N Dakota St senior has endless energy
He’s been playing there for more than three decades—long enough to become The Shell’s unofficial all-time leading scorer.
“Hopefully, I can be doing the same thing when I’m that old,” said Nelson’s youngest son, Mike.
He has a good shot at it, based on the way he plays basketball for the North Dakota State men’s team that is preparing for the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
Mike Nelson’s endless energy reminds his high school coach of a hamster running on its little wheel. NDSU head coach Saul Phillips has labeled him the “Energizer bunny.”
“He keeps going and going and going,” Phillips said.
“He really never stops,” said Steve Collins, his coach at Madison Memorial High School. “I don’t know where he gets all that energy.”
Neither does Nelson, whose high energy has not only made him NDSU’s No. 7 all-time leading scorer, but one of the school’s best defensive stoppers.
A bout with mononucleosis last October is the only thing that has slowed down the 6-foot-4, 185-pound fifth-year senior. He’s not about to slow down now—not with Friday’s NCAA tournament game against defending national champion Kansas coming up.
“I don’t know what it is—I just keep going and I don’t ever want to quit,” Nelson said. “It’s just the way I play. It’s the way I grew up playing.”
Nelson grew up in a westside Madison neighborhood playing soccer, baseball and basketball, and idolizing his older brother, Luke.
Seven years older, Luke was an all-conference basketball player at Memorial who was a deadly three-point shooter—one of the best Nelson says he has ever seen.
“He told me that I would never be able to beat him one-on-one,” Nelson said. “Once I got to high school, it seemed to be pretty fair game.”
With a basketball hoop set up in the middle of the neighborhood’s cul-de-sac, the Nelson brothers went at it. Their sister, Katie, never understood what her brothers saw in basketball. She focused on gymnastics.
Luke now works in the budgeting department at the University of Wisconsin—recently making Nelson a first-time uncle with a new baby girl named Avery.
“Both Luke and I say we are living through Mike now,” said Dean Nelson, a mortgage broker whose wife, Barb, is the executive assistant for Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.
It was Dean who coached Mike’s youth traveling basketball team, stressing the fundamentals like pump fakes, defense and the triple-threat position. If he caught his son playing video games, he encouraged him to go outside and work on his shot.
“I can’t thank him enough for that,” Nelson said. “He’s probably had the biggest influence on me.”
Although Dean thought his son could have been a successful pitcher in college baseball, Mike focused on basketball during the last two years of high school.
He played two summers on the Wisconsin Force AAU team that plays nationwide, including the Kentucky Hoop Fest. Nelson remembers watching the gold-and-maroon-colored jerseys of the Minnesota Select team.
He had no idea he would be playing with three of the Select players at NDSU— Ben Woodside, Brett Winkelman and Tom Lunde, whose college career was cut short because of repeated concussions.
“I was watching them but had no clue who they were,” Nelson said.
Nelson has plenty of memories of the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center. It’s the arena where, as a high school senior, his team lost to Milwaukee King in the state championship.
King had an assistant coach named Dan Weisse, now NDSU basketball’s director of operations.
Nelson had two teammates in Wesley Matthews and Keaton Nankivil who also will be playing in this week’s NCAA Tournament for Marquette and Wisconsin. All played in WIAA state championship games for Memorial.
“That’s amazing to me to have two teammates who made it into the dance,” Nelson said.
What also was amazing is when Nelson teamed up with Woodside and Winkelman for one of college basketball’s biggest upsets in the Cole Center. Less than two years after the state championship loss, the Bison knocked off nationally ranked Wisconsin 62-55.
“It was an unbelievable experience just playing in the Cole Center again,” Nelson said. “For me, it just blew my mind what we did in there.”
What Nelson has done since then is become NDSU’s fourth most accurate three-point shooter of all-time (44 percent). While Woodside and Winkelman are now the top two scorers of all-time, Nelson is No. 7 on the list with 1,559 points.
“If he hadn’t been playing with Ben Woodside or Brett Winkelman, he would have ended much higher than No. 7 on the scoring list and would have been looked at as one of the best players in North Dakota State history,” Phillips said, pointing to Nelson’s performance in last week’s Summit League semifinal win over Southern Utah. Nelson limited leading scorer Davis Baker to eight points while scoring 22 points.
“It was probably one of the most complete games in the history of college basketball, when you really think about it,” Phillips said.
The “Energizer bunny” has never regretted coming to NDSU—a commitment he made long before his high school senior year, when he was named Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball.
Majoring in sports management, Nelson hopes to work for a pro organization or even try coaching. But before that, he hopes to play basketball overseas.
“I’ll play as long as I can,” Nelson said.