One of the best moments of Jameer Nelson's athletic career occurred far away from a basketball court. On Aug. 20, 2009, Nelson and a few of his Orlando Magic teammates took batting practice at Citizens Bank Park before a Philadelphia Phillies game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Nelson hit a ball over the left-center field fence.
Almost four and a half years have passed since then, but Nelson still smiles when he describes that moment. Although he's famous as a basketball player, Nelson played baseball from the age of 5 through his freshman year of high school, and Nelson remains a big baseball fan now that he's an adult.
"There's nothing like watching a major-league baseball game," he said. "When I go home, the first thing I want to do is get a cheesesteak and go to a Phillies game."
Nelson isn't the only member of the Magic with a baseball background. Coach Jacque Vaughn and Magic players Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O'Quinn and Ronnie Price played the sport as children. All of them became better basketball players, of course, but they recall their short-lived days as baseball players fondly.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Vaughn pitched and also played shortstop, center field and catcher. He looked up to Kansas City Royals third baseman George Brett and Royals designated hitter and outfielder Hal McRae. He liked catchers Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Benito Santiago of the San Diego Padres, and tried to pattern his catching style after Santiago, who could throw out base runners from one knee.
"I worked on my headfirst slide because of Pete Rose," Vaughn said with a smile.
Vaughn gave up baseball before he reached high school, but he informally returned to the game on occasion. During basketball's offseason, he'd sometimes throw a baseball with players from his high school's baseball team or the University of Kansas' baseball team.
Nicholson and O'Quinn loved baseball as children, but they literally outgrew the sport.
Nicholson, who grew up outside of Toronto, admired Joe Carter when Carter played for the Toronto Blue Jays. But Nicholson gave up baseball early in high school, because his height made his strike zone too expansive.
O'Quinn, who is from Queens, N.Y., started playing baseball in the fourth grade.
"I saw some classmates playing it, and I told my mom and I showed some interest, and she supported it," he remembered. "The next thing you know, the whole family was behind it, and every year it was something to look forward to in the spring and the summer.
"I lived kind of by the old Shea Stadium, so the Subway Series was way bigger than any Knick game going on. The Knicks were, of course, a big deal, but baseball was the biggest thing in the area of Queens where I grew up."
O'Quinn saved up his money to buy catcher's gear. He ultimately stopped playing in the ninth grade and started playing competitive basketball as a junior in high school.
Price is from the Houston suburbs, and the warm weather there gives youngsters the opportunity to play baseball almost year-round.
For six years, he moved around the diamond, from shortstop to second base and to third base before he settled in center field.
But he stopped playing at 12 years old.
"I didn't need anybody to play basketball," Price said. "I could go out and shoot, dribble. I could do all these things as an individual without asking anyone to come out and join me. I couldn't play football by myself, and the only way I could play baseball by myself is if I went to a batting cage or something like that. I didn't have any close to me, so it just didn't work. That's what made me fall in love with the game of basketball: I could be more creative with the game, and there was a lot of room for me to practice and grow by myself."
Price's 3-year-old son, Trey, already loves baseball.
"Maybe through him I'll find a love for the game again," Price said.
Nelson's 12-year-old son, Jameer Jr., plays baseball.
The other day, father and son went to a local diamond and threw the ball with each other in the outfield.
"It's a good feeling to see him out there," Jameer Sr. said. "But the most important thing is to see him working at it, getting to that age to be able to work at something, to grasp the concept of 'I need to work to get better.' "
There are times when Nelson wonders whether he could've become a pro baseball player.
His fame as a basketball player prompted the Phillies to invite him and his Magic teammates to take batting practice that one sunny summer afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.
"It was great," he said, smiling.
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