Dan Nelms was part of Steph Curry’s extraordinary story at Davidson but having not played since his days as a Wildcat, Nelms is back in basketball and on the verge of a big win
Height in Ireland is relative. Google Docks is the tallest building in Dublin excluding church steeples yet only stands 67 metres, over 300 metres shorter than the tallest in Europe. In basketball, getting anybody over 6’6″ is a seen as a huge asset. At 6’9″, Dan Nelms is going to stand out on the street and on the floor over here but at his office in Google what jumps out is his plate or rather plates. The former Davidson Wildcat has twice as much in front of him as me and I mainly insisted on doing the interview at his office so I could gorge on the free food. Dude can eat. Now, after a few years off the court, he was trying to see if he could still ball.
Nelms was on the same Davidson team as Steph Curry. While the reigning NBA MVP has made his mark firmly on the hardwood, lifting Larry O’Brien the summer after winning his second world title with Team USA, Nelms had a different road to travel and jumped into the start-up world.
“At Davidson I gave every day I had to basketball but I made sure to take care of academics. Basketball has always been one part of my life but there’s a lot of other things I have always been interested in. After school I had the opportunity to start my own business which was something I always wanted to do,” Nelms told BallinEurope, while being remarkable casual at utterly devouring the two plates in front of him.
After a couple of years in the start-up scence, Nelms jumped to Google and joined their operation in Mountain View.
“I just wanted to follow my own path. The move to Google was different but it’s pretty good because you are surrounded by the people you need and you have the resources to make things happen. The company has the attitude to help you do that. I found that the approach I took to the start up world was welcome here, Google enabled a lot of creativity,” said Nelms.
Having moved around a lot as a kid, the jump to the west coast wasn’t a shock for him but he still had the urge to hit the road and see somewhere else. After two and half years in the Bay Area, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Dublin to manage search quality for Spanish and Portuguese markets. A return to basketball wasn’t on the radar but Ireland is like a village. It wouldn’t take long for him to attract the attention of Swords Thunder coach Dave Baker.
“Once I got here I focused on getting a good start with work. After I settled, I went over to the gym and one way or another it ended up with Dave sending me a Facebook message. One of the guys coaching the team at Google [Barrow St Rovers] knew him. I was playing with those guys and that got me on Dave’s radar,” said Nelms.
“At first I didn’t even know it was a place, I thought the Swords Thunder was a double team name. It’s easy to get to, I get a bus to the airport and then jog the 15 or 20 minutes the rest of the way.”
The Thunder has a partnership with Griffith College Dublin, a link that has led to the side having one of the most cosmopolitan sides in the league including Ukraine’s Alex Dolenko and Sergi Guardia from Spain.
“I like the environment where we have a lot of people from a lot of different places. We have people from a lot of different backgrounds and places,” said Nelms.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity I’ve got here with Swords. I’m excited to see us come together as a team and make a run at things. I love playing ball, I love competing, and I want to see the team make a dent in things.”
Nelms gets his first big shot at making that kind of dent this Saturday night in the National Basketball Arena. Having mostly been used off the bench in his college career, Nelms is the starting centre for the Thunder as they look to claim their first ever Irish Cup title.
The route to Saturday’s clash with Templeogue, a team Swords has already split its season series with, involved entering the lion’s den in Cork. UCC Demons, the reigning champions, were on home court for the semi-final and had ripped this Swords team asunder at the same stage a year prior.
Ahead of tip Baker took Nelms aside and emphasised, repeatedly, the need to be physical. He was going up against Lehmon Colbert, the best performing import in the Irish league over the last few seasons. With no-one else capable of matching Colbert’s size or experience, Baker needed Nelms to come big.
Swords won in a rout with Nelms clearly coming out on top in his duel. The upstarts, in only their second year in the top flight, were on their way to the biggest night in Irish basketball.
The attitude of playing for an upstart sits well with Nelms. When he was in college, playing for an underdog looking to be something bigger was all he knew.
“I chose Davidson because had a really nice combination of academics and high level basketball. It was somewhere where I felt comfortable with a close team and that was really important to me,” he said.
“There was an awesome coaching staff and some really strong leaders. It really allowed me to develop as a player and a person. I learned as much from basketball as I did from school there.”
The growth of Davidson since Nelms’ time there, moving to the Atlantic 10 in 2014 and become a semi-regular fixture in March Madness is important to him.
“If you look at where Davidson have come from to where they are now, you’ve got to look over a long time period. There are so many guys that made a difference, all the way back to the early 90s, that prepared us to be able to do what we are able to do,” he said.
“We certainly took the programme a step forward and that’s kept going after us. There are completely new facilities going up, the school is now known at the national stage where Davidson used to be barely known in North Carolina.”
Of course it didn’t hurt that Nelms played alongside one of the greatest players of his generation while at Davidson. With Curry as the star, Nelms was part of the Davidson team that made it to the Elite Eight of the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
“Early on he definitely established himself and won the trust of the team and staff. We had such as team mindset, where we knew we had to play basketball our way. Even with Steph, we were going up against teams that had multiple highly touted players. Our programme was built around doing things the right way to beat teams that might have more talent,” said Nelms.
“There’s not a whole lot of experiences like [the Big Dance]. Especially the way we did it, coming from behind and capturing the attention of the country. It was funny because when we were there we were just focused on the next game.”
While Nelms was plying his trade in Mountain View, Curry was making waves up the road in Oakland. As the Warriors delivered on the promise of an historic season, Nelms watched on and virtually experienced Curry’s success with his former team mates.
“We all still stay in touch no matter where we are working. We get together for weddings or when we are in the same cities. I was fortunate during the finals to be in the Bay Area and experience the atmosphere around it,” said Nelms.
“With my old team mates, we message each other during Davidson games and also Golden State games. I wasn’t really talking about the finals with my co-workers, it was more the guys I played with even those who are playing in Europe now.”
Nelms isn’t the first of coach Bob McKillop’s charges to end up in Ireland. Conor Grace, who graduated a year before Nelms, is on the roster for Templeogue this Sunday. After a decade as a pro around Europe and Asia, Grace is back working and balling like Nelms in Ireland. Seeing a fellow Wildcat suit up against him is pretty much the only aspect of hoops here that didn’t catch him by surprise.
“Since we are here we hang out as well. The Davidson community is close and has a lot of connections to Ireland with Conor and Puff Summers [Left Bank Kilkenny] as well. I’m not the first one to come over and play Irish basketball, I just took a slightly different route.”
Watch Dan Nelms and Swords Thunder play Templeogue in the Irish Cup final live and free around the world this Saturday at 7.50pm Irish time (8.50pm CET, 2.50pm EST) on TG4.tv