Historically, New York City has been the breeding ground for point guard talent. Bob Cousy, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, Tiny Archibald,
But the days of NYC dominance aren’t as strong as they once were. And recently, a new contender has entered the fold: Chester, Pennsylvania. Chester is a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia, less than 20 miles from the City of Brotherly Love. With a population of less than 40,000, this Delaware County hotbed is a segregated city known for its notoriously rough neighborhoods on one side of the bridge and its more affluent side, home of Widener University, on the other. Development is underway, with a casino already in town and a soccer stadium under construction for the new Philadelphia MLS team, the Philadelphia Union.
One thing Chester has not been known for over the years is its professional athletes. That’s all changing now, thanks to two point guards making headlines as we speak, right in the middle of the NBA playoffs. Despite a lack of professional players, Chester High School has a rich history as a high school basketball power in the state of Pennsylvania. But that hasn’t necessarily led to any high-profile players on the grandest stage … until now.
The word has already leaked that Tyreke Evans, Chester born and raised (though he went to high school at American Christian in nearby Aston), will be named the NBA Rookie of the Year following a remarkable rookie season. Evans joined the exclusive company of Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only rookies to ever average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. After just one season at Memphis, the Chester product found himself as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft, heading west to Sacramento. There were questions about his ability to run the point, his need to have the ball in his hands, the fact that he really didn’t have a position or the most reliable shot. But that didn’t matter, Tyreke knew he would succeed, knew he would overcome the critics. After all, he’s had to deal with much, much more.
In 2007, he was driving as his younger cousin fired shots and killed a man. Tyreke was cleared of any wrongdoing and by all accounts had no idea his cousin had a gun or was going to shoot anybody. But it was a terrible ordeal he had to live with, raising red flags and questions about his character. Didn’t matter, Tyreke overcame it. His older brothers, who labeled themselves Team Tyreke, wouldn’t let anyone involved in the crime-riddled world of Chester near their baby brother. Pooh was the enforcer, Tyreke’s elder brother who had taken on and defeated Kobe Bryant’s Lower Merion team as a member of Chester High. It worked. Evans stayed out of trouble, killed it on the court, signed with Memphis, flourished under John Calipari, who moved him to point guard, and was all set for his dream of the NBA.
All he did there was average 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.5 steals a game, all while shooting 45.8 percent from the floor and 74.8 percent from the line. From day one, he got to any spot on the floor he wanted to, even against the best of the best, the NBA’s finest. Night in and night out, he made a terrible Sacramento team – a team that was without its best player, Kevin Martin, to start the season, who was then shipped off – must-see TV. He mesmerized with his talents, becoming the alpha dog on a young team with a lot of promise. Most importantly, Evans proved once and for all he could run the point in the NBA, and run it well. He scored, he passed, he rebounded, he did it all. He truly was the floor leader for the Kings. The team struggled, sure, but their future is in good hands. Hands and skills that were crafted on the hard streets and harder courts of Chester, Pennsylvania.
Evans is the latest point guard from Chester to make it big, but he was not the first. No, that distinction goes to Jameer Nelson, the short, stout point guard for the Orlando Magic. Around these parts, Jameer’s greatness was pre-ordained early on. I remember the first time I saw my uncle, a St. Joe’s grad and Philadelphia area high school basketball connoisseur, after they landed Nelson. He told me Nelson was one of the best high school basketball players he had ever seen play, a true point guard who could dominate a game without even taking a shot (good news, Nova fans, he says the same thing about Maalik Wayns). Hounding, relentless defense, complete command of the offense, incredible passing skills … and oh yeah, he could score in bunches too if you needed it.
Nelson stepped foot on the St. Joe’s campus and started from day one. As a freshman, he was overshadowed by Simon Gratz grad Marvin O’Connor, then a junior and a scoring phenom at St. Joe’s who scored 18 points in the final 57.5 seconds in a 91-90 loss to Big Five foe La Salle, nearly pulling off an impossible comeback singlehandedly in less than a minute. He finished that game with 37 points. But the following season, Nelson took the lead for good. O’Connor struggled with an ankle injury and slowed down, while Nelson took off, took command, and started to become one of the best point guards in the nation no one knew about.
But his anonymity wouldn’t last. As a senior, he led St. Joe’s to an undefeated regular season record with Delonte West at his side. The Hawks earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Jameer opened everyone’s eyes. So much so, in fact, that he was named the National Player of the Year, bringing home the Naismith. Meer-meer dominated in his final season, putting St. Joe’s back on the map, and the NBA came calling. He was selected 20th overall in the 2004 draft by Denver, then traded to Orlando.
I had high hopes for Nelson. The Chester High product was incredible in high school, incredible in college, why wouldn’t he be incredible in the pros? Well, things didn’t quite work out that way early on, as Jameer battled inconsistency. Until last year, when he became an all-star, dedicating himself and his game to his father, who drowned falling off a boat back home. Jameer was the engine that made Orlando run before his severe shoulder injury, putting up numbers – 16.7 points, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals a game on 50.3 percent from the field, 45.3 from three and 88.7 from the line – that were flat awesome. He became the leader, if he wasn’t already, talking, chirping, executing. He invited (and still does) his teammates to spend time with him back in Philadelphia and Chester over the summer, bonding with teammates and creating chemistry. The Magic became his team every bit as much as Dwight Howard’s. Howard was the superstar, but Nelson was the leader.
But when Nelson rushed back to play in the finals last season, the results weren’t good. The Magic got out of sync, and Nelson clearly wasn’t back to 100 percent. And that seemed to carry over this season, as Jameer saw his numbers slip. He didn’t go back to the inconsistency of his early years, but he wasn’t quite the same Jameer from a season ago.
Then the playoffs happened. Right out of the gate, game 1, with Dwight Howard struggling by every conceivable measure, getting in foul trouble and posting just 5 measly points, Jameer took the reigns once again. He dropped 32 points, added 6 assists and a steal. He shot 10-18 from the field, 4-8 from beyond, got to the line 8 times and hit all 8 free throws. He owned the game, and the Magic took a 1-0 lead. It was a statement by Jameer, a statement that he was back, he was ready, and he wasn’t playing around. Jameer proceeded to completely abuse Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin. And I mean abuse them. In game 2, he deferred to his teammates, distributing the shots around to Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Howard, getting 13 and 5 with 3 steals.
But when Howard faced foul trouble again in game 3, Vince and Lewis cooled and the Magic needed someone to take the lead, Jameer answered the call, putting up another 32-point performance, this time on 12-21 from the field, 5-9 from three, 3-3 from the line, adding 4 boards, 3 assists and 4 steals. He added 18 more in the clincher, finishing as a +14 on the night. In the four-game sweep, he was the best player on the court. Nelson averaged 23.8 points, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals. He shot 48.4 percent from the field, 42.9 from three and 88.5 percent from the line. And his confidence was back. He was out there chirping with anyone who would listen, making decisions without hesitating, just out there playing and controlling the game, reminding everyone just how good he can be, just how tough he is.
That’s a testament to Jameer, to his family, to his work ethic, no doubt. It’s also a testament to his hometown, to Chester, an area that turns young boys into men if they’re tough enough to survive. A city that’s suddenly a hotbed for point guards. Make room, NYC, Chester is in the building.