An Athlete Dying Young: RIP, Phil Nelson
Former McNary hoops star dies suddenly at age 34
Word of what happened came out in bits and pieces—and details are still pending. But early Monday, a pronouncement was made by the mother of former McNary basketball star Phil Nelson. Phil passed away last Friday night doing what he loved—playing basketball.
“He was in California playing the game he has loved and lived for,” wrote Terri McSmith.
“He was with a close friend and her family at her families’ home when he collapsed on the court.”
No other details were released, other than the family was focused on bringing Phil’s body back to Oregon. Ms. McSmith asked that people respect the family’s privacy as they deal with their grief. This tribute attempts to do just that while helping people remember Phil.
Phil Nelson was 34 years old. He was father to a nine-year old son and four-year old daughter. In addition to his mother and father, he is survived by three sisters.
Phil was best remembered in the Salem-Keizer area as a standout basketball player at McNary High School, where he was a four-year letterman in the early 2000’s. He exceled as part of a talented Celtics squad, earning first team all-conference honors as a sophomore, junior and senior. He was part of the 2003 McNary team that won the Valley League title and took fourth in state that year. The following season, the Celts took home the conference crown again, and advanced to the elite eight before falling to Kyle Singler’s South Medford squad.
As a senior, Nelson was named first team, all state—and was mentioned in the same sentence with Singler and Lake Oswego’s Kevin Love. He also turned out for track his senior year and had a best leap of 6 feet, 10 inches—which would have been good for third place that year in the Pac 10 track and field championships. He went on to win the high jump league championship with a jump of 6-8.
The Pac-10 heavily recruited Phil—every school except Stanford pursued him. Celtics coach at the time—Jim Litchfield—remembers other schools were also beating down his door.
“I also received phone calls from coaches from other top basketball programs in the country,” recalls Litchfield.
Nelson eventually narrowed his choices down to four schools: Georgia Tech, Texas, Gonzaga, and Washington, at the time all power houses in their conferences and nationally.
Eventually, Phil chose the University of Washington for his college home. He was part of an elite class in Seattle. Nelson was joined at U-Dub by Spencer Hawes and Quincy Poindexter—both who eventually played in the NBA.
Phil did get playing time as a frosh for coach Lorenzo Romar. He appeared in 31 games his freshman year for the Huskies, starting nine times, while averaging nearly five points and two rebounds a game. But Phil was apparently home sick. He decided to transfer to Portland State.
"It's close to home," UW coach Lorenzo Romar said of Nelson's transfer at the time,
"He's familiar with (Portland State) Coach Bone. He's looking for a change of scenery."
Nelson made an immediate impact at PSU, starting all 33 games for the Vikings his sophomore year. He averaged just under 11 points per game, good for fourth highest on the team. He also was among the team leaders in three-point shooting and was tops in free throw percentage. Life looked good.
But the injury bug hit Nelson his junior year. Phil broke his left foot after 20 games that season. The tragic news came after he had gotten off to a roaring start, averaging 12.9 points a game, including 48 three-pointers and nine dunks, and Big Sky Conference player of the week honors in December.
The broken foot issues continued into his senior year—when he rebroke it in November, and was out of action until early January, missing 26 games. Phil finished his last season as mostly a reserve player, but still managed to record three double digit scoring games. In his last game at PSU, he had 18 points on 4-7 three-point field goals in a win over the University of Seattle.
His career done, Phil got a job and was married. He and his then-wife had two children, one of each. He worked in Southern Oregon and then the Portland-metro area for a national car rental agency. Sadly, the job and the marriage didn’t last.
Phil moved back to the Salem-Keizer area and worked a series of jobs, the latest with a marketing company.
Residents might see him at local events like Hoopla, where he had won two slam dunk championships—but by and large he worked, hung out with friends, and kept a relatively low profile most of the time.
Phil’s long time friend, Matty Almendinger, said through it all, his buddy was “the same Phil.” He spent time working out, and hanging out with Matty—frequently playing video games.
Phil was visiting another friend in California when he left this world abruptly. More answers about the circumstances surrounding his death will be left for another day.
For now, celebrate the life that Phil Nelson lived so intensely. And mourn the loss that his family and close friends are enduring.
Thanks to friends and family of Phil who contributed to the writing of this tribute