like that," he said. "My dad has been a big influence in live as well as on the court, just because he’s played before and he understands the game."
Despite Miller’s success, he's never led a team to a Final Four -- and the UA program hasn't managed a Final Four appearance since 2001, the year Mannion was born. Mannion’s mission is to not only help Miller and the Wildcats get there, but do something UA hasn’t done since 1997: win, as they say in Italy, a campionato nazionale.
"That’s our goal," he said. "We think we have the potential to do it if we all put our mind to it. If we all work hard and everyone plays their role, I think we have a good chance."