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BILL PLASCHKE

Getting an inkling of what drives UCLA's Reeves Nelson

The brooding basketball star's story is told in tattoos, which reveal his devotion to family and an explanation of why he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

March 08, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • UCLA's Reeves Nelson may be known for his basketball skills, but his tattoos tell the story of his life on and off the court.
UCLA's Reeves Nelson may be known for his basketball skills, but his… (Joe Nicholson / U.S. Presswire )

He wears his heart under his sleeve.

You want to understand Reeves Nelson, the brooding UCLA star whose scoring, rebounding and scowling must carry the Bruins through March?

He won't bare his soul, but he'll reveal his left arm, which is covered in more than a dozen tattoos that tell the story of a 19-year-old life marked by torment and triumph.

"The tattoos remind me who I am," he says Tuesday, pulling off his zippered Bruins jacket. "You want to see them?"

Yes, I say, because that is probably the best chance any outsider would have of actually knowing Nelson, who strolls through campus with his deep-set eyes staring at the sidewalk from beneath his prominent brow, his music drowning out your perception.

"A lot of people are scared at how I look, they think I'm going to kill them or something," he says softly. "They stare, they gawk, that's why I walk around with my headphones on, in my own little world."

On the court he is equally puzzling, the Bruins' leading scorer and rebounder also the player most likely to slip into a funk and disappear. Although he averages 14 points per game this season, five times he has scored seven points or less, losing his focus over mistakes each time. The Bruins go 2-3 in those games while Coach Ben Howland slowly goes crazy.

"Reeves is going to be a great, great basketball player," said Howland, pausing, then touching his finger to his head. "But it all starts up here."

Sheila Nelson, Reeves' mother, picks up the phone in their hometown of Modesto and chuckles.

"He's a tough guy, but he's also a big softie," she says. "Honest to goodness, I still don't think I have him figured out."

Time to read some of the tats.

A pair of dice.

Nelson didn't play basketball until he was nearly 10 and began his college career last season as a 6-7 center who was consistently pounded. He is not as smooth or gifted as most big-time college players, and is forever feeling his chances of continued survival are a roll of the dice.

"My life has been a gamble," he says. "I had to fight my way through all the people who thought I couldn't do it."

A drawing of the face of his mother, Sheila.

Says Nelson: "Every time I need strength, I look down at her."

Says Sheila, chuckling again: "Everybody else just tattoos the word 'Mom'.… Leave it to Reeves to draw my whole face. I love him, but I wish those things were in invisible ink."

Lilacs.

That is the favorite smell of "Granny," the grandmother who helped raise him. He featured her favorite smell because she is legally blind.

A bass clef and a treble clef.

Bet you didn't know Reeves Nelson loved classical music, huh? He listens to it on his iPod in his single dorm that has neither television nor sound system.

"Granny" recently gave him a gift of greatest hits from Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, and Nelson relies on them to calm down after a tough game.

"People only see the tattoos, they never really see me," Nelson says.

The words, "Real Eyes, Realize, Real Lies."

His father, Brian, was once accosted by a hometown buddy who said, "Reeves is going to be just another white kid from Modesto who's not good enough."

Nelson has never forgotten those words, and acts as if he might hear them again from anyone.

"This is about sticking with only those people who have been with you forever," he says. "This is why I play with a chip on my shoulder."

A rising phoenix.

"I play with controlled rage, but sometimes that rage boils over, and I have to rise above it," says Nelson. "It's hard, but I'm really trying."

Taijitu, the Chinese symbol for the concept of yin and yang, which describes how contrary forces can give rise to each other.

There is the YouTube image of Nelson throwing the ball angrily off teammate Brendan Lane's chest after Lane missed a defensive assignment. There are the countless tales of Nelson grimacing at teammates who miss passes or take dumb shots.

But then, last weekend in a locker room in Seattle, it was Nelson who put his arm around disconsolate freshman Joshua Smith. And after nearly every game, it is Nelson who sticks around and signs autographs and poses for those kids who are not afraid to approach him.

"Reeves has his moments, I know, but he is really just the sweetest kid," says his mother. "I wish more people saw that."

An ambigram reading "Family" from one angle and "Forever" from another angle.

Nelson had a difficult time when his parents divorced three years ago, but he has fought to keep them all close. He is still tight with his father, and he phones or texts his mother every day while encouraging his brother Raymond, who will join the UCLA football team next fall as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end and defensive end.

"Sometimes I feel isolated, sometimes misunderstood, maybe even lonely, whatever," Nelson says. "That's when I pick up the phone and call my family."

The words, "Tell me I can't, I don't hear you."

This was the inspiration, he said, for his defensive performance on Arizona's Derrick Williams two weeks ago, when he held the Wildcats star to two second-half points in a stunning blowout.

A Bible verse, Isaiah 43, 1-3.

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you … " read the words on the top part of the chest of the kid who seeks that redemption daily.

"The court is my sanctuary," he says, his stained glass glistening, its story just beginning.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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