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Scott Howard-Cooper

Don Nelson's battle with pneumonia has him absent for another Warriors' road trip.
Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images

Benched and ailing Nellie says he will be back full-time

Posted Dec 7 2009 11:17AM

The beginning -- the start of a five-game Warriors trip tonight in Oklahoma City -- is not part of the end. Don Nelson declares it with certainty. Or at least as much certainty as a 69-year-old cancer survivor with pneumonia can muster, after losing 12 pounds, after woozily coaching through games and sweating through practices, and conceding he needs another leave.

This is the second time the Warriors have left Oakland and their coach has stayed behind, and no wonder there's speculation about where this may lead. This goes beyond the usual drama among the parties. The age, the illness, the image of a head coach feeling faint on the bench, the increasing number of absences -- where this may lead is a very fair conversation.

Plus, it's Nelson and Golden State and the understanding that very few rosters have been so tailored to a coaching style the way the Warriors have been built for his rush offense. And not just the rosters. One of the selling points to Larry Riley being named general manager despite no previous experience as a personnel boss was his close relationship with Nellie -- because management knew it had to try to fast track a playoff run with an aging coach and didn't want to have to wonder if the relationship with Chris Mullin's successor would work. It wanted to know it would.

So pneumonia and another missed trip is a big deal on so many different levels. Yet Nelson insists it is nothing more than a medical issue that has led to a temporary move, not an indication the condition and the concern is severe enough to be a potential life-changing decision .

"There isn't anything I'd rather do than what I'm doing," he said. "I love Maui [his permanent home], but you know what? I love it in the summer time, not in the winter time. I think the team's response to me -- maybe I'm not the easiest guy to play for some times, but other times I am. There's no problem about me finishing out my contract at all. I'm not concerned.

"It [pneumonia] is serious and it has been a serious thing with me. That's why I'm taking care of myself. I've been listening to a lot of my friends tell me to just relax and get better first. I am feeling better every day. I do have periods when I'm up and down -- feel great, feel lousy. And when I'm over that, then I'll know it's time to come back full time. And that's when I'll come back full time."

Nelson initially missed five games starting Nov. 24, a win at Dallas, a loss at San Antonio, a home loss to the Lakers and a home victory over the Pacers, followed by a loss at Denver. Top assistant Keith Smart took over, though the outcomes went on Nellie's ledger as he inched closer to Lenny Wilkens for the career coaching record of 1,332 wins.

That was supposed to be the end of it, with Nelson at 1,315 and back Thursday for the loss to the Rockets at Oracle Arena. But there were moments of dizziness on the bench. The next day, during a conversation, Riley noticed his friend sweating a lot. The announcement went out Friday afternoon: Nelson would also miss the five-game trip that opens Monday against the Thunder.

"My advice to him as a friend was, 'Get yourself healthy. And that's the best thing for the team,' " said Riley, a Nelson assistant with the Mavericks and Warriors before moving upstairs. "Fortunately, this is one of those decisions where your friend and the general manager say the same thing. There's no question in my mind that he is not ready to go off on a long journey that involves getting into hotels at 3 o'clock in the morning, which will happen right away. We go to Oklahoma City and then you make that trip to New York [to play the Nets]. By the time you get on the bus at the airport and get to the hotel, it's extremely late. We're going into cold-weather cities. He's not quite there yet. If this was a five-game home stand, it might be a little different. But a five-game road trip like this, I wouldn't want anybody to do that."

Still, it's going to be cold for a while and there's going to be more travel and congested calendars. Not five-game swings from Oklahoma City to New York/New Jersey to Chicago to Detroit and back-tracking to Philadelphia. But there is a Memphis-New Orleans back-to-back trip later in the month and a long return flight from Louisiana to the Bay Area with only one day off before a stretch of three games in four days. There is a Denver-Minnesota back-to-back trip in January. And Denver and Minnesota in January isn't exactly the beaches of Maui in July.

"That's the other thing," Riley said. "The reason for doing this now is we don't want any kind of setback and we don't want any missed games beyond this point. I think it's really the prudent thing to do in that regard, and that's the general manager speaking.

"I've been around him a long time. I've seen him go through different things, where he did have a battle with prostate cancer [in 2000-01] and was able to come back and finish and coach and be at the highest level, and that's what I anticipate happening here. I don't have doubts about him being able to finish the year and I don't have doubts about his capability to handle a team and coach games."

Five more games and Nelson gets the chance to prove it.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

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