On a regular school day at Sheldon High School, close to 3,000 students can be seen on this sprawling Sacramento (Calif.) campus. But its 4 p.m. after school and Sheldon resembles a ghost town. A few students congregate in front of the stoic brick buildings in front of the campus, while the girls junior varsity basketball team runs by them towards the track.
Despite the lack of activity, a certain buzz of excitement can be felt. Several television camera trucks are parked near the entrance to the school, as it is November 12th, the National Letter of Intent Day. This is the day the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) set asside for student-athletes to announce their college intentions and reduce and limit the recruiting pressure they face.
Rashaad Nunnally, Deonna Lawrence, Kim Babcock and Demarcus Nelson held separate press conferences in the school library to announce their college choices. Nunnally, one of the fastest sprinters in Northern California will be going to California on a Track and Field scholarship, Lawrence, another track speed burner will be attending Louisiana State University, while Babcock will be attending Northern Arizona on a Volleyball scholarship.
For Nelson, a basketball player for the Huskies, he signed his letter of intent papers to enroll next fall at the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) power Duke University in North Carolina. Nelson, is the number #1 ranked high school basketball player in Northern California and one of the top players in the country. Reporters from all over the region hovered around the library, waiting for the press conference to begin.
While the Sacramento area has been blessed with stellar high school basketball athletes such as Bill Cartwright and Kevin Johnson, who both went on to have successful college and professional careers, none of them have dominated the high school game like Nelson.
"Demarcus is a very unique player. He has the ability to score in bunches while staying in the flow of an offense," said Carl Foster, the Director of Slam N Jam Basketball, a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit organization that works to increase the awareness of Northern California’s student-athlete talent pool. "I expect him to go on to Duke and have a great college career while continuing on his quest to reach the NBA."
"He is head and shoulders above anyone he has faced in the area this year," said Lorenzo Harris, the publisher of Norcalpreps.com, a web-site devoted to covering high school sports in Northern California. "While he has only played in the Sacramento region for one year, when he is done playing basketball this year, he will go down as one of the all-time greats in the area."
Nelson moved to the Sacramento area, along with his family who wanted a slice of the American dream; to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. But in Vallejo, he left his mark on the city where he was known all around town as "Markie", an All-American boy and all-star athlete. Nelson was a standout in football, basketball and baseball.
In baseball, major league scouts knew who he was in the eighth grade, the last time he played baseball competitively. In football, he was an all-state quarterback as a sophomore. In basketball, he was the three-time California Player of the Year honoree for his class, leading the Apaches to three league titles and his league in scoring his last two years.
Now in Sacramento, Nelson has taken the town by storm. As the reporters settle in the library, Nelson looks at ease on the biggest day of his life. Wearing a red and black Akademics sweatshirt, Nelson sits at the front of the room, studying the cameras and looking at his surroundings, as his coach Scott Gradin touches Nelson's shoulder to stand and talk.
"There is nothing on the basketball court that he can’t do," says Gradin. "When some people look at him, they say he is a blessed athlete, but he truly works for what he has gotten. He spent an hour before practice yesterday putting up extra shots. He was the only one on our team to do that. He truly works hard."
As Gradin continues, the cameras pan from left to right to Duke Brown, his former basketball coach at Vallejo High, to Gradin, Nelson, and then to Nelson’s left and his parents, Ron and Denise Nelson, who smile as Gradin heaps praise on their son.
"When you look at him, you think basketball, but if you just think basketball, you miss the big picture of who he is as a person," said Gradin. "He is a tremendous athlete to our school, community and the classroom."
It is now Nelson’s turn to speak and the 18-year-old looks into the cameras and then towards the microphone as he speaks about his signing.
"It has been a real long journey coming to this point," said Nelson. "I have been blessed by God to come in contact with a lot of good people who have helped me along the way. Ever since I was little, I have had people who have helped instill in me that winning spirit."
He talks in measured tones, as he talks proudly about his past and journey that has taken him from Vallejo to Sacramento.
"From my Pop Warner football coach, Carlos, who coached me when I was little all the way up through high school, to Coach Brown, who made me work hard and be aggressive on the basketball court. I also want to thank Coach More and Coach Gradin, who have made my transition here easy. They made it easy coming into a new environment without knowing anyone. Without them, my transition would have been a lot harder."
As he finishes, Nelson looks down on the letter of intent form, smiles at the camera and proceeds to sign his name on the paper, which signals his firm commitment to Duke University.
It is Saturday night, January 3rd, and the Huskies are playing against a solid Fremont Tigers team, one of the better teams in the Oakland Athletic League. It is the first game the Huskies have played in front of the hometown faithful, since December 13th when the Huskies lost to perennial Central Valley power Clovis West, 65-59.
The game against Fremont comes just days after the Huskies returned from the prestigious Glaxo Tournament in North Carolina, where they finished the tournament with one win and two losses. The team was invited to the prestigious event, based on having Nelson, a player committed to attending a school in the ACC.
In North Carolina, the Huskies played Archbishop Moeller, the 2003 Division I State champs in Ohio and the 12th best high school basketball team in the country according to USA Today and were humbled 76-60. They also lost 59-50 to Georgetown Preparatory, which features a front line of 7-foot-2, 6-foot-11, 6-foot-9.
"We struggled with our team chemistry in North Carolina," said Coach Gradin. "We did not play well and we looked like five individuals in the games back there."
Playing in front of college coaches from North Carolina, Duke and other ACC coaches, some of the Sheldon players decided to play out of their roles and do more than what was asked of them.
"When we were in North Carolina, our team would make one pass then a shot would go up, which is not good," continued Gradin. "Out there, we realized we need each other to be successful."
Nelson started off playing at shooting guard, but his shot was not falling. With three minutes left in the 1st quarter, Nelson moved from the wing down into the low block where he heated up. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Nelson has the physique of a NFL strong safety and on the court, his body moves people around like an offensive guard.
Nelson can use his strength and power to drive by smaller guards to get to the basket. Or he can use his skill, fight off a double team and pull up and make a 20 footer with ease. He caught a pass from Robert Rose and scored on a flip shot over Fremont’s 6-foot-6 Andrew Center.
Fremont starting point guard Dominique Goodman missed a jumper, while Nelson soared over Center to grab the rebound. Demarcus was fouled and he calmly went to the line to shoot two free throws. Swish. The Tigers started off the game trying to get aggressive defensively which resulted in foul trouble. With five seconds left in the first quarter, Goodman missed another three-pointer, Nelson got the rebound, took one dribble and calmly shot a half court jumper that swished through the net at the buzzer to give Sheldon a 21-16 lead. The crowd went wild.
The half-court heave got Nelson going as the second quarter began. Off a Fremont miss, Nelson grabbed the rebound and raced back, beating everyone on the court for a hustle lay-up. Gradin yelled out orders, and the Huskies jumped into press formation with Nelson at the front. A Sheldon defender intercepted the ball and passed to Demarcus who soared in for a two-hand dunk.
On the next possession, Nelson came down the court and hit a step back three pointer. Swish. At halftime, Nelson had 20 points and Sheldon had a ten-point lead while the Fremont players had enough, as their coaches mumble and complain about the officiating.
"This is a tough game, because we can’t play any defense," said Tiger assistant coach Derrick Smith at halftime. "[The referees] are calling everything. It is ticky-tack."
The game was kind of personal for Nelson. Smith was his coach, when he was in the 6th grade playing for the Oakland Rebels AAU team. Nelson goes out of his way to show Smith how much he has improved. In the second half, Demarcus scored on dunks, three pointers, pull-up jumpers and put backs as the Huskies looked united.
When the Tigers tried to double-team him, Nelson threw several assists. The Huskies won the game 90-70, with Nelson going for 40 points. Like Sacramento King All-Star Chris Webber, Nelson did seem to get the benefit of calls that a player like Gerald Wallace would not get.
"It is tough to guard Nelson," said Tiger Head Coach Frank Knight. "He is good in the lanes, he can take contact and he is a really good shooter. My plan going into the game was to get the ball out of his hands. We would run two defenders at him and he passed the ball. We tried to deny him the ball for most of the game, but that did not happen."
It’s just after 4 p.m. at the Vallejo Sports Academy, a massive sports facility located on Mare Island in Vallejo. The facility has three basketball courts, a batting cage, two indoor soccer rinks, and track space for athletes. Ron Nelson has a stern look on his face, as he stands in the middle of a basketball court, giving basketball instruction to ten middle school age kids.
"Take a stop, dip across and then shoot," says Nelson. As the young man does the crossover dribble, Nelson smiles after it is completed correctly.
During the week, Ron drives from Sacramento to Vallejo to see to his parishioners, who attend church at the Revival Center Church, where Nelson is an Associate Pastor under the church headed by Pastor Ricky Nutt. But in between ministering to souls, Nelson also takes some time out to teach basic basketball fundamentals to a select group of kids from the Vallejo area.
"There are a lot of people who can play basketball, but they don’t want to work hard at developing their skills," said Nelson. "People have to have that mentality to get better and to receive the correct information. A lot of kids are being told how great they are but they can’t dribble with their left hand, they don’t know how to do a jump stop and their fundamentals are bad. They may be having some success at a point, but it is only a momentary success."
Demarcus learned how to play under his father’s tutelage, which is something he still receives from time to time. It was in a gym like this that the elder Nelson helped to shape Demarcus into the player he has become. At his workouts, which last for close to two hours, Nelson works strictly on offensive fundamentals. Things such as basic ball handling, moving without the ball, shooting off the dribble, and coming off of screens to shoot.
Ron wipes the sweat off his brow as he looks at one of his pupils doing the shooting exercise. Dressed in a dark green sweatsuit, he watches at half-court as two lines of kids, ranging in age from 6th to ninth grade students, work on shooting jumpers off of the dribble.
"Stop," says Ron. "Now I did not tell you do the drill like this. Listen. You come to a complete stop, jump and then shoot. You don’t skip."
After he finished speaking, another student does the drill incorrectly, which makes him pause and take a deep breath.
"Listen everyone," said Ron, as the balls stop bouncing and the parents who are seated to the side of the court look up. Nelson’s basketball instruction is basketball, psychological and part evangelical.
"I minister to people everyday, who don’t follow the rules. They go to church, but they don’t listen to the message. Now you are here to get better. If you don’t want to get better, you are wasting your time, your parents' time, and my time."
Striving for improvement is one of Ron Nelson’s monikers. It was something he strived for when he was playing basketball in the gyms and streets growing up in Richmond, California, where he played at De Anza High School in the late 1970’s.
"Ron was a good passer who could see the floor," said Chris Farr, a family friend and former assistant coach at Fresno State University. "He used to have that crossover before people started talking about it, kind of like Tim Hardaway. In games, he would come down the court and pull long jumpers. He could also set you up. He would act like he was going to settle down and shoot the jumper and then he would drive and pass it."
After graduating from De Anza, Ron continued to play in various Pro-Am leagues in San Francisco and other adult leagues. He was even offered an opportunity to play professionally in Switzerland.
"At the time, I had two young kids and a business and I decided against it," said Nelson.
But as his family grew, he did decide to pass on his basketball lessons to his sons. The first athlete in the family was Darnell, who was the older sibling Demarcus idolized. Nelson coached his older son in various leagues such as the Richmond P.A.L. and various other Park and Recreation basketball leagues.
"I began training kids way back then, with my oldest son," said Ron. "At the time, Demarcus was really young and I would have him at practice and Demarcus wanted to practice. At first, I told him to sit down. But then as I saw him doing the drills on the side, I let him practice."
This would continue over the years. As the family grew, the Nelsons moved from Richmond, to Berkeley, and then to Vallejo. It was in Vallejo that Ron got an inkling about Demarcus' athletic talents.
"When Demarcus was in the 6th grade, he was dominating all of the local tournaments and leagues. I then took him to Oakland to play, and he was dominating the play out there."
Demarcus' play in various sports would run Ron ragged. One time, he recalls Demarcus throwing for several touchdowns for the Vallejo Raiders in a game in San Francisco. After the Raiders got up to a 30 to 0 half-time lead, Nelson left to go play in an important AAU basketball tournament in Sacramento.
At the time, Demarcus was about 5-foot-7 and skinny, but according to Dwayne Jones, a family friend and head varsity basketball coach at Vallejo’s Jesse Bethel High School, he was focused, which is something that has never changed.
"Markie’s mental makeup has always been the same," said Jones. "His drive to be the best is second to none."
When he first set foot on campus at Vallejo High School, Nelson came with a mentality to be the best. As a freshman, he averaged 17 points per game and was voted the state Freshman of the Year by Student Sports magazine. In his sophomore year, he continued his impact on the basketball court leading Vallejo High to first place in the Monticello Empire League (MEL), but the team was knocked out of the playoffs by Oakland Tech.
During his ascent to being one of the top players in the country, many looked to Ron Nelson's influence on his son as a negative. Some believed he was too heavily involved. On Vallejo media message boards, some people complained that he had too much of an influence in the Vallejo High program and that he was calling plays for his son from the stands, which is something that he has denied.
During his junior season last year, Nelson helped lead Vallejo to the MEL title, but Nelson’s team was knocked out of the sectional playoffs by Valley High School. It was during the playoffs when he made an lasting impression on his head coach at the time, Duke Brown, the head coach of Vallejo High School.
"When we played against Lodi in the sectional playoffs, the game was tight. We had played them earlier in the season and when a team usually faces the same team again, the game usually tightens" said Brown. "No one is stepping up as it is getting tight, and Markie is a team player, but at some point, I want him to take over. So while the game is going on, someone in the stands yells out, ‘he is just an average player.’"
Brown said that the comments helped to light a fire under Nelson as he single handedly destroyed Lodi.
"In less then three minutes, the game went from us having a 3-point lead to a 13-point lead," recalls Brown. "Markie hit a three pointer, then he got a steal and a dunk and he changed the tempo in the game. We ended up winning the game by 19 points."
The lasting impression that Brown had for Nelson on the court could also be felt off the court. During the start of last year’s basketball season, Brown was going through personal problems, as his 2-month old son died. He said that Nelson comforted him during his grieving period.
"Demarcus was my son’s god brother, and his parents were the god parents," said Brown. "He would call in the morning and evening, just to see how I was doing. He did it not because he had to, but because he is a very caring person."
It was a late Spring day last year. Scott Gradin was sitting in his office waiting for class to start, when he got a phone call that would change his team and Sheldon's fortunes.
"As a head coach in the spring, you get a lot of phone calls from parents who move into the district," Gradin recalls. "They will tell me about their sons, and about how he is a basketball player, but when the kid comes on campus, he is 5-foot-5, 100 pounds, and has never played before."
In his tenth year of head coaching, Gradin said he has heard it all. But when Ron Nelson called, he got extremely animated.
"When he tells me who his son is and I start banging the phone because I don’t think that it is working," continues Gradin. "And low and behold, the Nelsons moved into our attendance area and it was a blessed day for us at Sheldon High School."
It was ironic considering that Nelson once led Vallejo to an upset win in the Northern California playoffs against a Sheldon team that was 28-3 and led by Maurice Miller a 6-foot-five dominant wing player. The Huskies were favorites to win the game, but too much of Demarcus Nelson led the Apaches to the win.
"Basically, I want to win everything, and back then we (Vallejo) won that game," said Demarcus. "Now that I am at Sheldon, we want to win every game. That is one of my goals."
Now, Gradin is coaching the Nelson-led Huskies who won the tough Delta League with a 23-4 record. They have beaten basketball powers such as Oakland Tech, Fremont, Berkeley, and tough league opponents such as Valley, Elk Grove and Jesuit. Sheldon is the #1 seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs. They should be the favorites to represent the Sacramento area in the state tournament, which take place after sectional play.
"Sheldon is a team that is difficult to beat because they play well together," said Harris of Norcal Preps. "They are gelling as a team and they believe that they can win every game."
Besides Nelson, who leads the team in scoring, rebounding and assists, other players who've picked up their game during the season have been Robert Rose, a 6-foot=3 junior guard and Robert Ketchum, a 6-foot-5 forward. Rose, an all Delta League player last year, gives the Huskies another offensive weapon, while Ketchum, is an active forward, who does a lot of the dirty work rebounding and on the defensive end.
While he has help, the team revolves around the play of Nelson, who was recently named to the McDonald’s All American team, which is a historic first for a player from the Sacramento region. Another thing that has become a first is the impact Nelson has created with his arrival to the Sacramento area.
With his arrival, now all of Sheldon’s games are sellouts. At his games, Sacramento King standout Bobby Jackson, one of Nelson’s basketball workout partners can be seen cheering him on. Before the season started, in anticipation of Nelson’s impact on the court, Sheldon administrators began selling season tickets to Huskie games. Seats are reserved at $5 a game.
"We had always had a big crowd for our home games, but this year, we have sold out two Friday games and had big crowds for the Wednesday games," said Bob Baker, the school’s Athletic Director. "The crowds have been larger than in the past."
Besides the bigger crowds, Sheldon games are media events. Games that normally would be empty have become events, resembling the media circus that accompanied one of Nelson’s old AAU teammates, Lebron James last year. Two of Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s games were televised nationally on ESPN.
"In one game, we have had three to four photographers sitting under the basket, like they have been at the Kings games," said Baker. "The media attention has been something that has been harder to manage. More people want to cover the game. More people want cameras and want access."
The media attention is nothing for Nelson, who as a freshman in high school played on an Oakland Soldiers team with James and Cal’s Leon Powe and Marquise Kately. Besides the media attention at home, other schools have wanted Nelson to autograph basketballs to be auctioned off as fundraisers.
As a result of Nelson being on Sheldon’s team, the Huskies were invited to the prestigious Glaxo Tournament in North Carolina, which only invites teams with ACC recruits. Sheldon players can be seen sporting shiny new adidas tennis shoes and brand new uniforms courtesy of adidas. There has even been talk about Nelson going straight to the NBA out of high school.
"My long term goal is to play in the NBA," said Nelson. "It has crossed my mind. But I have always wanted to enjoy the college life and experience."
But as of right now, Nelson wants to win something that he has never accomplished in his storied high school basketball career; a sectional championship and a chance to represent Northern California in the Division I State Championships, which would be a perfect ending for his high school career.
"We have good team atmosphere and the team is working hard and we are a good team," said Nelson. "I want to end this year with a bang.