Where They Are Today - Korky Nelson
Most of you might remember him as the blond giant on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s bench, but Korky Nelson remember himself mostly as a Maccabi Rishon LeZion player. The team that was a family for him, even on his lowest point in the early 90’s, which eventually forced him to retire from basketball at the age of 36. “In 1992 I was hit with four blows” says Nelson, 49 today. “I passed the Gulf War, which was a hard experience for me. I tore my ACL. I got divorced and got bankrupt after my house in California was ruined during an earthquake. I fell from top to bottom. I was lucky that Maccabi Rishon stood by me all along”.
It’s been more than 12 years since those troubled times and Nelson managed to regroup in he’s life path. “I went back to the US broke and confused” says Nelson, “I had to go back to my parents house and look for a job. I asked god to help me. I was traumatized and needed a change in my life. I started working as an instructor for neglected youth. I raised funds, clothes and food for underprivileged kids in eight different shelters”. Nelson’s new occupation didn’t help him to re-acclimate in his homeland, certain not financially. “I was getting payed for a month the same amount I was getting for a nabbing rebound in Israel”.
Redemption came as Nelson hooked up with an Israeli-American businessman, who got him a job in the silicone valley in Microsoft. Some years after, he left his job for his private business as a technical advisor. “I couldn’t keep up with the daily routine of an employee. I wanted to be independent”. Says Nelson from his new home which is being built in Bakersfield, California, near the golf course where spends much of his time.
After awhile, Nelson made another change in his life and started working as a teacher in a special education school, until he started the last chapter as a professional, as a producer of sports and entertainment events. These days he’s working with the NBA retired players association and helped to arrange some charity golf tournaments for raising money to veterans that has no insurance or pension. This initiative is gaining momentum for the 2006 all-stars event in Houston. “I remember that me and Shmulik Zisman (former Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Ramat Gan and Hapoel Tel Aviv point-guard) had the same idea in Israel, because the payment policy was so lousy there. In fact, I offered George Gervin (the “Iceman”), who is the head of the NBA retired players association, to add the retired players who played overseas, and he agreed. My goal is to start a website that will include all the Mike Carters and the Carl Amoses. There people can renew contacts, find job offers, get help etc.” says Nelson and claim: “I was lucky to play for Maccabi TA and Maccabi Rishon. They always paid me on time and overall my time in Israel was great”.
Nelson’s time in Israel started at 1982, three years after he finished his studies in Santa Clara university. “my coach in Santa Clara told me to look for a job, because I won’t make it as a basketball player, but I insisted to keep on with it and got drafted by the Phoenix Suns in the 10th round of the 1979 NBA draft” Nelson recalls his pre-Israeli career. “I didn’t have an agent and had no contract, so I went to Europe and played for Nice, France. When I came back to the US, Paul Silas invited me to the Los Angeles Clippers camp (where he met former Maccabi Tel Aviv player, Tom Chambers). Silas didn’t signed me but recommended me to George Karl who was coaching a CBA team in Montana. I played well, and coach Karl was impressed. He said that: ‘I never met a white guy who can get twenty rebounds a game’. At the end of the season the team got bankrupt and I went looking for a job elsewhere.
“at the summer of 1982 I played for the Portland Trail Blazers in the summer league, and I remember Larry Weinberg (former Blazers’ owner) presenting me to Hapoel Ramat Gan, Eithan Megido. They offered me to go play for Ramat Gan in Israel, and Weinberg was even willing to give me a nice check to go there”.
Actually, the offer Weinberg and Megido didn’t really got the likes of Nelson back then and he admits that he was afraid to get to the troubled middle east. “I was this naive guy from the California coast and I was frightened to death to come to Israel, which from my point of view was a country in a state of war”, Nelson remembers, “all of a sudden I got another offer from Barcelona and I was about to refuse the Weinberg-Megido. I would have end up in Spain unless they would demand going for tryouts in New Jersey. Eventually, I went to tryouts, but it became longer and longer, and I was with no money in my pockets, where I had only a flight ticket to Israel with El-Al. I remember calling my dad from the airport in New York and asking for his guidance. He answered: ‘do what your heart tells you to’. I was standing there in phone booth with tears in my eyes and told him I’m going to fly to Israel. I got his blessing and took the flight”.
After he arrived to Israel, things started to work out for Nelson. Megido decided to sign Steve Malovic and because of the foreign players restrictions in Israel back then, both of the players had to share their minutes between Europe and domestic league games. Hapoel Ramat Gan’s coach back then, Zvika Sherf, decided that Nelson will play for the team in Europe and Nelson proved him right in the first game against Les Mans from France. “I was playing great. Made fun of their center Floyd Allen. I finished with 22 points, without missing a shot. I was hitting Hook-shots with my right hand, my left hand. After that, in Mabat Sport (Israel’s mythological sports TV show), they showed everybody who is Korky Nelson”.
One year had passed and the dilemma between Nelson and Malovic was solved as Nelson married a local woman and got his Israeli citizenship. Maccabi Tel Aviv in it’s ordinary manner, watched the dynamic giant of Ramat Gan – which was the biggest opponent for the championships back then - and transfer him to it’s side, although it already had two good centers in Lee Johnson and Howie Lassoff. “I didn’t like to play for Maccabi TA, simply because I felt wasted sitting on the bench and didn’t really understand why they brought me there” admits Nelson, whom left in the following year for Maccabi Tel Aviv’s reserve team, Maccabi Darom, which was relegated in the end of 1986 season. “during that year, Rishon’s chairman, Yitzhak Perry approached me and offered to join his team which was then in the minor league. I accepted his offer and joined John Willis. Together we did the impossible and got Maccabi Rishon to the premier league in two years”.
Five years after he joined Rishon, Nelson closed a cycle when Micky Berkovic, Eugene Banks and Andre Spencer joined him in the greatest season in Rishon’s short history, when it got to the final playoffs series in 1991, and even beat Maccabi Tel Aviv in one of the games. “that was the top for me. I wanted to beat them so bad, because I’m always cheering for the underdog, and because it was very important for me to just Perry’s trust in me. Unfortunately, Maccabi Tel Aviv won the championships as always. They have the money and they are a dynasty. Everybody wants to be like them, but it’s very hard”.
It was probably the greatest moment of his career, but after that it was a free fall. Nelson got injured and was forced to retire. During that time he got separated from his wife and left Israel with no money after he got involved with a dubious jewish Boxing promoter, Aaron Brownstein (Who tried to bring Mike Tyson to Israel at the time). “I left Israel under sad circumstances, but I loved it very much. I loved the people, their warmth and openness. I loved it when businessmen, students and blue collar workers go to the Tel Aviv derby, Holonia or Rishon and give their soul because of people like me, who were happen to be basketball players. If I could go over it again, I wouldn’t miss even a single moment. Not even the late night hours, after partying in Tal Aviv’s clubs. I remember going out, getting so drunk, that we couldn’t even sleep”.
Some moments Nelson would prefer to forget, but are still with him until today are the moments of the Gulf War, which seem to traumatize Nelson. “even though I got Israeli citizenship, I didn’t serve in the army. I was scared. I would prefer to go to jail, like Mohamed Ali, than shooting Uzi and killing people. I wouldn’t go fight in Iraq today either. In my view, I served my time by staying in Israel during the Gulf War. It was hard. The sirens, the tension. I remember driving from practice through a red traffic light just to get to the sealed room. When I was teaching in the school in California, I was presenting my gas mask to the children. Actually, I still have it with me, side by side with the photo album Maccabi Rishon gave me before I left”.
- It’s funny. Even though you played so many years in Rishon, people still remember you as this blond tall dude on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s bench.
“well…that’s the way it is. People love favorites. Everybody likes Maccabi and that’s why it’s so successful. On the other hand it’s a pretty pressured business. Like every company. There are a lot of politics there. By far, I preferred to play for a Cinderella like Rishon. To see it grow from a small team to an empire. That was a family and I felt very proud to be a part of it”