Five years later, Stan Van Gundy still feels bad that he had his former starting point guard, Jameer Nelson, return for the Orlando Magic against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 NBA Finals after missing four months with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
To this day, Van Gundy thinks about the "unfortunate situation," as he calls it, playing Nelson when he was 75 percent healthy and not in rhythm. He said it was "probably the biggest criticism I ever got here in terms of my coaching," as the Magic lost to the Lakers in five games.
But if Van Gundy, who coached the Magic from 2007 to 2012, had to do it all over again, he wouldn't change a thing—which speaks to the impact Nelson has had in Orlando in his entire 10-year career.
"Number one, we had beaten L.A. twice that year, and both times the major reason was his ability to get in the paint and score and make plays," Van Gundy told Bleacher Report. "I thought that was really our biggest advantage in that series. And I didn't expect him to be able to play like he had in the regular season, but I thought he could give us some minutes.
"But more than that, it just goes to he's a guy I had that much faith and trust in."
Van Gundy's remarks speak to how deeply rooted Nelson is with the Magic, and why he's only one of a handful of players in the game today—including Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki—who has a good chance of remaining in the same jersey for the rest of his career.
For Nelson, that would only change if he asked for a trade, but he said he never has and never will. And he's not planning to test the free-agent market after the season.
While Nelson is not a household name like those others mentioned—he's a one-time All-Star playing in a small market—his act of loyalty to the Magic organization, leadership among the players and generosity in the community make him one of the most humanizing stories in professional sports, which is now a culture of constant change and salary demands. Nelson even has the mayor of Orlando, Buddy Dyer, buzzing over him, saying, "We're very happy to have Jameer associated with our city."
Van Gundy said, simply put, Nelson has always put the team he plays for first. That's what he's done at Chester High School in Pennsylvania, staying involved with his former team and its players, and what he's done at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University, putting money into his college program after staying all four years.
"He's also made a lifelong commitment to the Orlando Magic, which is really phenomenal," Van Gundy said.
"I've never ever went to my agent and said I wanted a trade. I've never done that. And as far as I know, the management has never said, 'We're trading you,'" Nelson said. "I was always a guy who stayed loyal to them and they've stayed loyal to me. I want to stay in Orlando."
Nelson's business manager since he's been in the league, Steve Mountain, who has worked with different pro athletes in the past 30 years, said players with Nelson's mentality are a rarity these days.
"Sports used to be the players chose to stay in a city," he said. "They wanted to be there, they wanted to be a part of the community, they wanted their kids to grow up there and go to school there. They didn't go home for the summer. Jameer's old-school like that. He believes that he's an Orlando guy."
Mountain also knows what "countless players" in Nelson's 32-year-old shoes would do approaching this Feb. 20 trade deadline: They would want to leave a team with a 16-38 record and, even if it means fewer minutes or accepting a backup role, play for a contender to try to compete for that first ring. There are also those players who can't wait to get to a bigger-market city, notably New York, Los Angeles or Miami, to soak in the increased spotlight and endorsement game.
But Mountain said Nelson's priority is rebuilding and future opportunity in Orlando. As Mountain noted, Nelson wants to do what Wade did in Miami, "which is to pull the team through the rough times and come out on top. What if three years from now, he was 34, 35 and he was still an impact player there?"
The thought excites Nelson, who's still an effective player, averaging 13 points, 6.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in 49 starts this season.
"I love challenges, so to be able to get to the highest point (in the NBA Finals) and now go through this process, it's a challenge to me and I want to take the challenge," he said. "A lot of guys run away from the challenge because...you don't know when you're going to be a good team again. You don't know how long it's going to take. But I'm willing to take the steps with the organization to see the process change and see these young guys become better."
Nelson also feels that way because the organization has stuck with him for these 10 years after he arrived in Orlando as a vulnerable player. That's because NBA scouts viewed the 6'0" Nelson as a borderline starter with little potential. But in his Magic career, during which he became the franchise leader in assists (3,346), Van Gundy said he "earned great respect from the team and his teammates because he was a great competitor."
"His height doesn't matter," said Van Gundy, who still texts with Nelson on a fairly regular basis. "It's just he plays bigger—not because he's an unbelievable athlete; he plays bigger because he's so tough."
Nelson is also a strong slasher, underrated defender and above-average three-point shooter who takes charges and dives on the floor for loose balls, and he still plays physical when he's in pain.
"He would never beg out on a day—even in a practice," Van Gundy said. "He's just a guy that in every way, on and off the court, you can absolutely count on all the time. I honestly don't know in this league if you could pay a guy a bigger compliment than that."
Nelson's influence on the franchise really starts with his connection to the front office. While Van Gundy said Nelson didn't recruit players—"He was always committed to the guys he was playing with at that time," he said—the coach noted that he would always help new arrivals get adjusted to Orlando.
"(Former Magic GM) Otis Smith would make sure they spent time with Jameer because one of the things that would sell you on an organization is having somebody like Jameer around," Van Gundy said. "When guys came as a free agent or there was a trade, he would immediately reach out to those guys, and talk to them and invite them to his house. His thought was to make them feel a part of the team as quickly as he possibly could because he really tried to create a team, and that was always his focus. He didn't want anybody left on the outside."
The Nelson effect is undoubtedly just another reason why since the 2009 NBA Finals, he's the only Magic player still remaining. He's like the glue guy of the franchise.
"It's me and a couple of the guys upstairs—maybe like five or six people in the entire organization, if that," he said. "It's just something that's said about the organization having faith in me and trust, and just willing to allow me to grow as a basketball player and person. I think it's because the guys who've done it before, I'm not sure if they wanted to stay around. My thing is, I wanted to be here, I had an opportunity to lead and I chose to stay."
Nelson's leadership also extends to organizing an annual weeklong "summer camp" for his teammates in Philadelphia—near his hometown of Chester—so they can develop a bond over bowling, a Phillies game and other activities in the city. Not only does Nelson have the schedule planned out months in advance, but he also covers all of the expenses, including everyone's travel and hotel accommodations.
"I've never seen anybody do that year after year," said Van Gundy, who was involved in the league for 17 years, starting in 1995. "It was just to get everybody together and bring the group together because that's what he cared about. He's a remarkable teammate and leader."
Nelson's unique ability to be tuned into his teammates like that translates to the court. In fact, when you ask Nelson what his top moments are in Orlando, after No. 1 is going to the Finals, he said "just being around my teammates." Mountain and Van Gundy both expressed that because Nelson knows the personnel around him so well, he can many times analyze a game situation on the fly and know what needs to happen for a certain player to be effective.
"I would say, 'Let's run this set' and he would say, 'No, no, no. Why don't we do this?' He had a different feel," Van Gundy said. "Now sometimes I'd say, 'No, no, no. I want to do this.' But a lot of times, I'd say, 'All right, yeah, let's go ahead' because he knew what to do. It wasn't like he was trying to go in a different direction; he knew what I wanted, and he thought he knew a better way to get there."
Jacque Vaughn, who replaced Van Gundy two years ago, now sees how dialed in Nelson is with the team, mentoring every player regardless of their age.
"I think it transcends from if he’s talking to one of the older players on the team, and the new rookies on the team," he said. "His ability to communicate across the board, it’s been very impressive. If I need to get a message across, he can be a guide that can deliver that message to any guy on our team. That’s really the true sign of a leader."
Rookie Victor Oladipo said, "Without (Nelson), I would not have the success I’ve had this year.
"He has helped me a lot actually, from defensively and the offensive end—pretty much everywhere you can imagine possible," he said. "He has so much experience and he’s a willing vet. He’s willing to teach me and he teaches me in games, off the court and on the court."
Dyer, the mayor, who's a fan of the Magic and started his first term in office one year before Nelson, said the point guard is "just a good guy and he's been that way since he's been here." He also pointed out that Nelson is "very comfortable working with kids," a reflection of him being a father of four, ages 12, eight and five years, and 18 months.
Nelson has been involved with many of Dyer's charitable foundations, including a fashion show called "Runway to Hope" for kids with cancer, and he donates a large number of tickets to the Amway Center's Parramore Kidz Zone that supports different children's organizations. Nelson also attends the annual Parramore Kidz Zone fundraiser and participates in Dyer's reading program, "After-School All-Stars." At one of the events, the mayor said Nelson was hysterical performing an ad-lib with former Magic center Dwight Howard.
Last year, Nelson received the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment Award, given every year to the Magic player "who has dedicated his efforts off the court for the purpose of enhancing other’s lives."
"Some of the players are a little more reserved and shy; that's not Jameer," Dyer said. "Jameer right now is by far the most recognizable member of the Magic. We've had a lot of changes, we've got a very young team and a lot of promise, and Jameer is kind of the constant. If you went out and asked a casual basketball fan to name somebody on the Orlando Magic, I guarantee you the first name that would come up 90 percent of the time is Jameer's."
Nelson discussed the positive changes in the city environment—another reason that's encouraged him to stay—and his intentions for interacting with the fans.
"It's becoming a real city now," he said. "When I first got here, it was a lot of different roads, it was a lot of trees everywhere. Now, there's a lot of subdivisions, a lot of restaurants, a lot of areas that you can go to after games, before games, which is cool for fans. And the city has definitely embraced me as one of their own. I walk around and people treat me with respect and I treat them the same way. I do make it my justice to get out in the community and show, one, that I care and, two, that I'm a person just like everybody else."
It will be very interesting to see what happens next for Nelson in Orlando. While neither he nor his agent has requested a trade, he's a valuable trade piece because only $2 million of his $8 million contract next season—he has a team option—is guaranteed. This summer, the team might look to draft a pure point guard, notably Dante Exum or Marcus Smart, who could help grow Oladipo off the ball and keep Nelson out of the long-term picture. Exum has said the Magic would be a great fit for him to aid Oladipo's point guard duties.
If anything were to go down in the next week or so, Nelson likely won't be one of those guys who wakes up in the morning and is surprised to see his name on the television's bottom ticker, saying he's been moved. That's because Nelson and the Magic have had "good communication since day one," as Mountain noted. However, Mountain said there have been no trade talks at this point, and he believes it will remain that way.
In the meantime, Nelson is playing well and has been mostly healthy, only missing five games this season compared to 26 in 2012-13 from various injuries. Behind his current consistency, he credits "long cardio days" last summer, which he had usually done in previous years in training camp. And with him back in the lineup the past three games after suffering from a sore left knee, the Magic upset the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday and then the Indiana Pacers two days later.
"We're going out there trying to win," Nelson said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm not sure what anybody else is thinking, but that's not my job. My job is to go out there and play as hard as I can and try to win."
If that doesn't happen on the court, Nelson, who said he has a "good 10 years left of playing in me," will want to do that as a member of Magic's management team.
"I think working in the team's front office would be one of the coolest parts of my career, among others," he said. "Just being able to retire here and be a part of the organization—there will be work in terms of competing for a championship every year and seeing these guys grow—I think that would be something that would excite me."
Nelson's story has the power to make us all put into perspective our true morals and beliefs, and reflect on how we want our legacies in life to be remembered.
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