LOS ANGELES -- Reeves Nelson didn't think he would be on the court for the Pacific-10 Conference tournament. He had promised his grandmother he wouldn't and had told his teammates he couldn't.
Yet there he was, foggy goggles and all, elbowing his way to the basket, fighting for loose balls and leading UCLA to a 75-69 win over Arizona. Nelson, who scored a game-high 19 points and 10 rebounds not only kept the Bruins' season alive but ended the Wildcats' run of 25 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
That Nelson was even in uniform was a minor miracle he didn't think was possible when the week began. It didn't matter how many doctors tried to clear Nelson after laser-eye surgery two weeks ago to repair a tear in his left retina; his mother, Sheila Nelson, and his grandmother, Marilyn Sieferer, were having none of it. Nelson's grandmother has two detached retinas and is legally blind and when she heard about the injury Nelson suffered after falling on his face at Washington State on Feb. 18 after a slam dunk, she made it clear basketball wasn't worth losing his vision.
"They were grilling the doctors at UCLA pretty hard even though UCLA has one of the best medical schools in the world," Nelson said. "My mom said, 'Even with their reputation you're my baby boy,' and she just wanted to make sure I was safe."
Nelson was treated at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute, which is regarded as the best center for vision care in the country, and was cleared to play last week in Arizona but was apprehensive about getting back on the court. It wasn't until Monday when he got a call from his mom, who had been talking to doctors for weeks that he finally decided to step back on the court.
"She's the one that convinced me to play because I originally wasn't going to play, but she said you have to stand up to your fears," Nelson said. "Even though the doctors cleared you and you're scared, you have to face your fears sooner or later because it's not like I'm not going to play basketball for the rest of my life. I talked to her this morning and she said to play as hard as you can and do your best for me."
Nelson played harder than anyone else on the court Thursday and finally gave the Bruins the presence they had been missing in the paint while losing four of their last five games with Nelson sidelined.
"The big difference for us today was Reeves," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "His numbers were outstanding. It helps to have Reeves back because he's really our only solid inside presence offensively. They did a good job getting him the ball and he made some very good offensive rebounds and put backs. He just has great strength and his hands are very strong, when he has the ball it's very hard to wedge it from him."
Even before his return to the court after surgery, Nelson was already a fan favorite in Westwood where students draw the Yin Yang and infinity tattoos that adorn his left bicep on theirs before games. Maybe they will now start wearing his goggles even though Nelson admits there were a few times during the game he wanted to throw them away as he did with his contacts when he was in high school.
"I have bad vision anyway," said Nelson, who admitted he couldn't read the signs sitting across from him in the Los Angeles Kings' locker room after the game. "I don't wear contacts; they got knocked out too many times during games. I need them to drive, but I play without them. My dad jokes with me and says if I wore them I would shoot a higher percentage. I had them in high school and they get knocked out on the floor and you can't find them and I just said forget it. I put on my glasses in classes because I need to see the board."
Apparently he doesn't need them to see the backboard as he connected on eight of nine shots Thursday including a breakaway dunk at the end of the game eerily similar to the play where he injured himself when he fell flat on his face after losing his grip on the rim. This time, however, Nelson landed flat on his feet and showed maybe the Bruins can do the same after their down season.
"It's been hard for everybody because nobody likes to lose especially in a town like L.A. and for a school like UCLA where they're used to greatness," Nelson said. "It's hard to have a mediocre season so we try to keep our head up the whole time and hopefully we can pull out this Pac-10 tournament and get a bid in the NCAA tournament."
It might take a miracle for it to happen but as Nelson has already shown, it isn't out of the realm of possibility when he's on the court.