SACRAMENTO — Up in the Skyline Lounge at Arco Arena, three off-duty high school basketball referees were dining on the Sac-Joaquin Section-supplied spread Thursday night, talking about some of the players they'd seen during the season.
At least, that was how the conversation started.
It ended abruptly when one official mentioned he'd seen Modesto Christian play Escalon and saw a performance by "the 6-7 sophomore" that was the best he'd ever seen.
"This kid can handle the ball, run the break and shoot," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "And he doesn't jump, he flies. I've never seen a sophomore like him before."
I wasn't part of the conversation, but reporters are trained to listen, and it was pretty quiet up there in the rafters.
They didn't know his name, but the refs were talking about Reeves Nelson, and before Thursday's Pitman-Fairfield game was done, five people approached me about Nelson and asked what they believed were the three most appropriate questions:
Have you seen him play? Yes.
He's really as good as we've heard? He can be.
Where's he from?
For better or worse, and probably the latter, that still is perceived to be a viable question when people discuss Modesto Christian boys basketball.
And for the record, Nelson is from Modesto. But after Friday night, he belongs to all of Northern California.
Nelson's 19-point, 18-rebound effort in MC's 82-69 victory over Capital Christian on Friday established the 15-year-old as the region's high school player-to-watch over the next two seasons.
"I try not to pay attention to that stuff since everybody has their own opinion," Nelson said. "I just want to go out and play hard and let the people who are watching decide for themselves what they think about me."
He was seldom flashy and seemed to spend half the game hovering over the rim in setting a Division V championship game rebounding record. And even with Capital Christian junior forward Gabriel Strong scoring 34 points (also a Division V title-game record,) Nelson was the best player on the court.
Nelson dominated at the key moment of the game. With the score tied 34-34, Nelson opened the second half by converting a loose ball into a basket, got a steal at midcourt and turned it into a 3-point play, then stopped Strong on defense, grabbed the rebound and started a successful fast break with a quick outlet pass.
In 82 seconds, he turned a tie game into a 41-34 lead, and the Crusaders pulled away. It's that kind of spark that has Nelson showing up on national blue-chip lists.
It's going to get tougher. Nelson has been able to cruise through his first two seasons on ability alone. Starting next season, when he's the marked man in every game Modesto Christian plays, ability won't be enough.
The five-deep Crusaders coaching staff seems to realize that already. They yell "Reeves, Reeves!" so often toward their young star it's as if he has trouble remembering his name.
"It's getting him to play hard all the time," coach Gary Porter said. "When Reeves learns that, he's going to be dangerous. The only thing he needs to control is his attitude. But he's 15 years old, and I don't mean 15 and a half. His attitude is better this year, but I sat him during some games and there was one game he didn't play at all.
"Truthfully, he's the best athlete I've ever had in terms of gifts."
Whoa. Think about that. An NBA starter and six other NCAA Division I players have emerged from the MC program in the last six years.
But we didn't think Houston Rockets when we saw Chuck Hayes as a sophomore, or bleed Kentucky blue when Michael Porter was 15, or even dream of the Washington Huskies when Adrian Oliver was in his second year of high school.
"Reeves is up there with Michael and Adrian, and when he goes hard there's nobody who can stop him," said senior Chad Endres, a teammate of all three.
When asked to grade his effort level on a 1-to-100 scale, Nelson said, "I give myself a 92. You're always going to be fatigued, and I played a lot of minutes tonight — more than usual.
"The coaches keep telling me that when I play as hard as I can, it takes the whole team to another level."
With that in mind, should Nelson ever learn to be the most intense player on the court, look out, World.
Because what we saw Friday night was nothing more than Nelson's debutant ball.