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In January of 2012, I flew to Orlando to cover a couple Magic games. This was my first chance to get inside an NBA locker room and momentarily morph from an analytical blogger to a journalist. It was jarring, to say the least, but a couple of memories will stick with me forever.
Among those is my interaction with Jameer Nelson about two hours before a game, getting shots up, quietly walking to and from the locker room, and going through his routine. This probably wouldn’t have turned the heads of a regular Magic beat writer, but to me it spoke volumes. I, of course, made the mistake of approaching Nelson when he was in the locker room with a plate of food off the buffet.
“I don’t do interviews before games, man,” he said.
It was nice to get that first greenhorn moment out of the way. He carried on, comfortably biding his time as tipoff approached. He said very little to anyone as I remember, but carried with him a respect that could only be garnered by those who played with him, watched him on a nightly basis, and were of the few people in the world that knew how vital he was to the Magic’s roster.
Nelson’s career has been overshadowed by several things, not the least of which was the Dwight Howard era. Throw in a lack of rings, a handful of awful contracts playing around him, the firing of Stan Van Gundy, and it became pretty easy to overlook Nelson.
Let’s face it: 12.6 points and 5.4 assists per game are not juggernaut career numbers. But Nelson was playing in an offensive system that, for the most part, favored Dwight Howard and 3-point shooters. As a shoot-first point guard, he was also relatively constricted to executing Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll schemes. When everything was clicking, however, we got to witness some magical seasons from Nelson, including his shortened 2008-09 campaign when he made the All-Star team and Orlando went to the Finals.
More than any individual season or statistic can show, though, Nelson’s true value came in his ability to make Dwight Howard (and the whole team) better. There was a special synergy between Van Gundy, Howard, and Nelson. They understood each other well, and Jameer never overstepped his role, despite the fact that he was decidedly a shoot-first point guard who had the ability to fill it up. Nelson never took the bait, though. He was a company man and a consummate professional.
Even when Hedo Turkoglu — when he was good — rightfully claimed the position of floor general, serving as the Magic’s primary playmaker, Nelson stayed the course. It’s easy to see now that Nelson simply wanted to win. Staying within himself made his team better. It made Dwight better. It kept the floor spread, it opened up opportunities, and it brought Orlando to the playoffs six seasons in a row.
This is a man that was an obedient soldier. He wasn’t a manipulative puppet master pulling slight of hand and operating unconventionally. He believed in the system, much like the San Antonio Spurs believed in their system last season when they annihilated the Miami Heat en route to their fifth championship. And while it’s crazy to think that Jameer could have put up bigger numbers if he really wanted to, it is compelling to know that he probably never even went there in his head.
That compliant behavior didn’t stop when Orlando turned into a rebuild project. Nelson simply took on a new role, and did so rather quietly. No complaints, no excuses, and no child stuff. He altered his game and became a drive-and-kick point guard who could distribute or score, and for a while, he was the best offensive option on a young team.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the last few seasons is the fact that Nelson, a tenured veteran, never threw the towel in. He never balked when a promising rookie showed up to take his position from him. He didn’t flinch when it became his job to teach instead of just play. He didn’t pout when an untested coach came in and threw out the old playbook. And he never sulked when he had to watch his team go from title contender to bottom-feeder.
It’s a special kind of DNA that Nelson possesses. He’s not trying to convince anyone of anything. It sounds so simple, but this is a special leadership quality that he possesses, and it’s why Jameer Nelson will leave a lasting impression in the hearts and minds of Magic fans.
It’s also why the bulk of the basketball world won’t ever realize just how important Nelson was to the Magic. He’s rightfully earned the title of unsung hero through the strange and murky labyrinth that was the last decade or so of Magic basketball.