Evan Nelle was playing the best game of his life.
It was one of those games where, as a fan, you’d have to pause and think, “Wow, I’m witnessing greatness here.” It was one of those games where every great moment is covered with layers and layers of other great moments.
It was a do-or-die game between the San Beda Red Cubs and La Salle Greenhills Greenies and Nelle was choosing do for San Beda—it was his time. Renren Ritualo. LA Tenorio. JV Casio. Arvin Tolentino. Andrei Caracut. Evan Nelle.
But at the buzzer with the ball game tied, the 5-foot-11 Nelle missed what could’ve been the game-winning three. That shot could’ve been the biggest shot of his career, the final blow that could’ve sent San Beda to the NCAA Finals. The ball had other plans, bouncing off the rim as the clock expired in regulation. The game went to overtime. Then Nelle’s legs cramped up.
Then he missed another game-winner, extending the game into a second OT.
After three overtimes and more than an hour of basketball, several bodies laid on the floor, high school legs giving in to cramps.
Nelle gave everything he had in that game, his last game as a San Beda Red Cub: 28-11-8, and four treys.
And it still wasn’t enough.
The other team had a guy named Joel Cagulangan, who was also playing the best game of his life. He, too, gave everything he had in that game: 29, 9, 9, and 5 treys. Cagulangan was Erik Killmonger to Nelle’s T’Challa.
That loss stung. The year prior, San Beda fell short in the finals to a surging Mapua team. In 2017, they didn’t even make it to the finals. All these Ls happened in Nelle’s watch.
And he’s determined to win them all back.
“All the losses we have experienced made me a better player because it made me realize that no matter how hard I worked for it, there is only a 50/50 chance that you will win. These experiences helped me become more humble and learn to see losses as great stepping stones to become the best,” Nelle tells SLAM Philippines.
Nelle is chilling nowadays, seemingly having moved on from the pain and heartache of high school ball. When he’s not working out for that extra muscle, he’s playing NBA 2K at home. He’s hanging out with friends, watching movies. The latest on their list, of course, is Black Panther.
It’s easy to find the parallel in Nelle’s career arc and the superhero movie’s titular character. When he waxes poetic about it, it becomes clear that Nelle hasn’t moved on, after all. Like the Black Panther, Nelle was kneed to the chest and mercilessly thrown off the kingdom. Now he’s on a grueling climb back to the top. There’s a mission to be accomplished in San Beda.
“My favorite scene was when Black Panther lost to Killmonger. Still, as a king, he was determined to win his people and his country back…just like in the NCAA when we lost to Mapua two years ago and also to LSGH this year,” Nelle says.
The losses had not stripped the powers of Evan Nelle away.
“I liked Black Panther’s determination, leadership, and perseverance,” Nelle says. “It was a tough fight bringing back our determination. But then we still got to win in other leagues and gained my confidence back, ready for college.”
He’s in a sweet spot, as a freshman in a familiar place where he said he wants to “give back to the people” who helped him be where he is today.
Unlike the other Red Cub standouts before him, Nelle chose to stay in San Beda to take part in defending the throne, something he wasn’t able to do in high school despite leading his team in points with 14 a game and leading the league in three-pointers made with 42.
As a Red Lion, all eyes will be on Nelle to see if he can bounce back from defeat or lie down and quit. The Ls have turned to lessons, and the weight is on Nelle’s 19-year-old shoulders if he has the strength to carry San Beda’s winning tradition.
“I don’t feel pressured at all. Coach Boyet [Fernandez] and the team is not giving me any pressure. Everyone there keeps telling me to just play my game…by just hearing that, it takes the pressure away and gives me the confidence that they trust me and the way I play,” he said.
In a scale of one to Black Panther, Evan Nelle looks ready to defend the throne.