The Real Thing
A multimillion-dollar career in the NBA wasn’t enough for this former Hawk standout. He had one more goal to reach.
By Joseph M. Lunardi ’82
“Back to school,” Jameer Nelson told his coach and teammates.
Three short words, spoken in June 2003, foreshadowed a year unlike any other at Saint Joseph’s University. SJU’s best men’s basketball player in a generation and a likely NBA draft pick, Nelson had decided to play a fourth season on Hawk Hill and postpone unknown riches.
It wasn’t the first time Nelson chose a road less traveled, and it wouldn’t be the last. Nelson’s path — from the streets of Chester, Pennsylvania, to national Player of the Year and captain of the country’s No. 1 team, from “too small for the NBA” to a 14-years-and-counting professional career, including 10 as team leader of the Orlando Magic — has been anything but conventional.
One evening after the Hawks had been thumped, 94-66, at 19th ranked Xavier during the 1999-2000 season, Phil Martelli’s phone rang. The coach was in no mood for happy talk.
“Don’t worry,” said the 17-year-old high school senior at the other end of the line. “We’re going to win next year.”
The 18-year-old college freshman made good on his promise, the perfect addition to a veteran team that would tie the school record for victories in a season. “Jameeracle on 54th Street” was born, and its namesake was just getting started.
By the time a 22-year-old Nelson broke every meaningful team and individual record at SJU, including a new all-time mark of 30 victories in the 2003-04 season, his legend had grown far beyond Hawk Hill. In Los Angeles, Nelson won the John R. Wooden Award — college basketball’s Heisman Trophy — after collecting every other Player of the Year honor from Naismith to Bob Cousy to Oscar Robertson.
“I was about to mark him absent one day,” Kim Logio, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of sociology, remembers, “but we turned on ESPN in class to see him. Just then he came on, being interviewed about St. Joe’s and accepting another award.”
In the spring of 2004, after the “perfect season” and before NBA commissioner David Stern called his name on draft night, Nelson’s life was anything but routine. Lost along the way was the not-so-small matter of his final semester of college.
As a sociology major, his largest remaining responsibility was a senior undergraduate thesis.
“This is our most significant requirement,” says Logio. “It requires an original analysis of data and, of course, a lot of research and writing.”
Well over a decade later, in the summer of 2016, Nelson and wife Imani sat with Logio to plot a new path to graduation. He was again chasing the unconventional. It just doesn’t happen that a 36-year-old professional with more than $75 million in lifetime earnings — in any field — worries about an incomplete bachelor’s degree.
"Education will follow you farther than a basketball. You can use the sport as a platform to take you places....but you also need to use it to do something to better yourself."
“He just said, ‘Back to school,’” Logio recalls, echoing the words of 2003. “You could tell he was serious. He didn’t want it to be easy, and we didn’t make it easy.”
Ever the picture of composure on the court, Nelson admits that stepping back into the classroom was intimidating.
“At a certain time in my life, I knew I was going to be a professional basketball player,” he says. “I wasn’t scared to go to the NBA. I was scared to come back and finish my degree.”
Nearly a year later, after an extensive review of the literature and impressive statistical findings, a thesis analyzing the General Social Survey (GSS) emerged. Then feedback. Then revisions and a final 37-page draft.
“Jameer was like a normal undergraduate student,” said Logio, “only better. His slides and tables were great, he wrote a strong thesis, he responded to feedback, he was diligent and checked in every time he was supposed to. He did an amazing job.”
The end product — “Nationalism in the U.S.: Factors Influencing Feelings of Immigration” — received a high grade. The same for a subsequent independent study, “Race and Professional Sports,” requiring reaction papers, work on discussion boards and other targeted reading.
But for Jameer Nelson, it wasn’t about a final grade. It was about making his walk across the stage — with the Class of 2018 — a real thing.
“Education will follow you farther than a basketball,” he shares. “You can use the sport as a platform to take you places you’ve never been, but you also need to use it to do something to better yourself.”
Yes, he had once promised his mother he’d finish school. And, yes, he remembered the words of SJU President Mark C. Reed, Ed.D.
“What I want most,” Dr. Reed told him, “is to shake your hand one day at graduation.”
“I did it for my kids,” says the father of four. “I want them to have that example. I did it for the [Pete and Jameer Nelson] Foundation. And I did it for the young guys in the league to see that basketball is more than a game.”
“He did it,” says Martelli, “because it was the right thing to do. That’s Jameer.”
Lunardi, director of marketing and broadcast services for SJU Athletics and co-host of Phil Martelli’s “HawkTalk,” is the color analyst for Saint Joseph’s Sports Network. He covered his 1,000th SJU game in 2016 and all but two of Jameer Nelson’s 125 games as a Hawk.