Imagine being 20-years-old, a highly thought of college basketball star who might one day be a first round NBA draft pick. You play for UCLA, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world. It also has the most famous collegiate basketball program in history, boasting an amazing eleven national championships.
Then, the next thing you know, you’re being accused in all sorts of ugly incidents on and off the basketball court and your reputation is taking a major beating every single day. Finally your coach, the respected Ben Howland, has had enough of your antics and boots you off the team.
It doesn’t end there, though.
Sports Illustrated publishes an expose on the decline of the Bruins’ basketball fortunes, and you are portrayed as a crazed competitor who likes to beat up his own teammates, and urinate on his roommates’ clothing.
Finally, you end up playing for a pro league in Lithuainia, where the temperature is below freezing most of the time you are there.
Welcome to Reeves Nelson’s world. Or what used to be Reeves Nelson’s world.
He’s now back home, trying to put the bad months behind him, and fix a reputation that seemed beyond repair. He’s getting a chance to do it with one of the greatest organizations in professional sports, the Los Angeles Lakers, playing on their Las Vegas Summer League team.
“It’s really cool to be with the Lakers’ organization,” said the 20-year old from Modesto, Calif., “and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to prove I’m not the (bad) guy I’ve been portrayed to be by that article in Sports Illustrated.”
Nelson is suing the magazine and the article’s author, George Dohrmann, for $10 million. He maintains they lied about him and alleged incidents attributed to him in an expose of the UCLA basketball program and its coach, Howland. Nelson was accused of being excessively physical toward his teammates during numerous Bruins practices, once stomping on the chest of Tyler Trapani after the great-grandson of the legendary John Wooden made him look bad during a drill. He was also accused of urinating on the clothes of roommate Tyler Honeycutt, now a member of the Sacramento Kings, whom he allegedly told Howland about a team party that the coach later cancelled.
Trapani and Honeycutt both deny the incidents.
Said Trapani in a declaration that will be used in the lawsuit: “I am aware than in the article written by Dohrmann, he refers to an incident during a team practice where I took a charge from Nelson. I did take a charge from Nelson during what we call a ‘3 on 2, 2 on 1’ drill. Contrary to what was written in the Sports Illustrated article, Nelson did not go out of his way to step on me. Moreover, I do not believe he in any way tried to harm me during this or any drill.”
Honeycutt was equally adamant that Nelson did nothing wrong.
“Contrary to the story told in Dohrmann’s and SI’s article, Nelson did not pile my clothes onto my bed on New Year’s Eve, and he certainly did not urinate on my clothes … On the contrary, Nelson played a minor college prank on me, throwing some Jolly Rancher candy and baby powder on my bed and flipping over the mattress when I left our dorm room.”
The complaint goes on to say that 16 other former teammates filed declarations with the court saying Nelson wasn’t a bully and that many of the incidents alleged by SI were not true or misrepresentations.
“That was very encouraging, my teammates sticking up for me,” Nelson said in a phone interview from Las Vegas, where the NBA Summer League is being played. “It made me feel better about things, because honestly, (the article) put me in a bad state of mind.
“I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but it was hard to stay up when everybody was thinking I was a bad person. I’m not a bad person. But I went from being on the cover of Sports Illustrated to a story written that had some people hating my guts. Then I got kicked off the team. All of that happening in such a short period of time was tough to deal with.
“But it also motivated me to prove to people that I wasn’t anything like the guy who was written about.”
He won’t deny, though, that he did have his problems at UCLA.
“Definitely, and I brought a lot of it on myself,” he said. “I think I was a little too comfortable, and I didn’t do all the things I needed to do on the floor and sometimes off it.”
Was Howland justified in kicking him off the team?
Nelson said he definitely was.
“One hundred percent, yes,” Nelson said. “I was young and immature in some ways, and I didn’t make the changes coach Howland said I needed to make if I wanted to stay on the team.
“The problems I had were on the court, not the stuff that was written about, and I paid the price.”
He also ended up in Lithuania, where he gained a new appreciation for the game of basketball.
“I learned how serious you have to be when basketball is your job, the way you make your living,” said the 6-foot-8 forward. “Even in college, you’re still a student and basketball isn’t your number one focus at all times. But when your competing for a job with someone who is as good or better than you, you learn to understand the importance of having the proper respect for the game. I got a lot of great experience over there.”
When Nelson came back to the US, he immediately showed that he hadn’t forgotten what he learned.
“I’ve got a new body since I left UCLA,” he said proudly. “I spend five to six hours a day working on my game and my conditioning, and my body fat is down to three percent. At UCLA, I usually weighed between 235-240 pounds; now I’m between 226-228 and I’m in the best shape of my life.”
Nelson feels he’d be a good fit for a bench the Lakers are looking to retool.
“As a player, I’m a “glue guy” who dives for loose balls and takes charges and things like that,” Nelson said. “I can come in to a game and have an impact without shooting the ball by rebounding and playing defense. I think I have a pretty high basketball IQ, and I really hope I get to show the Lakers what I can do.”
In Thursday night’s 75-69 win over the Clippers, Nelson started and grabbed a game-high eleven rebounds to go along with seven points. He also had the game’s highest plus-minus number at sixteen.
Laker assistant coach Chuck Person coaches their summer team, and told the LA Times that Nelson was “an exemplary, solid citizen since we’ve had him.”
Even so, Reeves knows he has to show who he really is—on and off the court—if he’s to make his dream of playing in the NBA a reality.
“I can tell everybody I’m a good guy,” he says matter-of-factly, “and as I said, I believe I am. But I can talk forever and it means nothing if I don’t back it up with my actions. Same on the court. I have to go out there and show I belong with the Lakers.”