The Marx Brothers fit nicely four to a screen, the Mills Brothers four to a song. But to find brothers four on the floor in basketball, you have to head to Romeoville, Ill., where love has conquered history. Please meet, with echoing intros, the foursquare Niego brothers of Lewis University, the only quartet of siblings in NCAA annals who have had the fortune—not to mention the talent and selflessness—to share the bouncing ball with one another as starters on the same team.
The co-captains are seniors and identical twins Charles Thomas and Thomas Charles Niego (pronounced KNEE-go). Charlie, the elder by two minutes, is the 6'6" playmaker and spokesman. He's chiseled in his old man's image: tough-minded and short-tempered. Tom Niego, a 6'6" forward who leads the Big Red in scoring (18.5), is a bit more sensitive—though not to pain. He once played with a broken thumb. Joe Niego, a 6'5" junior, is the wise guy and strongest rebounder. At the other guard is freshman Mark Niego, 6'4", so lean and green he sticks to the perimeter on and off the court. He has the nicest shooting touch. "One of the things we have over other teams," says center Brad Peterson, the fifth starter, "is that we're such a family."
Lewis—a school of 2,900 a half hour south of Chicago—has certainly benefited from the abundance of Niegos. After splitting two games last week, the Big Red was 13-1 and ranked ninth in Division II. The school also was No. 1 in defense, giving up only 51.5 points a game. "The thing that saves us is that they work so hard," says coach Chuck Schwarz, whose disciplined style has led Lewis to four straight 20-win seasons. "The other players respect the Niegos because they know how badly they want to win."
Off the court, the brothers Niego take many of the same classes (the three upperclassmen are marketing majors with B averages), live together (Charlie and Tom in one dorm room, Joe and Mark next door in another) and kick around the idea of going into the construction business together. On the court they're all business, jaws jutted and elbows out. For all their aggressiveness, they say they never fought one another growing up. "We never drew blood," Joe says. But for a battle with outsiders, each is equipped. Says Jerry Tokars, their high school coach at De La Salle Institute in the take-no-prisoners Chicago Catholic League: "Just before tipoff, when they put in those mouthpieces, you'd better be ready. It's going to be a 10-rounder."
Take last Thursday's KO of Ashland (Ohio) College. Thanks to Tom's 14 first-half points, Lewis pulled to 35-35 at intermission. To start the second half Mark nailed a jumper, and Joe hit two free throws. Charlie ran the show, driving, shooting, controlling the tempo. Lewis won 70-56. The four had 51 points, 20 rebounds and 16 assists. "I'll tell you what," says Ashland coach Gerry Sears. "You've got brothers, I've got brothers. The thing is, these brothers can play."
The Niegos are knit so tightly because basketball is the fabric of the family's life. Seven of the eight Niego children have earned headlines—and six college scholarships—through basketball. Their father, Ron, a boiler and building maintenance man for the board of education, had played basketball his senior year at De La Salle. Thus his philosophy is "Play, so when you look back on it you have no regrets." He urged his children to work on all aspects of the game: dribbling, shooting, rebounding and defending. Now Ron says, "Where everyone is slam and jam, we're fundamentally sound."
The Niegos' house on Chicago's South Side is small and full of life. The lack of space didn't slow the Niego brothers, who were as inventive as the Wrights. At one time or another, balled-up socks were dunked through bent coat hangers dangling from every door (except the one to the parents' bedroom). In a stretch of basement the size of half a court, the boys wore out tiles dribbling, jumping rope and doing defensive shuffles for hours at a time. "You could hear this roar out on the street," says Joe. "The rumors were that Mr. Niego was down in the basement whipping us to get better."
Mary, now 24, and Terry, 23, handled the twins until eight years ago when the twins defeated them in a game of two-on-two in front of the family. But the sisters were fine players too. Mary, the No. 2 women's scorer in Lewis history, is in law school, while Terry, No. 3, is getting her MBA. Both ref high school and park league games.
The folks—Ron and Patricia—are fixtures at Lewis home games, often with various offspring in tow. Until recently, mom videotaped the action, adding the voice-over. "Shot up and in by Charlie. Lewis leads 4-2." But now Patricia, an elementary school teacher, gets game tapes from Lewis's athletic department. After the game the clan swaps kisses in the stands, then the brothers replay the tape in their dorm or at home. A typical Saturday night might be 10 Niegos around the tube, popping popcorn and nitpicking DePaul's play on TV.
Once the twins chose Lewis, Joe was sure to follow. Mark, on the other hand, had reaped the benefits of being younger and apart from the pack. He had played with the twins informally on The Franchise, the family's team in a summer park league, but was thinking about attending another school. "In high school, I went through a phase when being compared to my brothers got to me and I thought about making a reputation on my own," says Mark. "When they talked about the Niego brothers, I pictured those three. But I love the brothers, and I've always looked up to them because they lead a good life. They're how people want to be. I realized the family is where it should be, so why leave it?"
The Niegos will be hooping it up for a while. Nancy, a senior forward at Maria High School, is a top player in the city. But Quinn, 13, is a third-stringer on his eighth-grade team and isn't all that interested in the game. "I eat popcorn," he says. Indeed, that's probably how the other Niego brothers will be spending a lot of time years from now. Eating popcorn—and watching tapes of the games they played together.