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'Reluctant superstar' Roberto Nelson strikes balance on court, classroom at OSU

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Roberto Nelson of Oregon State takes a shot against USC center Omar Oraby (right) in Thursday night's second half at Gill Coliseum.CORVALLIS — Roberto Nelson weaved his way through Gill Coliseum Thursday night, across the court and down a stairwell, taking photos with students, accepting congratulations from fans and pressing flesh with referees on their way out of the building.

"Fifteen hundred points," one of the refs said. "Nice going."

"Thank you, sir," Nelson answered. "Safe travels."

It had been another good night for Nelson -- 24 points, eight rebounds and the game-winning basket on a corkscrew move to the hoop with 24.9 seconds left in overtime that he was bound and determined to get off through a forest of Southern Cal defenders.

It was enough to propel the Beavers to a 76-75 victory after the Trojans' Pe'Shon Howard missed the back end of a two-shot opportunity at the free-throw line with .9 of a second left in the extra session.

Ironic, because it was Howard's first miss after seven straight makes at the line on a night when USC was 19 for 21, Oregon State 20 for 35 at the stripe.

The Beavers had 16 turnovers -- eight in the final seven minutes of regulation and the overtime. They made only 4 of 12 3-point attempts and shot a mediocre .419, well below their .473 season average. They led for only four minutes, 25 seconds of regulation play.

Yet they came away with victory over an SC team (10-11 overall, 1-7 in Pac-12 play) that beat California and lost to Stanford in overtime last week.

It wouldn't have happened without Nelson, the lifeblood of Oregon State's program who is the runaway scoring leader in the Pac-12 both overall (22.3) and in conference contests (23.6) despite the constant presence of double-teams and "stoppers" guarding him for opponents.

As the official duly noted, Nelson is a member of Oregon State's exclusive 1,500-point club, which now numbers six. Nelson (1,528) needs 34 points to pass Charlie Sitton and move into fifth and another 133 to go by A.C. Green into fourth.

The 6-4, 200-pound senior is ahead of such names as Dave Gambee, Mark Radford, Scott Haskin, Brent Barry, Ray Blume, Jared Cunningham and Freddie Boyd on the school career scoring list. Only all-time greats Gary Payton, Steve Johnson and Mel Counts are unreachable.

"It's very humbling for me," Nelson said as he paused outside OSU's basketball locker room. "As a competitor, you want to put your name up there with the great players.

"But I always give it to my team. If it wasn't for the unselfish teammates I have, those guys who push me to this, I wouldn't be on that list. If that list could say 'Roberto and team,' I'd like that."

Sounds corny, but I think the young man coach Craig Robinson refers to as "almost a reluctant superstar" means it.

He seems to have a genuine affinity for his teammates and a love and respect for Robinson, who landed perhaps the best blue-chip recruit of his six years at Oregon State in that first 2009 class.

Nelson was a boyhood phenom and a standout, along with ex-OSU teammate Joe Burton, on the Team California group that was ranked No. 1 on the national AAU circuit. Nelson was a focal point in the fine book, "Play Their Hearts Out," written over the course of an eight-year study by Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann.

"Love that book, man," Nelson said. "If I flip through the pages, I can go back to those moments. It was extremely fun. I was a kid going from sixth grade on a team that didn't play in the big time, in front of a thousand fans, in front of college coaches, to the No. 1 team in the country, playing against the best players, playing for a big organization, getting free shoes. I was star-struck, man."

Rated by ESPN.com as the 16th-best shooting guard and the 73rd prospect overall out of the 2009 class, Nelson was offered scholarships by 56 schools. Sports Illustrated documented how he received 2,161 pieces of recruiting mail -- but not so much as a postcard from Oregon State.

After narrowing his choices to UCLA, Ohio State, Florida and Washington, Nelson picked Oregon State because of "this guy right here, Coach Robinson," he said with a nod.

"He's a man of high character," Nelson said. "I met a lot of really good people in the recruiting process. But the character that (former assistant coach David) Grace and Coach Robinson displayed. … They were interested in me for not only basketball but who I was as a person and what I liked to do. Those are the things that go far with a kid. For a coach to care more than about what can he give me for my future, that says a lot about who he is."

Robinson has served as a father figure and mentor for Nelson, especially so in recent years due to the incarceration of his father, Bruce, at the California Institute for Men in Chino, Calif.

"Roberto is a terrific kid," Robinson said. "We have a great relationship, which is why he has the freedom he has on my team. He has earned that. To be such a good player and such a quality kid has been a real treat for me as a coach.

"We have a team full of guys like that because of guys like Roberto. He's talking to the (prospects) on recruiting trips. They want to be with a guy like that. He's a very warm kid to be so good. Sometimes I need him to get on the guys, and that's not really his thing. He's more of a nurturer."

Nelson's college basketball experience hasn't been all wine and roses. He sat out a year and seven games before finally gaining his eligibility in December 2010, the result of academic eligibility stemming from on-line classes he took in his school that were California-accredited only.

Nelson wasn't even a starter until his junior year in 2012-13, shooting below 39 percent his first two seasons. Last year, he averaged 17.8 points overall and a Pac-12-best 19.1 in conference games, becoming the first Beaver to do so since Payton in 1989-90.

This season, Nelson has burst out with the kind of consistent brilliance that makes him the early leader to be voted the Pac-12 player of the year. He has scored 20-plus points in six straight games and 12 times overall, and has scored at least 16 points in every game except the one from which he was booted in the first half for a flagrant foul.

Nelson has grown in nearly every way since he set foot on the OSU campus in 2009.

"Before I came here, I wasn't a student," he said. "I wasn't somebody who went to class, who cared about getting good grades. Meeting a man like Coach Rob, who took himself from somewhere to being extremely successful through school and with his intelligence -- it has opened my eyes.

"We talk about stuff all the time. It's stuff maybe (coaches and players from) other programs don't talk about. We talk about life. About how much money it's going to take to raise a family. Stuff you don't get to talk about with a lot of people. It's great to have a coach like that, who prepares you for not only basketball but for life."

Nelson will graduate at the end of winter term with a degree in new media communications.

"My mom and my dad would have killed me if I didn't, and Coach Rob would have killed me as well," he said. "He made sure I got (the diploma), checking up on my classes, making sure I was getting things done. Not just to fulfill a 2.0 GPA, but to excel -- to go get the 'B' and the 'A.' He tries to push you to do your best, not just on the court but in the classroom as well."

Nelson could have plied his trade at any number of national programs more successful than Oregon State's. He believes he couldn't have made a better choice of school.

"It's been the best place for me, no doubt," he says. "The people I've met, the life-long friends I've made … I've had the chance to become a student. To become somebody who, if basketball doesn't work out, can become successful. I can be successful in life, not just basketball.

"I have a plan B now. That's big. Basketball only takes you so far. To be a well-rounded person and to have a lot you're able to do says a lot about your character."

Nelson might hold the record for most OSU sporting events attended as a student. He said during his five-plus years, he has watched every other men's and women's team play at least once.

"I love being a fan," he said. "Soccer is one of my favorites. One year, a lot of us basketball players had an intramural soccer team. Daniel Gomis, Ahmad Starks and I played, and Joe Burton was our goalie. All the soccer team, men and women, would come out and watch and cheer us on. We'd support and scream for them and they'd do the same for us.

"A lot of the guys on the team try to go out and support as many of the other teams as we can. It's fun."

Nelson loves travel, so playing professionally in Europe interests him. Last summer, he was part of a "Beavers Without Borders" throng that visited Macedonia.

"We also got to visit Germany and Austria," he said. "The experience I had, I really wish it could be something every school does. It was a life-changer for me to see how people go about their lives out there, the things they value. It showed how materialistic we are as Americans, the things we don't need that we feel we need, the living conditions in other countries. … it was an eye-opener."

Nelson hasn't had a sniff of the NCAA or NIT post-season tournaments during his time at Oregon State.

"It's been extremely disappointing, but it is something that motivates you," he said. "We're going to continue to work hard with the coaching staff and the depth of players we have. We're more than capable of doing so this season."

The Beavers are 12-8 overall and 4-4 in Pac-12 action, tied for sixth place and a game out of third. A win over UCLA on Sunday would make them 5-4 at the halfway point of league play for the first time since the 1998-99 season.

Robinson calls the game with the Bruins at Gill "the most meaningful game during my time here. It's the latest we've been relevant" in the conference race.

A hot finish -- 7-3, perhaps -- and a couple of wins in the Pac-12 tournament might get them into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990.

"It would mean the world," Nelson said. "This team is extremely close. We have a lot of fighters on our team. I don't think we'd be OK with not making the tournament. That's the goal. We have a lot of depth and a great coaching staff. We have all the right things pushing us in the right direction."

Robinson wants it almost as much for Nelson as for the team.

"I couldn't be happier for him the way he has played," Robinson said. "I want him to feel the kind of success that goes along with winning. If we can just keep doing what we're doing, maybe we'll turn the corner. He's on board for that. The whole team's on board. That helps us win games. They're playing for each other."

Nelson is going to get his shot to make the NBA. With only average speed and quickness and mediocre defensive ability, he is not high on draft boards. With his shooting and scoring ability, though, he'll almost certainly be able to get into a team's summer league training camp.

"I hope so, but I try not to think about it too much," he said. "I have a Plan B and another avenue I could go in life. I'm prepared for both. I'll be successful wherever I go."

Told of Nelson's feelings, Robinson nodded. After a successful playing career at Princeton, the Beavers' sixth-year coach enjoyed a decade in private business and investment banking.

"I hope Roberto really feels that way," he said. "He has a really neat ability to get along with a lot of different kinds of people. His best days will come after basketball is over. He is going to be a significant contributor to society.

"I could take that guy to go work with me at Morgan-Stanley. Or he could be a coach. He could be a schoolteacher. He could do whatever he puts his mind to."

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