Until she arrived in the United States, Alex Nelson had always approached basketball like a walk in the park. Being from Scotland — where basketball takes a backseat to tea and tee times — she treated the game like a casual stroll with the bagpipes.
"It was just a leisurely thing, twice a week," said Nelson, who — for the record — does not play the pipes.
But as soon as she stepped onto an American basketball court as an Oklahoma high school player, Nelson received a wake-up call that echoed all the way back to her hometown of Edinburgh.
"The coach was shouting at me," recalled Nelson, "and I was like, 'why are you taking this so serious?'"
Welcome to basketball in the United States.
For a 16-year old foreign exchange student who was just beginning to learn about American culture in its heartland, even more of an education awaited her on the basketball court.
"(The coaches) were really serious about winning and they put that passion in me to want to play hard and win," said Nelson.
Four years later, that passion from Nelson caught the eye of Florida Gulf Coast University assistant coach LeAnn Freeland at last season's National Junior College Athletic Association championship. Nelson averaged 10 points a game playing point guard for Cincinnati State Community College, which went 29-3.
"I always look for a player who has a desire to win and I could see that on her face," said Freeland. "She's the kind of player we're always looking for. She works very hard the whole time."
Now in her first year as a forward at FGCU, Nelson's hard work has made her an all-around threat on an Eagles team that took a 12-1 record into Thursday's game against Eckerd in the 4th Annual FGCU Women's Holiday Classic.
Nelson has started all 13 games and is in the top five on the team in several categories, including average points (9.3), minutes (24.6), rebounds (4.0), free-throw percentage (.759), total assists (30) and total 3-pointers (17).
"She's a very athletic player and has good basketball skills," said Eagles head coach Karl Smesko. "She's an excellent defender. She can score. She can do everything that there is to do on a basketball court. She makes us more athletic. She makes us tougher to guard. She's definitely had a positive contribution in every game so far."
Nelson opened her FGCU career by scoring 13 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists in a win against Puerto Rico Bayman. FGCU's 12-game winning streak to open the season ended with a 70-66 loss against Arkansas-Monticello on Dec. 21, but not before Nelson poured in a team-high 14 points. Not bad for someone who didn't start playing organized basketball until age 13.
Growing up in Edinburgh — Scotland's capital — Nelson always had fun shooting hoops with her older sister, Charlotte. The sisters would stay up late to watch games on television from the U.S.
"We'd watch the NBA real late at night because of the time difference and then go out and practice our moves," said Alex, who grew up as a big fan of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Charlotte went on to play junior college basketball in Oklahoma and then made the jump to Division I at Southwest Missouri State. Alex, meanwhile, opted to finish her high school career in Oklahoma where her accent quickly became popular in the hallways.
"Everyone loved the fact I was from Scotland," said Nelson. "They wanted me to speak all the time."
Maybe a little too much. At first, Nelson said people had trouble understanding her Scottish English. Like her basketball skills, Nelson's accent eventually became Americanized.
"One of the reasons I lost my accent so quickly is that I wanted people to understand what I was saying and to fit in," she said.
Nelson's accent may have departed, but she has had no problems fitting in on the Eagles, where she starts alongside Ebonie Halliburton, Jessica Hathaway, Candy Myers and Katie Schrader. Being a key player at both ends of the floor for the nation's 20th ranked Division II team is an ocean away from the way Nelson played in Edinburgh.
"I was always just running around trying to score baskets all the time, and play a little defense," she said.
Under Smesko, there is no such thing as "a little defense." No opponent reached 60 points in the Eagles first dozen games.
"I'm excited about how much I'm learning from coach Smesko," said Nelson. "You just look at the game in a different perspective which I don't think I could get at any other school."
Nelson's teammates might get treated to a different perspective of Scottish cuisine if haggis ever makes it onto the team's menu. Regarded as Scotland's national dish, haggis is comprised of a sheep's heart, liver and lung mixed with oatmeal and spices. Haggis is eaten by Scots on Robert Burns Day, which celebrates the life of the famous 18th Century Scottish poet.
Needless to say, Nelson might have trouble finding any Robert Burns fans on the Eagles.
"They'll be shocked. I don't think any of them will eat it," said Nelson, who added she might try to get her mother to send some over. "You could probably use it on Fear Factor."
It wasn't until Nelson spent time away from Edinburgh that she appreciated the character of her hometown.
"It's steep in history," she said. "We have a castle and there's a palace where the Queen will come and stay. There's a stretch between the castle and palace called the Royal Mile where there's all tourist stuff. I didn't appreciate all this until I came over here. It's really beautiful, the scenery and how green it is. The first time I went home I couldn't believe how compact it was and how small the streets are. Over here there are big cars and space everywhere."
Nelson, whose family has never seen her play in college, admits to overcoming battles with homesickness.
"I'm not going to lie. I've had my tough times where I've wanted to go home and be with my friends and my family," said Nelson. "But my mom has really been there to support me and say 'no, you need to pursue this and you know you'll get an education and a degree at the end of it'. She's been really supportive about it."
Nelson is majoring in communications and would like to get into advertising or public relations after college. For now, the basketball player from southeast Scotland is enjoying her college days in Southwest Florida.
"Florida is beautiful," said Nelson. "I love it here. I love waking up to palm trees. I feel like I'm on holiday when I look out and see a palm tree and feel warm weather."