Posted Apr 2 2010 10:59AM
He has been in more games than anyone in NBA history as a player and head coach, and it's just now getting good. Don Nelson is about to have it out with his place in history, perhaps once and for all.
The collision of schedule and calendar is either an amazing coincidence or the ultimate sign that this showdown moment was meant to be. These next nine days could determine Nelson's place in the history books, as one secret ballot session and five games will either lock him into a special forever or continue the debate about his place among coaching greats.
It starts Friday night in Oakland with Warriors-Knicks. Nellie is entering the closest thing his bandaged fife-and-drum corps of a roster will get to a favorable run of schedule, needing two victories to tie Lenny Wilkens for most wins as a coach (and three to own No. 1).
Monday, there are more historical implications: the next Hall of Fame class is announced in conjunction with the Final Four in Indianapolis. Nelson is a finalist, again, and he didn't get in last year. It was a blunt statement about a conflicted legacy, voted on by people within the professional and amateur games and media members.
Since he was last considered for the Hall, his Warriors have hardly put on the kind of campaign that swings votes. As Nelson slowly closes ground on Wilkens, an entirely new spin on the issue of Nelson and his place in history is raised: The winningest coach in NBA history could be kept out of Springfield, Mass.
He didn't get the necessary 18 of 24 votes at the height of recent popularity and respect, when his Warriors were fresh off an electric 2006-07 season. He didn't poll well enough a year ago when he was still No. 2.
Nelson's going to get in this time out of, what, obligation to the record book?
It hasn't become a major issue around the Warriors because Nelson has insisted at every turn that it isn't a big deal to him. And, perhaps, because no good can be found in limping to a record in a season like this.
"I would say that I'm not deserving," Nelson said of the Hall. "I don't feel that I'm deserving of that honor, so it doesn't bother me when I don't make it. That's for greatness. I've never thought I was great at anything. I'm good at a lot of things, but I'm not great at anything."
Getting the record for wins would be an honor, he said, but "It's just a number to me. I don't know what to say. I don't want to answer questions on that kind of stuff. I've answered them before."
There are very prominent voices, who may or may not have votes, backing his candidacy. "He definitely should go in," Magic Johnson said. "He's been great for the game. He actually changed the game when he started going to those three guards. Nobody was doing that. He started that whole trend of three guards, up-tempo, spread you out. I just hope that he has a great shot."
Added Jerry Colangelo, the current Hall chairman and inductee himself: "I have great respect for Nellie. He's made a lot of contributions to this game. Very innovative, without question. Controversial at times, because that's just a little bit of his character. He's won a ton of basketball games. He's there as a candidate because he's deserving of that, and hopefully he'll get enough consideration to get elected."
Interesting scenarios abound as the debate gets new twists. Nelson's name could not be called Monday, but he breaks Wilkens' record the next day or possibly by the end of the week. Or, Nelson's name is not called, he doesn't get the record, he's done as Golden State coach and heads into retirement without the Hall or the record.
He won't quit with one year and $6 million remaining on the contract. The Warriors say they are not considering firing him. "He's under contract," president Robert Rowell said while praising Nelson for squeezing this much from a roster shredded by injury.
"I haven't had any discussions with him otherwise. We'll obviously sit down at the end of the year, but we've had no discussions about anything with respect to him not coaching."
But the Warriors are also for sale. If a deal gets done before the start of next season, the new owner could cannonball the whole operation, sending Nellie home to Maui with a golden parachute but without the record and with future election to the Hall very shaky.
That's why the next five games are so important. It's an urgent stretch on the records front because the Warriors get the Thunder, Jazz and Trail Blazers from there with the chance that the final three opponents will be going hard for postseason seeding.
These next nine days are about Nelson needing to capitalize on the schedule, or at least needing to if the record matters. These next nine days are about Nelson and his place in history.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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