Nov. 15, 2004
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The surroundings seemed so familiar for Jameer Nelson.
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli relaxed near the bench, some Hawks came out early for warmups and the faithful fans colored in red arrived in droves, turning the Wachovia Center into Hawk Hill south.
What has changed for Nelson is his role, going from magazine cover boy and All-American guard for the Hawks to reserve guard for the Orlando Magic. For now, Nelson is just another rookie, content to listen, learn and wait for playing time.
"Somebody has to come off the bench, somebody has to play a role and I'm happy with my role," Nelson said Sunday. "That was one of the things that I had to adjust to. During the preseason, I adjusted."
Nelson did play a season-high 16 minutes for Orlando in its 96-87 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, giving the Philly crowd something to cheer about other than the Sixers.
With fans chanting Nelson's name during pregame warmups, the little guard got a standing ovation when he entered the game late in the first quarter. Allen Iverson slapped him on the back and shook his hand, but Nelson offered no reaction to the wild applause.
Steve Francis fed Nelson a crisp pass in the lane for an easy, right-handed layup with 44 seconds left in the quarter for his only points of the game.
"I heard the chants and I really appreciated it," Nelson said. "I heard them calling my name. That's those Saint Joe's fans."
The pregame scene seemed like any other game last year on Hawk Hill. The school sold more than 1,400 tickets and 14 buses took fans from campus down the road to the game. Fans, some in Nelson's No. 14 Hawks jersey, jammed the seats near the visitor's tunnel hoping for an autograph or picture.
Some just wanted to say thanks for the most memorable season in team history.
There were 27 straight wins to open the season, the first No. 1 ranking and first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in team history, a 30-win season, a trip to the regional final for the first time since 1981, and Nelson's All-America nod was the first in team history.
"Everyone in Philadelphia, they love him and rightfully so," Iverson said.
Nelson had several Orlando teammates over for dinner Saturday night at his mother's house in Chester, Pa., where he was raised. While he was glad to play in front of his family and former teammates -- who watched from a luxury box -- Nelson insisted it was just another game.
"I can't look at it as anything more exciting," Nelson said.
When Philly fans last saw Nelson in action, he sat stunned on the court after missing a potential winning jumper against Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament's regional final.
It was a crushing end for Nelson, who became the face of Saint Joseph's as it became the talk of college basketball.
Nelson was projected as a lottery pick, but slipped to Denver at No. 20, then was traded to Orlando. Teammate Delonte West went to Boston at No. 24.
Nelson said after the draft that he was going to play with a chip on his shoulder. On Sunday, Nelson insisted he no longer had any bitterness toward the teams that passed on him.
"That's over with," he said. "I know where I am in my career now. I couldn't ask for a better situation. It's a perfect opportunity for me."
Martelli talks with Nelson at least once a week and the two shared a private chat in the hallway near the visitor's locker room before the game. Martelli diligently checks box scores and said he felt like a parent visiting a child for the first time in college.
Martelli will be back on Nov. 24 when West makes his return.
"I'd rather have them playing for us," Martelli said, smiling. "I'm delighted for them. It's a great testimony to their work ethic and hopefully how they were coached and prepared."
Nelson entered averaging 4.2 points and had a seven-assist game last week at Charlotte. For now, every game is a new experience.
"I know I'm biding my time, but I having fun. I'm learning," he said. "I'm learning something new every day."