Nelson’s spectacular arc and banking basket has been a marketer’s dream for both the University and Skyline Chili, which sponsored the game and staged the halftime make-a-shot-and-win-a-million-dollars contest. The promotional gain from the repeated airing of the shot has been invaluable.
But an unlikely benefactor has also emerged from the basket: The Blue Blob. Xavier’s previously insignificant kid-friendly mascot was standing courtside and was the first, um, thing Nelson saw after he scored then broke into a wild sprint around the court. Nelson threw himself at the fuzzy blue critter with its big eyes, cotton ball nose and goofy grin. The two crashed into some chairs and then to the ground.
Today, that tackle has brought the Blob his 15 minutes of fame—30 seconds at a time. In preparation for this year’s shootout at rival University of Cincinnati’s Shoemaker Center on Dec. 7, Skyline thrust Nelson and the Blob into primetime stardom in the form of two television commercials.
In one commercial, viewers see Nelson make the shot and the ensuing tackle. The other commercial shows the Blob sitting on a psychiatrist’s couch and the psychiatrist—played by Nelson—is doing the talking.
“I apologize to him and say, I got caught up in the moment and got excited,” Nelson says, “and he’s on the couch wiping his eyes with a tissue. And then I say, ‘How about I buy you a coney?’ The next scene we’re at Skyline having lunch and I say, ‘Maybe no one will win this year.’ He’s afraid he’s going to get tackled again. And then this guy in the booth behind us stands up and says, ‘I won.’ And I turn and look at the blue thing and say, ‘Wow. Looks like this guy’s got game.’ ”
Tom Allen, Skyline’s corporate vice president for marketing, says his department was well-prepared for last year’s contest, but not for the possibility that someone would actually win. For instance, they forgot to make sure Nelson was wearing a Skyline t-shirt, so all the subsequent airings of the shot show lots of Xavier logos but none of Skyline. And because it was the first Million Dollar Challenge, Skyline wasn’t sure they’d do it again. When Nelson won, how could they not?
“We got a lot of mileage out of it locally but not on ESPN,” Allen says. “As a marketing person, we kicked ourselves for not thinking about that stuff. And people thought we were upset that it went in. It’s an insurance policy underwritten by Lloyd’s of London and my first thought was how great it was it went in, but also I hoped we had our insurance policy right.”
Nelson split the winnings with the colleague at his workplace who won the chance to play but asked him to shoot for her. He used to play basketball in high school, but that was 20 years ago, and he hadn’t picked up a ball in two years. Once he knew he would be trying for the million dollar prize, he went to a neighborhood gym and practiced making shots from 50 feet back. He put in five out of 15, he says.
“When I went on the court, I was so nervous,” Nelson says. “All of a sudden, God was speaking to me and reassuring me and I was starting to feel confident. He was saying, just relax and release the ball, and I used two hands, one to push and one to guide. It seems like time just stopped. It was all quiet and it was just me and the basket. I was thinking I didn’t have enough on that ball when I let it go. It was going and going and I was thinking, ‘That looks real good.’ When it went in, I was just so excited. I ran around and released all that energy and when I slid on the floor and was lying on my back, I realized the million dollars was on the line.”
In the ensuing months, Nelson gathered himself together and assembled a list of tips for future shooters, including “practice your victory tackle,” and “choose the most direct line to the mascot in case you sink it.”
Nelson will be at the next Crosstown Shootout as Skyline’s guest to draw the name of this year’s shooter from a hat. On courtside representing Xavier will be the University’s favorite Musketeer. But up in the stands, in Skyline’s corporate box, wearing a new blue suit that the chili restaurant donated, will be—who’s famous now?—the Blue Blob.