Former Dons star Nelson making an impact at Oregon State

Roberto Nelson is back on the basketball court, making things happen for the Oregon State Beavers.

It’s been nearly 1 1/2 years since Nelson laced up his sneakers and played in front of a roaring crowd. And from the looks of things, the former Santa Barbara High star is quickly regaining his form — adroitly driving around defenders and making acrobatic shots inside or drawing fouls, pulling up to hit jump shots, swishing long-range 3-pointers and finding open teammates for good shots

Going into Thursday night’s nationally televised (8 p.m. on FSN) game at Cal, the 6-3 redshirt freshman point and shooting guard scored in double figures in six of the 11 games he’s played and led the team in scoring twice. He’s averaging 9 points, shooting 42 percent from the floor (32-76) and 80 percent from the free-throw line (24-30).

“It feels great,” Nelson said, in an e-mail interview with, about playing in games again. “Having sat out (last) year has taught me a lot. Just being back in the mix feels good; to be back, playing hard for the team and helping the team get wins.”

Roberto Nelson is averaging 9 points in his first season at Oregon State.

After graduating from Santa Barbara High in June of 2009, Nelson’s start to his college career was delayed as the NCAA Clearinghouse scrutinized his high school academic records to make sure he was eligible to play Division 1 basketball.

In eligibility limbo for his first three months in Corvallis, he was barred from participating in team activities. He received clearance in late December of ’09 and started practicing with the team.

Watching him at his first practice, coach Craig Robinson felt reassured about his recruitment of Nelson.

“…it was evident that he can help us, so it’s a good feeling, but it’s even better for Roberto,” Robinson told the basketball Web site “Ballin’ is a Habit” that December.

Robinson decided it would be best for Nelson to sit out his first year as a redshirt.

“The year off helped me a lot from a maturing standpoint and with school,” Nelson said. “The coaches helped me realize that school is important and that I need to focus on school rather than just the athletic part of it. They wanted me to realize that I’m a student-athlete.”

Nelson was one of the most highly recruited prep stars in the country. A Sports Illustrated story on him said he received 2,161 pieces of mail from college suitors.

Big-time programs like UCLA, Florida, Ohio State and Kentucky were among the 56 schools recruiting him. Many of them backed off when they learned of his academic shortcomings

“I was a lazy student,” he told the Portland Oregonian in a story published on Dec. 10, 2010. “I really didn’t apply myself that much. I just did enough to get by, but coach Robinson really stressed the importance of school. It’s changed my whole attitude.”

Robinson proved to be a hugely important person in Nelson’s life at a critical time.

In spring of 2008, Roberto’s father, longtime area basketball coach Bruce Nelson, was convicted and sentenced of committing lewd sexual acts against patients for whom he was acting as a caretaker. He is currently serving a seven-year sentence at the California Institute for Men in Chino.

Bruce Nelson coached his son throughout his young life and was an assistant coach at Santa Barbara High. He didn’t see his son play his senior year with the Dons, graduate or sign his letter of intent with Oregon State.

It was a distressing experience for Roberto.

“Imagine how it feels to have your everything taken away from you like that,” he told the Oregonian. “It was hard to (concentrate on school). I mean, just trying to go about your regular day and act like everything was normal was hard at first. But life always throws obstacles at you. It’s how you deal with them that makes you a better person.”

Robinson’s recruiting pitch to Roberto was less on basketball and more on the benefits of a college education and growing as a person.

“He knew everything that was going on with me,” Roberto said in the Oregonian article. “You can tell he really cared. You can tell when somebody really, sincerely cares about how you feel. That’s why I just fell in love with him. He’s another father figure in my life.”

Roberto has talked briefly with his father by phone.

As for people in Santa Barbara, “I keep in contact with all of the guys on the basketball team,” Roberto said. “I talk to a lot of friends from my high school. I have Johnathon Hoover up here with me, my best friend from high school and elementary school, so I keep in touch with a lot of people from back home.”

He said he never got homesick during that first year away from Santa Barbara.

“Corvallis is a cool town. It’s laid back, and my kind of town. I got used to it real early. I hung out with friends and guys on the team and that kept my mind off getting homesick,” he said.

Roberto’s mother, Roberta Nelson, has made the trip north to see him play at Gill Coliseum. She said Oregon State was a good fit for her son.

“Roberto wanted to be on a team that was up and coming,” she told the Oregonian. “He likes to be needed, and Oregon State needed him. I think Oregon State is the best fit for him.”

Roberto is proving he can succeed in college, and not just on the basketball court.

“I just want to win some games and compete to the best of my ability and show everybody who doubted me back home and everywhere that I can get it done in the classroom and on the court.”