Nelson's on-court struggles are least of family's concerns

— -- The tugboats rest by the shore of the Delaware River, underneath the bridge, as if waiting for their repairman. The black sedan sits in front of an old house, chrome shining in the weak December sunlight, as if waiting for its driver. And the graying men perch themselves on the stoop of the clothing store, as if waiting for their friend. But the truth has long since hit Chester, Pa.: Floyd "Pete" Nelson is not coming around anymore.

An American flag marks his grave, on the upland side of a town that knows little construction or commute or clamor. But beneath the silence of the movement of time, grief for a charming leader has slowly turned to concern for his son, Jameer. The town's most beloved basketball player is, like Chester itself, all too quiet these days.

"I'm worried about him," says Pete Nelson Jr., Jameer's older brother.

Jameer Nelson's cell phone rang at around noon on August 30. He was with his brother, Pete Jr., buying a new Denali, when he picked up. It was his stepmother. His father was missing.

"We're not going to hit the panic button," Jameer told his brother. He drove to the work site, stepped out into the sun and haze and saw sirens everywhere. Dozens of townspeople had driven down under the Commodore Barry Bridge to the waterfront to lend support. Divers circled in the water, searching underneath the tugboat hulls. Jameer's father was last seen walking away from a boat after painting it. He was not wearing a life preserver. His keys and lunch sat in a kitchen area. He had nowhere to walk off to.

"You could feel it in the air," Pete Jr. says. "The fire company and the coast guard looking for something. Is he really in the water? It was shocking."

And yet the shock did not register on Jameer's face. There is a picture of him on that day, in the middle of a potential crime scene with cops and ambulances and the coast guard all around, the Orlando Magic starting point guard standing in a white T-shirt and jeans with no expression on his face.

"Mom," he told his mother, Linda Billings, "get yourself together. It's not over. Want something to eat?"

St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who drove to the water as well, rushed over to his former player and asked what he could do. "Just be there," Jameer said, and the coach noticed no sign of strain or fear. "He was engaged in the whole thing," Martelli says. "He dove headfirst into preparation."

Jameer had reason to hope. His dad seemed indestructible. Pete Sr. survived a tour of duty in Vietnam, followed by the sudden death of his second son, Jabri, who died of a heart ailment as an infant. (Jameer also has two sisters, Althea and Tamyra, and another brother, Maurice.) Pete Sr. endured a split from Billings and stayed in close touch with her to give stability to their kids. Pete Sr. even once lived through a fall into the Delaware, a river a mile wide and 64 feet deep, with mud that grabs like quicksand and eddies that carry drowning victims for miles. Joe Kane, a Chester police officer for 12 years, remembers at least six deaths claimed by the Delaware in that time. "It'll put you out to the ocean," Kane says.

But on Sept. 2, two days after he went missing, Pete Nelson's body was found in the river 10 miles away. Maybe he fell in and the waves carried him too far too fast. Maybe he hit his head on the way down. He did take heart medication, but the autopsy showed no signs of heart failure. The family has hired an attorney to try to find out. "It doesn't look safe," Pete Jr. said in a recent visit to the site. A call to Hays Tugboats, Nelson's employer, was not returned. It's likely no one will ever know what happened.

Pete Sr. almost always had someone nearby when he worked, but no one saw him fall. Suicide can't be ruled out completely, but there's no evidence for that either. In a way, Pete Nelson died as he lived -- working constantly to help but calling no attention to himself, even in times of trouble.

Jameer went back later in September, by himself, to retrace the steps his dad took on his final day. "We all want to know what exactly happened," he says.

He walked out to the docks, across the rusty barge strewn with frayed ropes. He ate lunch where his dad did. He looked out past the wobbling tugs toward the woods of New Jersey on the horizon. And even though he knew his Magic bosses would never approve, Jameer got out onto a boat, hung onto a ladder, and looked down at the push and pull of the waves that took his best friend away.

The waves crashed, forcing him to steady himself over and over again. Nelson kept his eyes locked wide, readying for a jolt at any moment. His dad was 57, and he still had the strength to withstand hours a day of the river's strongest fury. And there, amid all the silent sadness, was a reminder for the son of his father's greatest physical gift to him.

Pete Nelson was not tall -- nor an athlete -- but he was sturdy on his feet, like his brother, Lloyd "Bad News" Nelson, who was a North Philly prizefighter. That balance became Jameer's.

"He has a strength that you would equate to a boxer," Martelli says of Jameer. "He's lower and therefore when he stops and pivots or moves, he's working against your momentum. If you think about an NFL running back cutting back, that's what he does in basketball."

That's how a man less than six feet tall became the national player of the year at St. Joe's, and then a starting point guard on the suddenly-contending Magic. "We need him for toughness and leadership," Magic GM Otis Smith says. "I think he's got another level or two of both."

Jameer does some of his best work in the paint, towered over by defenders. "They can't get him down low," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy says, "because he's too strong."

Jameer's a quiet storm. You have to take a crowbar to him to make him talk.

--Walt Dennis

"He didn't just go to Jameer's games," says Jameer's AAU coach, Earl Pearsall. "He went to everyone's games."

Pete never left his job, even after more than a decade, even after his ex-wife moved away, even after his son became a millionaire. "That's Jameer's money," he told friends. "Not mine." Jameer tried to tell his dad to retire after a work accident crushed two of his fingers, but Pete Sr., immovable in mind and spirit, never did.

So this is where Jameer got the poise of mind to plan out the game and the poise of body to win it.

"I never saw him off-center," family friend Carleton Gordy says. "He was never boisterous. Always level."

Boredom and trouble and drugs lingered everywhere in Chester as Jameer grew up, but Pete's youngest son stayed on the courts and the football fields, even warning his older brother to ward off the temptations. "He used to tell me," Pete Jr. says, "'You gonna kill yourself.'"

Some called Jameer "Alley Nelson," because no matter what went on in the streets, Jameer stayed behind the rows of houses, in darkened alleys, quietly playing basketball. Simon Gratz high school coach Len Poole remembers Chester High's former star this way: "He didn't make mistakes. He did nothing wrong. He didn't get wild and crazy. He controlled everything."

That includes his emotions. And Jameer's serenity during a time of harrowing family crisis, though it soothed everyone else, has some worried now.

Jameer came to his mother's house on the day his father's body turned up. "You know they found your father," she said. Jameer's face didn't change: "Yeah," he said. "I know." Jameer left the room without a word, then, out of sight, he collapsed on the stairwell in tears.

That's how his dad was: never emotional in front of others. He insisted no one shed tears over his coffin.

"I never saw him cry," says Jameer. "He always had humor in his voice."

That trait is clear in Pete's son, whose brown eyes rarely dart and whose wide mouth often settles straight across his face in a nonsmile, nonfrown. "When Jameer's upset," his mom says, "You don't know it."

Jameer often looks unmoved, in good times or bad, and even his son, nicknamed Meer Meer, looks at strangers in seeming observation rather than curiosity or fear. "Jameer's a quiet storm," says longtime family friend Walt Dennis. "You have to take a crowbar to him to make him talk."

Even when he does, his emotions don't often find words. Earlier this month, Jameer got a text after a game and convulsed in tears. Teammates shooed reporters away and closed the locker room. But Nelson never told neither his brother nor his mother what the text said or who it came from. All he said was, "I had a moment." Linda's only guess is that a friend reminded Jameer it had been three months since his dad died.

Pete Jr., who used to be more stoic, has reached out to a therapist. He says he dreams of his dad -- dreams of planning Father's Day -- and he wakes up exhausted. But no one in Chester is quite sure how Jameer is coping.

"With something like that," Linda says, "you have to talk. You need to really talk to someone." She has reached out more to her son in recent weeks, but Jameer doesn't open up any more than her ex-husband did. Asked who Jameer might be confiding in, Linda says, "I would like to know that myself."

Linda suggested St. Joe's assistant Doug Overton, but the coach, reached by phone, says he's mostly spoken to Jameer about basketball. "He's like his dad," Overton says. "Jameer's going to keep a lot of things inside."

That leaves his family to wonder, and worry. Pete Jr. is considering moving to Orlando to be there for his little brother. Linda admits, "I'm really scared, because I don't think he's ready [to talk]."

He hasn't had much time. Training camp began only a week after Pete Nelson died, and Jameer had a contract year hanging over his head. He got a five-year, $36-million deal less than a week into the season, but his game has trailed off as the team slipped in December. "He has not been playing well [lately]," Van Gundy says.

Jameer has struggled against bigger guards on top teams. Still, he seems as calm as he was during his strong start.

"He's always the same," teammate Carlos Arroyo says. "He never changes. He's a winner. His heart is as big as an arena." Adds Dwight Howard: "He's somebody I look up to."

Jameer devoted free time last week to SuperTarget, spending hundreds on presents for Orlando-area kids. Today, back in Pennsylvania, the prep basketball tournament named after Pete Nelson Sr. tips off. Jameer has become his dad, working tirelessly, worrying about helping others, but silent on his own needs.

"I think behind closed doors, he wept," Pearsall says. "But he stood up and stuck his chest out."

Jameer was the last Magic player to leave Amway Arena on Wednesday night after the team's win over the Knicks. "I'm good," he said, scanning his PDA. "I'm the same." He said the text that brought him to tears was "a good text -- a reminder." Jameer then looked down at his handheld again. Then, after a pause, he raised his head and said:

"I'm not worried about my own feelings. One of the hard things is to go to others [for help]. That's just the way he raised me. I want to figure things out on my own."

The tugboats Pete Nelson repaired silently shift along the banks of the Delaware, appearing stable even in the most unsettled water. They stand ready to guide bigger vessels in need. Soon they will charge out toward the rolling ocean, so strong and sure that no one on shore has to think about what to do if the tugs themselves should ever need help.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at