Denton: Nelson's Loyalty Very Much Appreciated by Fans

By John Denton
March 18, 2013

INDIANAPOLIS – When he interacts with sports fans around Orlando, whether it’s at one of his son’s sporting events, at the Amway Center before and after games or during his many community service appearances, the message is usually the same to Magic point guard Jameer Nelson.

``Everywhere I go, it’s like, `Thank you for being loyal. Thank you for staying,’’’ Nelson said somewhat incredulously. ``I didn’t realize how much that meant to people around Orlando because of the certain guys who have left through the years. ``It’s not like I did it to make anybody else look bad or to make myself look good; I just wanted to be here and that’s what I wanted for my career,’’ Nelson continued. ``I feel like I need to be in Orlando.’’

With a young, rebuilding roster in place, Nelson is very much needed in Orlando with the Magic. Nelson had the chance to leave last summer when he was an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, and few in the basketball world could have blamed him for looking elsewhere what with the Magic hitting the reset button following franchise center Dwight Howard’s messy defection.

But that’s not how Nelson, 31, operates. He is intensely loyal and especially considerate to those who believed in him when few else did. Nelson has never forgotten for a single day that the Magic were there to rescue him in 2004 when he was plummeting on draft night. The Magic were there for him when some in the Philadelphia organization doubted his ability to play in the NBA and when Miami made a promise to him, only to abandon him on draft night.

And it was the Magic, who stuck by Nelson when some called him a too-short, pass-first point guard. He not only defied all of those odds to stick around the NBA for nine years, but he’s done it while only wearing a Magic jersey the entire time. So while Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady have left for various reasons through the years, Nelson never once considered abandoning the city or the organization that has always had his back.

``The fans from Orlando have been behind me my entire career and they have always supported me,’’ said Nelson, whose Magic face the Pacers in Indianapolis on Tuesday night. ``I haven’t always had the best of seasons, but they’ve still helped me get through. Sometimes I have had playoffs better than my regular seasons. Hopefully they will continue to support me.’’

That support likely won’t die anytime soon considering the ultra-importance of Nelson’s role on the Magic and his somewhat surprisingly resurgent season. Nelson, who recently had three straight 20-plus-point performances against the Thunder, Lakers and Sixers, is averaging 15 points a game – his highest total since his all-star season of 2008-09 (16.7 ppg.). He also ranks eighth in the NBA in assists while averaging a career-best 7.5 assists a game.

Some figured that Nelson’s lack of size (he’s 6-foot on his tiptoes) and scoring mindset would turn him into a NBA bust nine years ago when he was coming out of St. Joe’s as the National Collegiate Player of the Year. But in the time since Nelson joined the Magic, there have been 52 points guards drafted in the first round. Of that group, only 11 – Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, Stephan Curry, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving – have put up numbers better or comparable to those of Nelson’s.

The fact that he’s been able to overcome the slights about his height, the digs about his decision-making and the demands on his durability is a tremendous source of pride for Nelson. Those doubts have driven his inner fire and kept him ultra-competitive even though he’s often facing taller players or younger and quicker point guards.

``People still say that I’m too short, but I’m still around,’’ Nelson cracked. ``Nobody posted me up, nobody takes advantage of me. But sometimes it’s like people have to find something wrong with you. Even marquee players, they find something wrong with those guys. But I’ve been able to stick around this game a long time by playing the right way.’’

Coach Jacque Vaughn, who also got the most out of his abilities as a point guard in the NBA for 12 seasons, said the Magic feed off Nelson’s fighting spirit. He said the veteran playmaker should have answered all of the doubts about him long ago. ``There is nothing wrong with having a chip on your shoulder in this league. If that carries you and continues to give you longevity in the league, so be it,’’ Vaughn said. ``Jameer’s a guy who has earned his stripes. He’s answered all of the questions that the doubters have, and he continues to do so.’’

But the place where Nelson might be the most important to the Magic is his presence in the locker room. Whereas Howard was the heart of the Magic for eight seasons, Nelson was always the soul of the team. He’s the one who others looked to for leadership because of his serious, mature approach to the game. And when Nelson spoke – never in a flashy or showy way – players around him knew to listen.

Nelson’s ability to lead is one reason why Magic GM Rob Hennigan worked to bring the point guard back to Orlando in the summer when he was a free agent. This season, Nelson is surrounded by five rookies and three second-year players, making his leadership qualities even more useful.

``That’s a serious job, being a leader,’’ Nelson said. ``I don’t do the public thing and I don’t do yelling and screaming, but I get my point across in my own way. People respect that. I’m not going to change who I am. I’ve been this same way for 31 years and I’ll continue to do things this way. Hopefully, it shows people respect and what I’m about.’’

One of Orlando’s young players, rookie center Kyle O’Quinn, learned early on the process that when Nelson speaks up in the locker room that he had better be listening.

``When you have somebody like Jameer, who is so highly respected almost like a coach, you can kick it with him, have dinner with him and also get serious with them when games are on the line,’’ O’Quinn said. ``That (locker room leadership) makes you respect him even more. There are so many guys who do stuff to show, but Jameer has never been like that from Day 1. He’s on the same level as our coach to our young guys. I know that’s the case in my eyes. What he says around here is law and you go by it.’’

Nelson, who is among the Magic’s most active players in the community with his work serving breakfast to the homeless on Thanksgiving, giving out gifts on Christmas and meeting with Make-A-Wish youngsters, admitted that this rebuilding season has been challenging for him after spending the past six seasons in the playoffs. But the fight and energy of youngsters such as Maurice Harkless, DeQuan Jones and O’Quinn have kept him fresh and anxious to lead this team.

In one breath, Nelson talks about wanting to play in the NBA until he’s 40 years old. And in another breath, he is already casting his eyes toward his post-playing future of being a NBA coach.

Regardless what he does, Nelson wants to stay in Orlando. He’s overcome the doubts and skepticism, and through it all, he’s been the player who has stuck it out in Orlando and never wanted to leave. After all, why would he ever dessert a place that believed in him when few others ever did?

``I feel like I’m a survivor,’’ Nelson said candidly. ``I use the negativity said about me when people scrutinize me and I’m criticized. I use it as motivation. I’d be foolish to say that I don’t use that sometimes. Especially in the offseason when I’m working. A lot of times I’m my biggest critic. That’s the way I motivate myself.

``I’m never going to sell myself short,’’ he continued. ``I want to keep playing as long as I can. The hunger is still there. I’m always trying to figure out a way to win and I’m the type who just wants to keeps pushing this Magic organization forward.’’

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