— Scott Ericson (@EricsonSports) February 8, 2021
In the summer of 2019, Mackenzie Nelson joined the best young girls basketball players in the world at the Jr. NBA Global Championship, playing for her travel team the Empire State Blue Flames.
Nelson was in her happy place.
She was discovering basketball as an international language, playing against exceptional competition and getting a chance to give back to those in need.
What she did not know was the tournament would lead to a life-changing opportunity for her.
The guard from Greenwich, who is now a sophomore at St. Luke’s, impressed those watching not just with her on-court skills but also with her personality, intelligence and leadership skills.
She was so impressive on and off the court that out of all the players from that tournament in 2019, she is among 10 girls selected for the inaugural Jr. NBA Court of Leaders, an NBA-sponsored program for the best 15-and 16-year old basketball players in the United States.
The NBA announced the formation of the Court of Leaders this week, though the players were notified in November and have been meeting virtually since December.
The NBA announcement coincides with the sixth annual Jr. NBA Week running this week.
The Jr. NBA Court of Leaders aims to empower young men and women by providing resources to further their development as leaders and provide a platform to amplify their voices within their communities and across the youth basketball world, according to their website.
Eighteen players were chosen for the Leaders program, 10 girls and eight boys.
“It’s very exciting to be chosen among these amazing players,” Nelson said. “Honestly at first, I didn’t think much of it, but once I found out exactly what it was, it is a big deal. I got on the first Zoom meeting in December and realized what we would be doing and was so honored to be a part of it. I’m very grateful.”
The 10 girls have been meeting on Zoom since December.
The calls touch on basketball but tend to steer more into topics of social issues, women’s rights, leadership and whatever else is on the minds of the players and the adults leading the calls.
“We talk about things that are the same for the kids from California or Kansas as they are for me here,” Nelson said. “The majority of what we talk about is not basketball related but more about issues. We have guest speakers, coaches, WNBA players, but we still rarely talk about on the court stuff. We do talk about how basketball is a huge part of all of our lives, but at some point it eventually stops. We talk about the importance of school work and being involved in your community. Basketball is not forever.”
St. Luke’s coach Matt Ward is not surprised Nelson has been placed in such elite company.
“She’s a great player but also a very generous, kind person,” Ward said. “Before we ever took the court this year, I had teachers stopping me in the hall to tell me how impressed they were with Mac as a person. I heard that weekly from teachers. She does it everywhere she goes.”
St. Luke’s played only a handful of games this winter due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Ward is looking forward to Nelson being able to display her game for the rest of the region.
“On the court she is so special,” Ward said. “ When we can play a normal schedule, she will break out in New England. She does things on the court that kids her age just don’t do. She plays with this incredible energy and you can ether try to match it or she will blow by you. She plays the game with a joy that is unmatched.”
Nelson, who was named GameTimeCT First-Team All-State her freshman year at Greenwich before transferring to St. Luke’s, feels honored by being selected to the Court of Leaders, but said she also gained so much from attending the tournament prior to her freshman year of high school.
At the tournament, she met and played against players from all over the world.
“It was great going against the best players from around the world. Great to see how you compare,” Nelson said. “I made great connections with people from other countries. We don’t speak the same language but we all understand basketball. We play by the same rules, have the same moves. The game brings people together no matter where you are from. It was another level of play and very challenging. It was the real deal and I loved being challenged like that.”
As incredible as the time on the court was, it was the time off the court, participating in community service projects with players from around the globe that left the most lasting impression.
“We did a ton of community service down there. We helped build a park, put up basketball hoops at another park, painted houses,” Nelson said. “People don’t see all the leadership stuff we did off the court but it was probably the most important part. It was great bonding, even with people who don’t speak the same language. You learn to communicate in different ways, even though people were from China or Europe, we were able to form great bonds with each other. I may never see those people again, but I will never forget them.”