The mysterious case of Michael Nelson
By Kevin Kolodziej
Walk into the Ultimate Hoops gym at Life Time Athletic in Mount Laurel at any time, and there’s a good chance that Michael Nelson will be there. Whether he’s playing pickup, running the Ultimate Hoops league at the gym or just getting shots up, it’s almost a certainty that he’ll be on the hardwood.
He gets along with everybody, is well respected around the gym and has played in every single Ultimate Hoops season since Mount Laurel started their league in the Winter of 2016. He’s also played 129 games, more than anyone else in league history. Check the career stats page for the Mount Laurel league, and you’ll notice a common name atop each of the statistical categories: Michael Nelson. He’s the league’s all-time leading rebounder and the only player to eclipse 1,000 boards. He’s also top five in scoring, assists and steals, and is top 10 in blocks and 3-pointers made.
It’s quite an impressive resume for arguably the league’s most productive player, but there’s one accolade missing from his resume: a championship banner.
“It’s like a laugh mixed with an angry feeling every time I think about it,” Nelson said. “It’s definitely frustrating, too. I’ve been on teams where we easily should have been a contender that has gotten knocked out in the first or second round of the playoffs. It’s mind-boggling.”
In the Winter of 2018, Nelson nearly earned his first banner. His team, the Wet Bandits, was up by one point with 10 seconds left in the game. The opposition inbounded the ball and missed a jump-shot. It appeared the game was over until a player on the other team, Death Row Records, gathered the rebound and made a put-back layup in mid-air as time expired.
Heartbreak ensued for Nelson.
“I had a championship in my hand, and you know, if we box out a little better as a team, we win it,” he said. “It just didn’t end up that way.”
Over the years, Nelson has made a lot of friendships around the gym; most of them were made on the court and have transitioned to off-the-court friendships. One of his closest friends and fellow league-member, Luck Williams, feels that it's inevitable that Nelson will eventually win a banner.
“It is extremely ridiculous that he doesn’t have one yet,” Williams said. “The talent that he brings himself to the league and to his teams, I just don’t see how someone who has the talent that Mike has doesn’t get one. It just hasn’t worked out for him yet.”
Williams was also present on the sidelines for Nelson’s heart-breaking championship loss.
“I mean, the ball bounces the right way a couple times and he has one,” Williams said. “He literally had one in the books and it was just an awkward bounce that went against his team. That one play took him from being a champion to someone still wanting one, but I definitely see one coming.”
While much of the league believes he will eventually win a banner, not everyone does. Take Dave DeShields for example, who has also been a member of Ultimate Hoops Mount Laurel since its inaugural season back in 2016. He doesn’t think it will ever happen.
“It’s a shame because he puts in a lot of work, put in a lot of time and puts up a lot of stats,” DeShields said. “I’d like to see him get one, but no he’s not going to get one. He just doesn’t have that championship quality to him. It’s nothing against his play, he’s a great player, he just doesn’t know how to win it.”
DeShields said that, over the years, Nelson has come to him after the draft multiple times saying that this is the team that has a chance to win it all.
“There’s a few times he told me he’s going to win it all, and then his team’s end up winning like two games,” DeShields said. “So, like I said, I just don’t think he’s got that championship bloodline.”
There’s players in the league who think he’ll get one, and players in the league who think he won’t, but ultimately it’ll be up to Nelson and his teammates’ play in the postseason that will be the determining factor.
“If you look at our team this season, our team is legit on paper and legit on the court - we’ll just have to play that way,” Nelson said. “If everybody gets on the same page, we limit the turnovers and play how we’re supposed to play, we have a chance this season.”
Although Nelson doesn’t have a banner, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about winning one.
“I’ve thought about that numerous times,” he said with a smile. “To finally get one, I’d probably be like Michael Jordan jumping up in the air with a fist pump just thinking that I finally got one.”