Top 50: Jameer Nelson, no. 48
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Growing up a few miles from Hawk Hill, I never really had a chance. Saint Joseph’s University (PA) and I were too close not to be close.
Truth is, my connection to SJU goes further and deeper. In their day, the Hawks were a major team, one that attracted top-level talent. In 1971 that talent went by the name of Mike Bantom. Bantom was nice on the court, so nice he represented the USA in the Olympics and was the 8th overall pick in 1973. That’s how he came to be written about for a major publication by a close relative of mine. Add that SJU connect to the fact that I grew up ballin’ on the same team as another ex-Hawks’ son, and, again, I had no chance. And that’s how I first came across Jameer Nelson.
When Meer was young and still in high school, local cats used to whisper about the prodigy. Based on the trickle of talk that fell my way, I was picturing this 6-2 pg created by God strictly to dribble the rock and crack unworthy defenders. So when I saw him on local TV during his senior year at Chester, I was surprised as hell—dude was 5-11 and chubby. That couldn’t be the Meer I was hearing all the talk about. Hell no! A little less than two hours and four quarters later, I was a believer: Jameer may have had a body like Beanie Sigel (OK, it wasn’t that bad) but he had the heart of Hercules.
After that game, I didn’t see or hear about Nelson for a good couple of summer months. Just when he was slipping out of my consciousness, word came down before the start of the ’01 college season that he had signed with the Hawks and would be suiting up as a frosh that campaign. That’s when Jameer earned the right to have his picture cut out of the Philadelphia Inquirer and put up on my door, next to those of Allen Iverson, Freeway and the 1980 Phillies team.
I remember a few things from Nelson’s first season on Hawk Hill. For one, I remember him standing out as the best pg in the A-10…recall, I’m talking about freshman year. That Hawks squad captured the city’s full attention, as one-year wonder Marvin O’Connor put on two of the most incredible displays of bball I’ve ever witnessed. The first was a regular season game against La Salle, where I tuned in to the game on a whim, and got to see Marvin drop 18 points in the last 60 seconds of the contest. He drained a few threes, stole an inbounds pass and rocked the rim a time or two. Game is still seared vividly in my mind. The other memory from that season is the Hawks second round Tourney game against Stanford. Down big at the half, O’Connor dropped a whopping 37 points on the night (a Saturday night I believe?), leading a stunning comeback that fell just short. Jameer also killed in that game, running the point like a true vet. Maybe you had to see it to appreciate—kind of like Nelson’s game.
The next year, Meer’s second and O’Connor’s last, the Hawks were supposed to do big things. But they flamed out, as M.O. suffered some leg injuries. Nelson, the reigning SI Freshmen of the Year kept bringing it, though, but it wasn’t enough without his running mate. With O’Connor due to receive his diploma, nobody was expecting much from Phil Martelli’s Hawks in the upcoming season.
As a matter of full disclosure, it was around this time that I started rocking Jameer’s No. 14, taking the digits as my own. I didn’t just cop his number, though; I tried to emulate his whole game. From the nifty fullcourt bounce passes to the pull-up 18-footer, Chester’s finest influenced not only my game, but that of every kid at my gym. Now plenty of us still wanted to be Kobe, another local hero, but being Jameer was just more realistic. He wasn’t too tall; he wasn’t super speedy; and he didn’t do anything we couldn’t work on at the Y.
Fast-forward to senior year. With Delonte West on the wing and host of hard workers wearing Hawks colors, a beautiful thing happened: the Hawks didn’t lose a regular season game. Headed into the A-10 Tourney, everything looked perfect. The Hawks were the No. 1 team in the Nation, and Jameer was the catalyst. The team was special that year, and I realized that early on, as I started to listen to games over the crackling radio by my bed. When I should’ve been doing work, I was wrapped up in the never dying Hawks. Be it the Holy War (games against Villanova) or just a game against Xavier (one in which Delonte had a perfect game from the field, 12-12, and the FT line, 6-6), I was in a trance.
The Hawks didn’t complete the dream the way they would’ve liked, losing to Xavier in the A-10 tourney, and Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight (Nelson missed a final shot that could’ve won the game). But Jameer had as close to a perfect year as a short, chubby college senior could possibly have, pulling home the Wooden Award and the Bob Cousy Award, in addition to landing on an SI cover.
With “All Eyes On Me” tatted in bold print across his shoulder blades, Jameer and his family (his son was mad cute) waited on Draft night to find out where he would go. Somehow, it probably had something to do with his aforementioned physical attributes, Meer found himself still waiting to hear his name deep into the first round. Finally, with the 20th pick, the Denver Nuggets drafted him…and then promptly swapped his rights to Orlando.
Meer always had these sad eyes. Eyes that always look like they’re searching, be it for the man cutting to the hoop or something more profound. That June night, Nelson’s eyes told me all I needed to know: he’d be searching for revenge when the time came.
The rest is history. It took him a few years to get comfortable and find his place in the L, but Jameer finally found it all clicking last year, making the All Star team before getting sidelined with a shoulder injury. Before getting hurt, Meer was shooting at a nice clip (over 50%), guiding the offense smoothly and, maybe most importantly, was Dwight Howard’s best friend and team leader.
In the 42 games Nelson did play last year, he averaged close to 17 ppg, 5.5 apg, 3.5 rpg, 1 spg and only 2 turnovers per. Jameer truly was in the midst of putting it all together. He wasn’t just an All-Star and the Magics second-best player through January, he was their very pulse and breath.
All most people remember now is the shot that Derek Fisher hit over him in the Finals. I remember everything leading up to that: From the undersized kid playing on for Chester to the little PG dominating at SJU, from hosting all of his teammates for a week of bonding before every season to losing his father in a sad accident on the Delaware River, from seeing little action early in Orlando to making the All-Star game, from being shut down for the year to showing grit and guile by making it back for the Finals, I remember every step along the journey. One that continues this year with Nelson as a top NBA player on a Title contender.
All eyes will be on Jameer this season. But then, check his ink. They always have been.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.