Legendary coach John Wooden, 93, made the presentation to the hundreds in attendance by opening the envelope, looking at all five nominees and saying, "Let's see who has the biggest smile."
The winner was Nelson, who has now added to the Hawks' magical season with this sweep of all of the national awards, culminating in the most prestigious.
Nelson edged Connecticut's Emeka Okafor in one of the closest votes since the Wooden Award began in 1976. The senior received 5,480 points to Okafor's 5,215.
"All of the awards I've received have meant alot, but this just means so much more. Sitting here next to Coach Wooden means more than any other award I could receive in my lifetime. Meeting him has been such an honor - it's something I'll never forget," said Nelson, who received the Naismith Award the previous evening. "I'll always be able to look at the trophies in my basement, but sitting here at this podium with Coach Wooden is something I will always cherish."
Nelson becomes the second player in Atlantic 10 history and the second from Philadelphia to earn the prestigious award. Marcus Camby of Masschusetts won the honor in 1996 and La Salle's Lionel Simmons was the 1990 recipient.
Nelson has also earned the Naismith Award, the Oscar Robertson Trophy from the USBWA, the Rupp Award, the Associated Press Player of the Year award, and shared the NABC Player of the Year award. He was also chosen the recipient of the inaugural Bob Cousy Point Guard.
Nelson was the catalyst for the Hawks' magical 30-2 season, topping the team in points (20.2), assists (5.3) and steals (2.9).
Arguably the greatest player to wear the Hawk uniform, Nelson finished his career as the school's all-time leader in points (2, 094), assists (713) and steals (256). He joined with Tyrone Barley to form the winningest four-year class in school history with a 98-27 record and four consecutive post-season appearances.
The John R. Wooden Award was instituted in 1977 and past recipients include T.J. Ford (Texas), Jason Williams (Duke), Tim Duncan (Wake Forest), Glenn Robinson (Purdue), Sean Elliott (Arizona), Chris Mullin (St. John's), Michael Jordan (North Carolina), Ralph Sampson (Virginia) and Larry Bird (Indiana State).
The selection was made in voting by an advisory board consisting of national media members.