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Art Garcia

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With one more win, Don Nelson will have more NBA wins than any coach in history.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Nelson leaves a legacy as one of NBA's true characters


Posted Apr 6 2010 10:51AM

Don Nelson danced, actually more like half-bounced, after being doused by water Sunday night, an almost embarrassing public show of joy for a man who's tried not to make a big deal out of this. Nellie couldn't help getting caught up in the moment.

And why not?

"That's really why you coach, moments like that," Nelson said Monday. "Just a real special moment for me. I'll remember it forever. Memories like that really make life worthwhile."

In a season where so much has gone wrong, for the Golden State Warriors and Nelson, his latest triumph in a career spanning five decades won't be easily forgotten. Nelson has 1,332 victories on his coaching ledger -- no one in the history of the NBA has more.

Nellie, 69, is finally poised to take that one step ahead of Lenny Wilkens. The Warriors close out the week at fellow lottery squads Washington (Tuesday), Minnesota (Wednesday) and the Los Angeles Clippers (Saturday) on the road. One more 'W' is all Nellie needs with six games left.

Nelson isn't predicting where or when the record will fall. He understands better than most the fragile balance between success and defeat in any game, as Sunday's win at Toronto proved once again. The Warriors had the lead and the ball in the closing seconds, but a turnover on the inbounds pass left Raptors forward Chris Bosh with a chip-shot layup.

Bosh missed. Golden State 113, Toronto 112. Nellie exhaled.

"A close game we won by a point," Nelson said. "It sure will be a game I remember."

The memories hardly end there. Nellie's contribution to the sport of basketball is felt in all shapes, styles and colors. He introduced the point-forward concept in Milwaukee because Paul Pressey was best suited for handling the ball. Small Ball ran supreme in the Bay Area with Run-TMC leading the Warriors' rebirth two decades ago. Nelson's role in Dallas' revival can't be undersold, as he recognized the MVP potential in Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.

"He's an innovator," said Nash, a two-time MVP. "He's had an amazing impact on the NBA. He's also been a character of the game, as well. He's definitely one of those legendary figures in our game and for him to be the winningest coach is fitting."

Nellie views the game through a unique prism, often two steps ahead of the latest trends. Think about the influence of international basketball over the last decade, with multi-skilled big men with 3-point range playing a free-flowing style were movement is king. That's Nellie's cup of joe.

And he's done it with flair ... if one considers fish ties and sneakers with the logos taped over flair.

"Everybody's waiting on baited breath for Don to reach this milestone," Phil Jackson said, "simply because he's been a provocateur of rules, style, and even his own dress apparel at one time in this game. He's been a person who has always been at the cutting edge."

Along with Cotton Fitzsimmons, Nelson helped draft the league's first rules to prevent zone defenses. Nellie, naturally, did all he could to exploit the rules in the years that followed. Recognizing the move to isolation basketball that followed was unhealthy for the game, Nelson would then become one of the leading proponents for the introduction of limited zone defenses.

Nelson always looked for an edge to make up for the perceived lack in talent and size, with most of his teams being studies in overachievement. He never coached a true dominant big man and never coached in the Finals. The latter stands as a hole in his résumé. Nelson always said he never had the best team.

But some were among the most exciting.

"He is definitely a mismatch master," said Nowitzki, the 2007 MVP. "He gave me a lot of confidence when I first got in the league, so I obviously owe him a lot. I think there are not a lot of coaches that wanted a 7-footer jacking up 3's. He always put me in positions to succeed and it was always fun playing for him."

Nelson has an ability to focus in on a player's strengths without be tied to conventional positions. While novelties such as 7-foot-6 Manute Bol shooting 3-pointers seem silly now, using a 6-7 Rod Higgins at center is inspired. Nellie was on the constant search for skill, not measurables.

"I came into a system under Nellie as a rookie when he had a veteran team, at that time he didn't play rookies," said Pressey, now an assistant in New Orleans. "I didn't know that, so my mind set was to get on the floor any way I could. The advantage I had was I played multiple positions. He could play me at the 1, 2, and 3.

"His style plays itself to versatile players, such as myself. One of his biggest strengths is putting players in position to showcase their skills. He doesn't look at players as centers or point guards. He looks at you as a basketball player. If our small forward can guard your center, and we'll take our chances because our guy can do as much damage on you as you on him."

Two of Nelson's Golden State squads authored memorable first round upsets. The seventh-seeded Warriors shocked No. 2 San Antonio in 1991, 16 years before the ultimate David vs. Goliath tale upon his return to the Bay Area. Going up against the top-seeded and 67-win Mavericks, Nelson's reborn Warriors of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson became the first eighth seed to win a best-of-7 series.

That it came against his former club and former assistant (Avery Johnson) just added to the subplot. Some maintain it was Nelson's defining coaching moment in career that never reached the biggest stage. (He won five rings as a player with Boston.) Dallas owner Mark Cuban then sued Nelson for "inside information."

Nelson isn't without his faults. He was uncompromising and could be his own worst enemy. He feuded openly and behind closed doors with star players and the front office, leading to one-sided trades and costly splits. Despite a year left on his contract for $6 million, Nelson's return next season is hardly guaranteed.

As a young coach in Milwaukee in the mid-1970s, Nelson openly questioned why the franchise traded Kareem Abdul-Jabber. He wanted more accountability out of Chris Webber during the first Golden State stint. He asked Patrick Ewing to step away from the block in New York. He never wanted Nash to leave Dallas.

All-Time NBA Coaching Victories
Coach W L PCT
Don Nelson 1,332 1,060 .557
Lenny Wilkens 1,332 1,155 .536
Pat Riley 1,210 694 .636
Jerry Sloan 1,187 777 .604
Phil Jackson 1,095 457 .706

"He's not afraid to speak his mind and as a result that sometimes that gets you in trouble," said son Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks general manager. "He always approached each decision the same way: Does it make basketball sense? That's the path that he follows."

Nelson, for the most part, made teams better and left franchises on firmer ground. He did so with Milwaukee, Golden State twice and Dallas. A short stay with the Knicks stands as the one exception. As for those feuds, history and the legal system have sided with Nellie more often than not.

Critics claim Nellie wasn't fully engaged in the coaching process, especially during the latter part of his career. Many dismiss his records as a product of longevity. As if three Coach of the Year awards -- no one has more -- and the ability to keep a job this long should be trivialized. The man Nelson tied to at the moment isn't about to shortchange it.

"We were pretty consistent and players knew what to expect from us," said Wilkens, who retired from coaching in 2005 with a 1,332-1,155 record over 32 seasons. "We understand the game and knew how to win. We've been competitors over the years and it's a huge achievement that he's made. I always thought it would be him or Pat Riley that would break the record."

The Hall of Fame doesn't seem to share Wilkens' admiration. Despite being a finalist three times since 2007, Nelson wasn't part of the Springfield-bound class announced Monday. He's 1,332-1,060 in 31 seasons.

"I have never thought I belonged in the Hall of Fame," Nelson said recently. "The Hall of Fame is for greatness, and I have always thought that I was just a good coach. Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Greg Popovich -- those guys belong in the Hall of Fame, not me."

Nelson did belong in the same room with many of his peers. He's never shied away from discussing the craft within the fraternity. For years, Nelson along with several pro and college coaches met each offseason to share ideas. Legendary coach turned broadcaster Jack Ramsey remembers Nelson picking his brain as a player.

"I was coaching at Buffalo at the time, and he would come to me when we were playing the Celtics either before or after when I bumped into him," said Ramsey, currently an ESPN Radio analyst. "He would talk about things that I was doing with the team, mostly defensively. He would say, 'Oh, I see what you're doing.' That kind of thing, so he had a coach's perspective for a long time before he actually was a coach."

Nelson's current season on the bench could go down as his most trying. Jackson, a one-time Nellie ally, got his wish and was traded early this season. Injuries have robbed the Warriors of any sense of continuity, with Oakland doubling as D-League Central. On the plus side, Rookie of the Year candidate Stephen Curry has flourished. Scorers usually do under Nellie.

"Through all of the darkness, there was light," Golden State swingman Corey Maggette said. "Especially with Nellie."

Nelson and the Warriors have limped their way to 23 victories so far, though they've been better in recent weeks. As has happened several times late in his career, Nelson missed a number of games this season because of health issues. He said, though, he feels fine. Well, other than the losses.

"When you're going through a hard year and it's hard to win games, you have a greater appreciation for 1,332," he said. "When you're winning 50-60 games a year, you can become blasé about it. Try wining 23?"

Now that he's poised to stand alone with more wins than any professional coach, one would think his legacy is secure. Nelson is woven in to the fabric of the NBA, having taken part in more games, as a player and coach, than anyone in the league. The tally is more than 3,400. He's been part of the league in some form for 46 years. The NBA is finishing up its 64th season.

"Nellie is a unique character," said Popovich, a close friend and former Nelson assistant in Golden State. "We all think of him as a lifer. He's been doing it for so many years. You just wonder what he's going to do when he's not doing basketball right now.

"But right now, he's still excited about the game and still the most creative guy in the league in terms of taking the guys on his team and doing what's necessary to win. He really understands the game, matchups and people. Whenever you play Nellie's teams you're always going to wonder what he's going to try to do to you that night and what you're going to have to adjust."

Nelson loves the chess match.

"He's always found a way to win games," Pressey said. "It didn't matter if there were injuries, it didn't matter if he was shorthanded with eight guys, he was going to get his guys together. He could change on the fly and make adjustments.

"He knew the league and the players, their strengths and weaknesses. That was one of his advantages as a GM and allowed him to get the kinds of players he likes to coach. He always believed in three things: Play smart, play hard and play together."

Nellie could have retired to an island paradise of golf, cigars and poker time and again. In fact he did in 2005, as the Mavericks celebrated the "end" of Nelson's coaching career with a dinner/roast. Popovich saw the humor and futileness of the evening, joking that we'd all be back four or five years down the road to toast another Nellie retirement.

Instead, they're paying tribute.

"It's an incredible accomplishment and I can't tell you how proud I am of him," Donnie Nelson said of impending record. "We've been there for pretty much all of it, in some form or fashion as his family, and we know what kind of sacrifice it takes, both personally and professionally. It shows the kind of dedication and devotion to the game of basketball that's something I known since I've been alive."

The elder Nelson doesn't plan on stepping down in the coming weeks. It might not be his call. The Warriors are for sale and no one would be surprised if the new regime makes sweeping changes. Or Nelson could come back next year, add to the record and finally walk off into the Maui sunset.

Then what? Nellie, naturally, wants to be remembered in the simplest terms and with less fanfare.

"If my epitaph should read, 'He was a good coach,' I'll be a happy a man. That's all you need to say."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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