February 9, 2010

by Pete Spiewak '10

To the rest of the nation, Jameer Nelson was "The Little Man from the Little School That's Beating Everyone," according to the cover of Sports Illustrated. But at Saint Joseph's, Nelson was a larger-than-life basketball hero.

A true "little man?" Andrew Koefer.

He was a quiet freshman out of Central Catholic in Allentown, Pa., trying to walk on and gain a place on Phil Martelli's star-studded roster during the 2003-2004 season. Nelson was just months away from being the consensus national Player of the Year, an All-American, and a first-round NBA draft pick. That didn't stop Nelson from looking out for Koefer, who he felt was a hard worker that could help the team as a practice player.

So, when Koefer was called into Martelli's office and the head coach began to give the dreadful speech: "Well, you worked hard and tried your best," Koefer knew what was coming next -- or at least he thought he did. But then the phone rang.

Unbeknownst to Koefer, it was Nelson.

The guard from Chester, Pa., who had been selected as an honorable mention All-American after his junior season, told Martelli that he thought the coach should keep the red-headed freshman. That's all Martelli needed to hear. He hung up the phone, and congratulated Koefer.

Even after coaching Nelson for three seasons and telling whoever would listen that Nelson was a "better person than basketball player," Martelli could not believe that his best player was reaching out on behalf of this unknown freshman.

"I was floored," Martelli said. "Because Andrew had only been with us for three practices. I couldn't imagine how Jameer could have ever grown fond of him, to be aware of him."

It was out of the ordinary for a 22-year-old to do what Nelson had done. It was certainly out of the ordinary for an All-American do to what Nelson had done. But this wasn't an ordinary player. This was Jameer.

For those who knew Nelson, his thoughtful act towards Koefer was just one example of how Nelson impacted people off the court as much as he did on it.

Rob Sullivan knows this firsthand. He was a walk-on, just like Koefer, during the 2003-2004 season.

"[His phone call to Martelli] just epitomized the type of character that Jameer has," said Sullivan, who currently serves as the director of basketball operations at Saint Joseph's. "Whether you were a starter or the 15th man on the roster, Jameer treated you with the utmost respect."

On a team loaded with talent, Sullivan rarely played that season. That didn't change the way Nelson would look at him, or what he expected out of the walk-on from Philadelphia. On Nelson's team, everybody was treated equally. As a leader, he expected one hundred percent out of all of his teammates.

"He expected, whether you were a full scholarship or a walk-on player, to uphold the same standard of excellence that he wanted to," Sullivan said.

It was the 1999-2000 season, and Saint Joseph's was having a down year. Xavier had just pounded the Hawks, 94-66, in the last game of the regular season.

After the game, Martelli's phone rang. It was Nelson, just a high school senior at the time.

"He called me in Cincinnati -- the head coach who he is going to come play for -- and he said `Coach, are you all right?' and I said, `I'm doing the best I can,'" recalled Martelli. Nelson helped give his coach, who was facing his third straight losing season, a reason to be optimistic about the future.

"The losing will stop when I get there," he assured Martelli over the phone.

That wasn't Nelson being cocky; it was Nelson comforting his coach.

In fact, Nelson could not be any more humble. Through all of team's successes, the media coverage, the personal awards, and the NBA scouts, Jameer stayed grounded and always put the team first.

"His humility really stood out to me," Sullivan said. "With all the notoriety that he was given -- and well-deserved because of his basketball game -- the media didn't know what type of person he was in the locker room. He was humble, modest, and he just brought a great joy into the locker room."

Even though he is considered the greatest player in the history of a school with a basketball-rich history and has since become an All-Star-caliber NBA point guard, he is still the same old Jameer.

"To me, he's the standard in how to deal with acclaim," said Martelli, who largely credits Nelson's family and community for helping develop #14 into the modest person he is today.

During his four-year stint at Saint Joseph's, he was beloved by the Saint Joseph's community for his on-the-court accomplishments, as well as his infectious smile.

While some saw that smile and his refreshing personality as an added bonus to all of the winning that occurred during the Nelson era, his teammates will tell you that his attitude was just as pivotal to the team's success.

Asked if he felt the team could have achieved just as much without Nelson being the mature leader he was, Sullivan says no.

"I don't think so," said the three-year walk-on. "Because Jameer did more as a person than he did as a basketball player."

Jameer the person, four years removed from the team's Elite Eight run, managed to impact the Saint Joseph's community all over again when he made a substantial donation to the school's renovation of Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse in November of 2008.

"I wanted to be a leader and I wanted to be a role model," Nelson said. "Saint Joseph's made those dreams come true. I wouldn't trade my four years at St. Joe's for anything, and I hope this gift helps others have the same kind of experience."

In honor of his generous donation, the university has named the men's basketball team's locker room after the great point guard.

"I often felt that Jameer's legacy would be here forever," Martelli said. "That locker room is the tangible evidence that his name -- as it well should be -- will be forever linked to Saint Joseph's University."

After the heart-wrenching loss to Oklahoma State at the Meadowlands in 2004, Nelson was asked if all the individual awards he would inevitably win would justify his decision to come back for his senior year at Saint Joseph's.

Nelson told the reporter he only came back for one reason: "to be the best teammate any of these guys ever had."

It would be a tremendous accomplishment if another Hawk ever matches the accolades that Nelson accumulated: National Player of the Year and a 2,000 point scorer, leading his team to an Elite Eight run. The only feat that would be more impressive: another Hawk matching Jameer, the person.