Denton: Nelson Admits Howard Drama Impacted Him
By John Denton
October 4, 2012
ORLANDO – The forum was an easy, breezy player panel and the question recently tossed to Orlando Magic veteran point guard Jameer Nelson was hardly one of the hard-hitting, probing variety.
After being quizzed about his first non-NBA job, his dreams as a child and what athlete that he most admired, Nelson was asked which superhero was his all-time favorite.
The question certainly wasn’t meant to elicit anything other than a usual cliché answer, but Nelson’s response was quite telling about all the anguish and drama that the Magic had endured in the previous months.
``Well,’’ Nelson said as he paused for effect, ``it used to be Superman, but not anymore.’’
Nelson’s answer obviously alluded to Dwight Howard, who once won the NBA’s Slam Dunk competition while donning a cape and regularly leaped tall power forwards and centers in a single bound much like the Man of Steel himself. Those days are but a memory now after Howard demanded a trade out of Orlando and was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers in early August.
Howard’s initial trade demand last November haunted the franchise all season and undermined the team’s hopes of making a deep playoff run. On a more personal note, Nelson was bothered by Howard’s inference last season that the Magic would be better off making a run all-star point guards Chris Paul or Deron Williams instead of sticking with his fellow co-captain in Nelson.
It was somewhat of a staggering blow to Nelson, who was drafted in 2004 alongside Howard. The two of them spent the past eight seasons together, forming a dynamic big man/little man partnership in Orlando.
On Thursday, following the Magic’s fifth practice of the training camp, Nelson opened up about how much Howard’s words last season hurt him. The two have since reacquainted and often still communicate via text messages, but Nelson admitted that it took him some time to get over Howard’s inferences last season.
``It was just one of those things from (Howard) that I never did understand and I guess some things just aren’t meant for you to understand,’’ Nelson said. ``I just took the approach to play basketball wherever I was. I knew that I was still in Orlando last year for a reason and that the organization still wanted me here. Really, that helped me kind of get over all of the nonsense that was going around.’’
With Howard gone, with Stan Van Gundy having been fired and Otis Smith stepping down, in some ways it’s as if Nelson is one of the Magic’s lone links to the past.
Heading into his ninth season, he is the longest-tenured Magic player on the roster. And even though his closest friend on the team (Howard), the coach who developed him into an all-star (Van Gundy) and the GM who pushed him to be a better leader (Smith) are all gone, Nelson would have it no other way than to remain in Orlando.
Having signed a new three-year contract in July, Nelson has designs on being a Magic lifer. The 30-year-old point guard’s ultimate goal is to play out this contract, maybe snag one more short-term deal and then catch on with the coaching staff so that he can stay close to the game.
``With sports, people are going to be here one day and gone the next,’’ Nelson said. ``I wouldn’t say I’m a survivor, but I am very fortunate to be here because this is where I want to be.’’
Nelson’s loyalty has not gone unnoticed in Orlando, a city forever scarred by Shaquille O’Neal’s defection in 1996 and still somewhat puzzled by Howard’s insistence on leaving this past offseason. Nelson was given a rousing standing ovation at a Magic event earlier this year and fans have been especially gracious this offseason when they see him out in the city. And most of those fans have the same message for the 6-footer.
``The funny thing is I hear from everybody, `It’s all on you now.’ I’m hearing that everywhere I go in the city, but it really doesn’t bother me,’’ Nelson said. ``They’re all saying to me, `It’s your team.’ Really, I’m just one of the guys. I am going to step my game up in certain areas and try to bring guys along with me and make us better. The thing I’ve learned the last few years is that guys want to be led by a great leader and I’m a natural-born leader.
``I feel more of a sense of relief now for whatever reason,’’ Nelson continued. ``I guess it feels like I finally have more freedom.’’
Some that freedom is a product of the Magic making Nelson’s return to the team a priority this offseason. One of new GM Rob Hennigan’s first acts with the franchise was agreeing to a deal with Nelson just days after he had become a free agent. Magic management saw it as essential to bring Nelson back because of his leadership skills, professionalism and talent on the court.
``It was critical for us to bring Jameer back because of all the things that he does for this organization,’’ Hennigan said. ``We wanted that leadership presence of his on the team and in the locker room. We felt that Jameer’s ability to cultivate the culture that we’re trying to instill was something he’d embrace.’’
Has he ever? Nelson has been particularly outspoken throughout training camp, offering up advice and instruction to some of the Magic’s rookies on the roster. Whereas Howard was always considered the heart of the Magic, Nelson was oftentimes their soul. When he speaks, players usually listen because of the respect that he commands.
And the tight bond that Nelson has already formed with new head coach Jacque Vaughn, a former point guard himself, has given him the freedom to speak his mind and become even more of a team leader.
``When coach (Vaughn) is putting things in, I try to help him help (the younger players). And (Vaughn) allows me to do that because we have that relationship and that bond,’’ Nelson said. ``He’s basically letting me go and if I have something to say during a drill, I stop it and say what I need to say.’’
With Howard out last spring following back surgery, Nelson stepped up his game in the playoffs and carried the Magic for long stretches. In the final month of the regular season last year, Nelson had four 20-point games, a 13-assist night against the 76ers, a near triple-double versus Charlotte (11 points, nine rebounds and nine assists) and an 18-point, nine-assist night against the Pistons. And in the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers, Nelson averaged 15.6 points and 6.6 assists and had a dazzling 27-point, five-3-pointer effort in the final Game 5 loss.
Nelson realizes that with Howard gone and Ryan Anderson also traded away he might have to take on more of a scoring role this season for the Magic. He’s just fine with that, he said, because his only mission is to do whatever it takes to help the squad win games. Others might have bolted, but Nelson is right where he wants to be – in Orlando and leading the Magic.
``More falls on me now, especially when you’ve got guys who are younger like we have now, and that’s just fine with me,’’ Nelson said. ``We have guys with a lot of talent, but they need to learn the NBA game and certain situations and I want to help them. I want to do whatever it takes to help this team win.’’
John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.
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