By Dave O’Sullivan
Wayne Nelson talks a lot about Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” and how he tries to emulate having that same type of confidence every time he steps onto a basketball court.
During Kobe’s rookie year, before the Lakers were set to face Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls for the first time, one of Kobe’s teammates cautioned Bryant not to look Jordan in the eye — for fear that Jordan would take it as a personal insult and go out and drop 50 points on young Kobe. Kobe responded with, “I’m that, too.” Meaning he had that special quality inside him that Jordan possessed.
That’s the kind of attitude Nelson plans to bring to the bench when he takes over the Atlantic City High School boys basketball program next winter. Nelson, approved by the Atlantic City Board of Education on Tuesday night, takes over for the legendary Gene Allen, who won four Cape-Atlantic League Tournament titles, nearly 400 games and three state championships during his tenure.
“There’s no pressure,” Nelson said in a phone interview Tuesday night. “Following Gene — he’s done so much when it comes to the game of basketball in Atlantic City and South Jersey. I have tons of respect for Gene and there were times I reached out to him in my coaching career for advice. Having that relationship with him has been great, but I’m also confident in my abilities as a coach, my experience and my ability to connect with kids. I’m excited. To me, it’s not pressure, there is no weight on my shoulders. The pressure is being able to connect with the kids and making sure I’m doing right by them.”
Nelson, who now lives in Sicklerville, Camden County, brings an impressive resume to the table. A native of Atlantic City and graduate of Holy Spirit, Nelson was a standout college player who then played overseas professionally for nearly a decade. He began his high school coaching career at Cedar Creek in 2014 and two years later took over at Winslow, where he led the Eagles to a South Jersey Group 3 championship in 2017. Nelson wasn’t retained as Winslow coach so for the last 18 months he’s been running his own training business called “Wayne’s World of Basketball” where he trains everyone from youth on up to professional players. In his six seasons of coaching high school ball, his teams have made the state playoffs each time.
“I think that’s important when you have a program like Atlantic City, you want to come in with somebody who is going to re-energize things. I want people to know that I’m about business. I’m here to teach them how to win and provide a winning culture my way. I already know the respect level is going to be there and that the kids will be bought in and listening to what I have to say in the hopes that they may be able to take something from me that can get them toward their dream of playing at the next level, or whatever else it might be,” Nelson said. “I know I have my work cut out for me, especially the first year. But we’ll just get to work. Whatever kids are there from last season, we’re going to just put our heads down and work. We’ll worry about everything else when the time comes. All I know is hard work. We’ll work, I’ll teach and we’ll figure things out.”
Nelson said he learned a lot about coaching high school basketball during his four-year stint at Winslow, and he’ll take those lessons and use them to be an even better coach for the Vikings.
“Winslow taught me so much. I kind of grew up there as a coach. Just having the opportunity to be around such great young men, I learned what it meant when people say those words, ‘It’s bigger than basketball.’ I took from that experience that if you invest in the kids, they’ll turn around and give you everything that they have. That’s the biggest thing I take from Winslow. Shout out to all those players I coached at Winslow, because I don’t think this opportunity happens without having been around those kids and that program,” he said. “I’m coming into this job with a game plan. I know the type of kids that Atlantic City has and I’ll take everything I’ve learned through the years and apply it now.”
Atlantic City has one of the most passionate fan bases when it comes to high school basketball, and Nelson knows he’s going to hear all kinds of advice from fans — even during games.
“Isn’t that the beauty of Atlantic City? Listen, I’ll take that. I’ll take the dedicated fans and everything that comes with it — the good and the bad,” Nelson said. “I know that the support will be there, and I know a lot of those people who come to games really love their city, their community and those kids. For me, that’s cool.”
Nelson is uniquely qualified to be the coach at Atlantic City because that’s where he cut his teeth as a basketball player and young man. He remembers fondly the days of going to see the Vikings play when he was just an elementary school tyke. His Atlantic City roots run deep.
“It’s a very recognizable program and probably one of the most coveted public school jobs in New Jersey. To have the chance to be part of the great history Atlantic City basketball has — I’m from Atlantic City, grew up in Atlantic City. Both my dad and my grandfather (George Nelson Sr.) served the Atlantic City Police Department for 30-plus years. There’s a statue of my grandfather on Ohio Avenue, my dad was a leader in the Police Athletic League for about 15 years. So I’ve spent a lot of my life in Atlantic City, I just didn’t go to Atlantic City High School, and that was my parents’ choice at the time to send me to Holy Spirit,” he said. “When I was young, guys like Lou Roe, Romaine Haywood, Kevin Wilkins — I could list a whole bunch of Atlantic City guys that I grew up watching at Atlantic City High School games, and that experience played a part in my passion for basketball, just being around that environment.”
Atlantic City typically plays one of the toughest schedules in South Jersey and annually hosts the prestigious Battle By The Bay showcase in early February. Throughout the years the Vikings have had epic battles with the likes of Holy Spirit and St. Augustine Prep, and Nelson said he knows the expectation of the fan base is to win — and beat the best public AND private schools in South Jersey.
“The expectation that comes with Atlantic City is winning. That’s what comes with it. Everybody wants their shot at Atlantic City. They always have, but now, with a new coach, we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Nelson said. “I’m up for it. The competitor in me — I want that. I want people to know, we’re here. Regardless of last year’s record, covid, none of that matters anymore. It’s a new season, and we’re going to be one of the hardest working teams in the area. If anything, that fear of teams coming into Atlantic City — that relentless effort on the defensive end, that physicality — that’s what we’ll be known for, and then some. I know everything that comes with this job, and the reason why I feel like I’m the perfect candidate for this job is that I can handle everything that’s going to be thrown my way.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays