Jameer Nelson has always been fearless on a basketball court. When, after 10 years in the NBA, the thought in the back of his mind about finishing up his degree at St. Joseph's University started to work its way to the front of his mind, his overriding emotion was fear.
Not fear about taking the few classes necessary. Not fear about the commitment. Fear of the unknown, he said Monday afternoon over lunch at Bryn & Dane's on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, not far from where he lives with his wife and their four children.
"I was scared to go back, but I got over that fear," Nelson said. "It was a little bit of fear. It just takes a little bit of courage to get it done."
So he did.
"There are a lot of people out there who haven't finished," he said. "Not even school, haven't finished whatever they started. Once I got started, I just started knocking it out piece by piece. Was it easy? No."
But class by class, he found a way to the other side. And, on Saturday morning on the St. Joe's campus, Jameer Nelson, a senior in 2004, will graduate as a member of the class of 2018 with a sociology degree in hand.
"I always wanted to do it," Nelson said. "Everything is timing, and the right situation and the right time. I promised my mom, I promised my wife, I promised my grandmom before she passed that I would get it done. Nobody ever forced me to do it. The reality is I wanted to do it. I wanted to finish it for my family, my kids, being a mentor to people and a role model."
His final class was an elective, appropriately, "Leadership." The point guard has been a leader all his life — on the court, off the court, really everywhere.
"It was interesting to see how different people do leadership, different ways you can lead, how you can empower people to hold themselves accountable," Nelson said.
When he started taking classes again, Nelson, 36, took them online and through independent study.
"I needed it because of my schedule," said Nelson, who just finished his 14th NBA season. "I couldn't sit in a classroom for two hours on Wednesday. I could be in Detroit or L.A. or somewhere else. I was fortunate the classes I needed to take were online. The university helped me out with finding those classes."
Back in his day, it was "day classes and night classes." Online classes were just about to become a thing.
Nelson did the work on his phone, his laptop, his iPad. In his final course, he had to FaceTime with his professor.
"He would pull up my assignment and dissect it, and I could see everything he was doing," Nelson said.
Nelson needed to take several sociology classes and a religion class to complete his degree requirements. He majored in sociology because "I wanted to learn more about society, learn more about things that are going on in the world, why do people act a certain way.''
All that, he said, helped him be a leader in his basketball career. And those experiences helped him when he went back to school.
"I got way better grades now than I did before," Nelson said. "I got a lot wiser. A lot of things make more sense to me. I get things faster."
Nelson may very well have graduated in 2004 if life had not interrupted. There was that unforgettable season when his team vaulted to No. 1 and finished the regular season 27-0. There was the long NCAA tournament run. There was all the travel to pick up all those player of the year awards. There were the more than 15 workouts with NBA teams before the draft. There was summer league with the Orlando Magic. To finish, he would have had to take summer classes. Summer simply went too fast.
"I was all over the place," Nelson said. "I had to start a different life. To be honest, I couldn't do it. It was impossible. What am I going to do? I have to either finish these classes or figure out a way to make a living for my family. You can always go back to school. You can't always go back and make a living."
So he made a very nice living and then went back to school.
"It's fun to see if you put your mind to something, you can get things done," Nelson said. "Like I said, I was nervous, I was scared, I didn't know what to expect. But mentally I was into it. I actually learned some stuff."
When St. Joe's put out a news release last week that Nelson would be graduating, he and his wife were in King of Prussia working out. He then went to Dick's Sporting Goods to get some softballs, so he could throw to his girls in a batting cage. Somebody came up to him to congratulate him on graduating. News travels that fast. And so does the impact.
"People I don't even know tell me how proud they are of me," said Nelson, who finished this season as a reserve for the Pistons. "I got my first graduation card from one of my daughters' softball coaches."
Nelson's wife, Imani, graduated from Temple. Now, Jameer is a college graduate. Their son is a junior at Haverford School. Their daughters are 12, 10 and 5. There is, Nelson said, a 100 percent chance they are going to college.
So what will Saturday be like?
"I don't know what to expect," he said. "I don't even know how to prepare for it."
Nelson expects that if it's anything like when he was playing at St. Joe's, there might be 60 or 70 friends and family at the ceremony — his first graduation since Chester High in 2000, an event he remembers more for hanging out afterward than for the event itself.
Since the NBA season ended, Nelson has spent much of his time at softball practices and games watching his daughters. He won't linger at the graduation, which is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. There is a softball game in Collegeville at noon.
The new college graduate, a man who was a 2009 all-star and in the NBA Finals the same year, has played 24,539 minutes over 878 NBA games (639 starts) and is just 60 points shy of 10,000, said: "My life revolves pretty much around my family now."
The family is about to see him in a cap and gown.
"I don't know, when I get across the stage, should I bring champagne, have confetti fall?" Nelson said with a smile.