Coast to Coast: Tom Nelson Finds His Purpose Through Basketball

Tom Nelson always wanted to coach Division I basketball. Instead he forged his own path helping players achieve their dreams of playing in college and finding his sense of self along the way.
March 9, 2022

By Danny Priest

The Dunkin’ Donuts Center crowd of over 12,000 buzzed. Their Providence College Friars were hosting Creighton with history on the line. With a win, Providence could earn their first Big East regular season championship in program history.

The energy was palpable and Friar nation just needed a reason to believe. A.J. Reeves – the 6-foot-5 senior guard, Massachusetts native and one of the team leaders, gave it to them.

Reeves drilled his first of seven-three pointers on the night to give the Friars a 5-2 lead and they’d never trail again. He sent the crowd into a frenzy which continued all the way until his final three pointer ripped through the net to the delight of Friar fans. Ed Cooley’s crew ran away from the Bluejays 71-52 and the party was on.

Reeves finished with 23 points in the biggest win over his four years in Providence, a fitting crowning achievement for a career buoyed by expectation. He arrived on campus as the No. 53 player in the nation in 2018, according to ESPN, a four-star recruit courted by top programs like Louisville, Villanova and Virginia.

But before he could become one of New England’s most recognizable recruits, he needed someone to believe in him the way he inspired the crowd to believe on that unforgettable night.

Enter Tom Nelson.

Nelson, the head coach at the Brimmer and May School and a coach at Mass Rivals, first noticed Reeves as a rail-thin 5-foot-9 guard competing against players both older and stronger.

The coach immediately spotted the talent. Reeves was levels above other players his age. He was small at the time, but Nelson wasn’t worried. He knew that if he grew into his body and developed the right habits, the sky was the limit for his basketball game.

“I believed that guy with the proper work ethic – and he had it – could become one of the better players in the country,” Nelson said. “A lot of people laughed. His mom even laughed at first. Louise [his mom] was laughing like, ‘You really believe this?’

“I said ‘Nah, I know this.’”

Nelson, of course, was right.

A.J. Reeves signing his national letter of intent to play basketball at Providence joined by Tom Nelson (left).

Reeves blossomed under his tutelage at Brimmer and May, which emerged under Nelson as one of the area’s prominent prep programs despite a limited enrollment of 400 K-12 students.

Reeves averaged 27 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game his senior year. He earned Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 2017-2018 and shot a blistering 45.7 percent from three-point range in 2017 at the Adidas Gauntlet.

Now, he’s exactly where Nelson believed he could be years earlier.

And he’s not the only one. Brimmer and May continues to churn out Division I talent under Nelson, who is one of the prominent coaching figures across New England basketball.

So how has he done it? To understand how he reached that point, you have to first understand where he came from.

Basketball As A Constant

Tom Nelson came to Massachusetts alone.

No parents. No relatives. No confidants who could counsel him. He only had the game of basketball.

Basketball often served as a bedrock for Nelson during his childhood.

He was born in Salem, Oregon but his mother, Vesta, was just a teenager at the time and sent him to live with his grandparents in California. Both his mother and grandparents relocated again by the time he was six years old – his mother to Portland, Oregon and his grandparents to Los Angeles.

Nelson spent the school year with his mother in Portland, then summers in L.A. with his grandparents. Ask him and he’ll tell you he’s from Los Angeles, but his basketball roots grew in Portland.

His uncle, Eric Mashia, was a fixture in the Portland basketball scene. Nelson’s cousin Erica was the Oregon Player of the Year as a senior at Jefferson High School in 1995.

A fellow member in that 1995 class at Jefferson was a name familiar to Massachusetts basketball fans: Ime Udoka.

The new head coach of the Boston Celtics shared a lot of court time with Nelson growing up. They followed the path of another NBA talent, Portland native and 1996 NBA Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire, who was a few years older. Nelson tried to mirror his game after Stoudamire.

“I was just around basketball 24/7 as a little kid from nine years old when I started really playing all the way until the time I left,” Nelson said. “It was every day, all the time.”

But tragedy cut Nelson’s time in Portland short.

His grandfather, an influential figure in his childhood, died when he was 11 years old. By the following year, Nelson’s mother had moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his grandmother. He still visited Portland, but with much less frequency.

Los Angeles was officially home.

“That’s where I had to prove my worth,” Nelson said. “I had to go into that place constantly and prove, without family around or people that I grew up with when I was little, I had to go around and prove to those guys that I could really play.”

Constantly on the move and now away from his support system, Nelson needed the game to find his self-worth.

“I was on my own,” he said. “I had no uncles anymore, it was just me, my mom, my grandmother, and that was it. I literally had to walk out there and say, ‘I’m good enough.’ That’s where I spent a lot of my seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade years really trying to become who I became as a basketball player and person.”

Change Of Scenery

Nelson developed into a standout player and started getting noticed.

Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. came calling. The private high school of 1,000 students wanted Nelson to come play basketball. Located 23 miles from downtown Boston, the school and situation were a stark contrast to Nelson’s childhood environment.

“I had never been to Boston, and I had only heard rumors about Boston back in the time where they said it was not really a place for Black people in the ‘90s,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t a place for me to be, but I was growing up in a place where there was a murder every day. Anytime I could go to a place that seemed safer than that I was happy to go.”

Eager to accept the challenge of proving himself all over again, Nelson enrolled prior to his sophomore year.

Nearly 3,000 miles from home and totally on his own, it was time again to see what basketball could do for him.

“I was ready to go home right away,” Nelson said. “For the first couple of weeks, I was thinking ‘Why am I here?’ I felt like a fish out of water. I was used to the city and now I’m in Andover. Things were a lot different there and school was extremely hard.”

The academic intensity of Phillips provided a tough challenge, even for a strong student like Nelson. To make things tougher, he didn’t have basketball to fall back on in the beginning of the new school year.

“I was challenged every day, in every aspect of everything I did. That can get annoying and hard and I had no family to go to, no one to cook me a meal, no one to just pat me on the back and give me a hug,” he said. “I’m 15 years old and I’m just trying to survive. My mother said give it until basketball season and I fought through.”

Nelson went home to visit his mom for Thanksgiving that year. When she asked him if he could make it through the full school year back in Andover, his response was simple.

“I think when I’m playing basketball, that’ll save me.”

It did.

Nelson returned to Andover and his next three years were filled with success.

Numerous schools wanted Nelson by his senior year. Even though he had little knowledge of the recruiting process, navigating it on his own, he knew he didn’t want to go back home to California.

Eventually, Nelson found one common link in his recruiting world. A former teammate from Phillips, Walter Brown, played for Holy Cross in Worcester.

It was a small sense of familiarity in a daunting recruiting process filled with unknowns.

Nelson knew that Holy Cross wasn’t offering scholarships at the time. They’d have him on the team, but he needed a way to pay for school.

Nelson decided to do what he’d done three years earlier when he moved cross-country to play ball. He took another leap of faith.

“I decided really on a whim that I would just go to Holy Cross and find a way to fund it, at least for that first year and see what would happen,” he said.

The decision worked. Nelson covered the tuition through a combination of loans and scholarships. He’d found a home and a path toward what would morph into his livelihood.

Coach Nelson

Nelson wasn’t a star at Holy Cross. Quickly, though, he became an influential voice within the team.

“I could easily start telling early on that I was going to be a better coach than I could be as a player,” he said. “People would listen to me. Even the starters and the people who played more would listen to me about what my ideas were and about how we should play and what we should do.”

Even so, Nelson initially entered the financial industry after graduation, trying to distance himself from his playing days.

He couldn’t stay away from the game for long.

His first opportunity came coaching sixth and seventh graders for Mass AAU in the Franklin area. Then he accepted an assistant coach position at Dean College in addition to his AAU responsibilities.

“That really got my palate going,” Nelson said. “We were really good. We were ranked as high as No. 12 in the country. I was working for a guy named Gerry Corcoran and he was strong, a tough man, 6-foot-9, just tough.”

Corcoran, who coached under Jim Calhoun at UConn, had a philosophy that Nelson fully bought into.

“He coached the kids tough, he was hard on them and he played basketball free and fast,” Nelson said.

“We didn’t run a whole lot of plays, we just defended man-to-man and got out on the break in transition. We were one of the better teams in college for the couple years that I worked with him. Then, he left and moved on and they let me become the head coach.”

Nelson was right where he wanted to be, his career coalescing perfectly.

Eventually, Nelson left Dean to join Don Spellman’s staff as an assistant at Framingham State. Spellman had seen Nelson’s fire and style in scrimmages and wanted him on his own staff.

In a couple years, Nelson helped transform Framingham State from a six-win team to a conference contender. At the same time, he branched out and started his own AAU program called “Ballas” with his friend Sherwyn Cooper. The rag-tag group of middle schoolers he once coached were now a highly competitive high school team.

Everything was trending up. Then Spellman decided to step down as coach.

Nelson wanted the head coaching job. He felt he deserved the job. The program had transformed, knocked off ranked opponents, become contenders. He was at the forefront of it all.

He didn’t get it.

Just as quickly as everything had gone right, he was out.

“I felt like the rug got pulled from underneath me,” Nelson said.

“That was a really sour taste as a coach that was really not under my control. I had done a really great job and worked really hard, but I realized that sometimes working hard and doing a great job doesn’t always mean you get what you think you’re going to get.”

So, once again, as he’d done so many times before, it was time to move on.

Prove himself again.

Nelson quickly hooked on to the staff at Brimmer and May working under Greg Kristof. His plan was to take a transition year until a new, unexpected path opened.

After one season coaching together Kristof left, the Brimmer and May job opened, and suddenly Nelson had his new path forward right in front of him.

Right Where He Belongs

Nelson’s dream was to coach in college, but he couldn’t say no to Brimmer and May.

At the same time, Nelson got another call that would change his future.

“I got a call from Vin Pastore,” Nelson said. “He said, ‘Hey, I don’t know how many kids you got, but I love what you’ve done with your program, and I love what you do with your camera for Ballas T.V. Can you bring that over to us and we’ll see what we can do with the Rivals?’”

Nelson had created the Ballas T.V. YouTube channel as part of his AAU program to show off highlights of the top prospects in the region. Pastore, the creator of the highly successful Rivals AAU basketball program, wanted Nelson on his team.

“I liked the way his kids played,” Nelson said of Pastore. “It reminded me of Gerry Corcoran and what we did at Dean. Fast, up-tempo, not a lot of plays, but get out in transition and guard hard, man-to-man.”

It all came together at once and hasn’t changed since.

Nelson turns out college athletes with consistency at Brimmer and May. Rivals, meanwhile, transformed into a grassroots powerhouse.

“We believed in being in the gym a lot,” Nelson said. “When you put those things together, from being a kid and trying to scratch and claw to prove to people that I was good at basketball by working my behind off all the time, that’s why my philosophy is what it is now.

“I had to be that way in order to survive.”

Nelson has since had chances to renew his dream of coaching collegiately, to chase the chance of working his way up a Division I coaching staff. Each time, though, he’s passed it up.

“The more that I kept doing it every year, I just kept saying to myself that if I leave here, who is going to do it? Who is going to be the person in my role? I’m pretty good at this role and I have a good quality of life,” he said.

Finally, after years of change, risks, and unknowns, he found a place he feels comfortable.

“Nobody can do what happened to me at Framingham State, where I thought I was working really hard and I knew I was working really hard, but I didn’t get what I deserved,” Nelson said. “In this situation, I get to control how I work and what I do, it’s the product I put out.”

Nelson no longer has to chase validation.

“At first, I used to think I needed to coach Division I to prove to myself that I had more worth,” Nelson said. “Then, I realized my self-worth was really valuable where I’m at right now.”

Now, Nelson is a lot of things. An Assistant Athletic Director, math and P.E. teacher and a mentor. He’s helped a long list of players elevate their own dreams of playing college basketball, including Reeves, who is on pace to score 1,000 points for Providence in March.

Basketball gave Nelson a purpose, and now he’s returning the favor, one player at a time.

He’s a long way from “home” in L.A., but he’s exactly where he needs to be.