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Steve Aschbruner

Don Nelson became the winningest coach in league history during his legendary coaching career.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

League dealing with absence of longtime NBA figure Nelson

Posted Oct 22 2010 10:09AM

Going back almost 50 years, the NBA rarely has begun a season the way it shall in 2010-11. And no, we're not talking about three superstars corralled by one franchise.

Been there, done that, as far as Don Nelson is concerned. Not only did Nelson play against it -- West, Baylor and Chamberlain, back in the day -- he coached against it, plenty of times. He took on the likes of Bird, McHale and Parish and Johnson, Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s right on to Pierce, Garnett and Allen a quarter century later. It would, of course, be fascinating to watch Nelson operate from the far end of the sideline this season against the Miami Heat -- he probably would counter LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with a lineup of two 7-footers, a thoroughbred jockey, one Alaskan Malamute and a very nice Louis XVI chest of drawers.

That Nelson -- the "mad scientist" coach, the Drama King, the fellow who zigs when others zag and, oh yeah, the all-time victory leader (1,335) in his profession -- won't be around anymore. And that is what's so rare: An NBA season starting without Nellie working somewhere either as a player or a coach.

Starting in 1962, soon after he was drafted 19th overall by the Chicago Zephyrs, all the way to April 2010 when he passed Lenny Wilkens as the league's winningest coach, Nelson has been both a witness and major contributor to NBA history. He has been absent -- truly out-out -- only twice before: In 1996-97, after a short-circuited stint (34-25) with the New York Knicks the season before, and again in 2005-06 between his Dallas Mavericks era and his second Golden State stint. Also in 1987-88, Nelson stepped back from coaching for a year, leaving Milwaukee to become a Warriors' vice president and general manager before returning to the bench.

Otherwise, Nelson has been around, involved, awfully entertaining and pretty darned accomplished. No one has participated in more games as a player and coach, regular season and playoffs combined, than Nelson's 3,767. As a player, he was a valuable piece of five Boston Celtics championship squads, pre- and post-Bill Russell -- and no one in that 1962 draft besides John Havlicek (1,270) played in more regular-season games than Nelson.

As a coach, his teams won at least 50 games in 13 seasons and reached the playoffs 18 times. Nelson was named Coach of the Year in 1983, 1985 and 1992, with only Pat Riley winning as many. With Milwaukee from 1976 to 1987, his teams won seven straight division titles, ranked in the Top 5 in scoring three times and in the Top 5 in fewest points allowed six times. In Golden State and Dallas, he became known as an offense-oriented, defense-optional type.

Throughout, he was a tinkerer, holding up a funhouse mirror to NBA conventions, constantly asking "What if ...?" and quickly answering his own questions with "Why not?" That guy's gone now, squeezed into retirement with a year left on his Golden State contract by the changeover in that franchise's ownership.

So there will be no farewell tour in 2010-11: Nelson, born in Muskegon, Mich., and raised in America's bread basket, is off to his adopted home of Hawaii now. He is kicking back, walking his pooches on the beach with wife Joy, smelling the ocean breeze, living a healthier or at least less-hectic life while letting 30 other guys land in Denver at 2 a.m., with another 40 minutes on the bus to the hotel as they decide whether to listen to the GM's voicemail.

Gone are all the permutations of Nellie, either invented or refined by him on the fly: small ball, stall ball, point forwards, crazy "iso" plays, hack-a-Shaq. He got so good at working without a legitimate NBA center that even when he had some (Bob Lanier, Jack Sikma, Patrick Ewing), he didn't always utilitize them well. The head games, the turmoil, the money squabbles, the pity parties, the idiosyncrasies, the flameouts, the shaky draft history and the run-ins with the likes of Herb Kohl, Chris Webber, Mark Cuban and a cast of dozens? Aloha to them as well.

Gone, too, are the fish ties. The adhesive tape "X" on the outside of his black athletic shoes, a defiant response to the league's long-ago ban on coaches' sporting logos. The seven-day, 200-mile tractor ride across Wisconsin that raised $250,000 for financially strapped farmers in the state. The constant sweep of one hand to brush back hair falling over his forehead. The sideline eruptions, gyrations and bluster (most of them with a wink or a smirk) that made those hand sweeps necessary.

With no Nellie around this October, I sought comments from a handful of his disciples, his pals, his protégés, his players and his rivals. Here are some of them:

George Karl, Nuggets coach

"Don Nelson was very important to my career. My second year of coaching Cleveland [1985-86], I was fired in March or April and he brought me in to Milwaukee. I was an advance scout for him when they went to the Eastern Conference finals. ... For about five years, there were three [great East] teams -- they'd beat Philly one year and lose to Boston, the next year they'd beat Boston and lose to Philly.

"He's a great innovator of the game. He'll go down as the first guy to really play 'small,' to really understand and play the 3-point line with more efficiency than most. And what I always admired about him was, he changed. He was a defensive coach in Milwaukee. As he got older, he became an offensive coach. He adjusted to the personnel that he had. And I thought he was always coach-friendly, which I had a lot of respect for. He helped young coaches. He had an open door to those guys."

Don Nelson helped the Boston Celtics win five championships.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

[On Nelson's lack of a championship as coach:] "I just saw one of the greatest managers in baseball retire. I'm sure he's going to be remembered for, what, 14 consecutive division championships but only [one] World Series win. I still cringe from when Marv Levy was in Buffalo in the 90s and went to four Super Bowls, and [after] the last one against Dallas, for two weeks he was crucified as a 'stupid coach.' It just doesn't compute. It seems like our American sociological system likes to build people up and it likes to tear 'em down. Delivering excellence at any level should be admired and respected. In any situation."

Mark Cuban, Mavericks owner

"Put aside the basketball -- there's the Nellie entertainment factor. All the quotes, and what he's got to say about his own guys, let alone the other teams. Talking about Pismo Beach and nuns and all the stuff, all his famous lines. There's definitely going to be a lot missed.

"One of the things I always liked about Nellie is, he plays to the strengths of the team. Now, some of the things I don't like about Nellie is, rather than trying to improve its weaknesses, he just keeps [going to those strengths]. He'll be the first to tell you, when he had Sidney Moncrief and some of those guys [in Milwaukee], that was one of their strengths and he played to them. Then when he had guys who could run, shoot and score, he played to those strengths.

"We had some ups and downs. He kind of lost the passion with the Mavs, and obviously that's not going to make me happy. But I have no problems with Nellie anymore. He's welcome to come visit, hang out, watch our games, do whatever. I'm one of many [to butt heads with Nelson]. I'd heard all kinds of stories -- everybody was happy to share the issues they had with Nellie. He did it his way. That's a unique quality that I think served him well and served the NBA well.

"The 'he didn't win the title' thing isn't how fans think. It's how media thinks. I think fans' memories are a lot more general when they remember players and coaches. [Journeyman big man] DJ Mbenga's got two rings -- that's not how he's going to be remembered, right? Nellie, I think, will be remembered -- he's still alive -- as a unique personality. He was somebody who, really, was very open-minded. A lot of fun. Never boring. Was the least-gambling gambler I ever met and never hesitated to place a bet, and never placed a bet unless he knew he was going to win."

Donnie Nelson, Mavs GM -- and Nelson's son

"All I can tell you is he's happy. He's in Maui, drinking Mai Tais and watching sunsets and whales. Life's good.

Nelson was was admired around the league for his unique 'Run TMC' offense with Golden State.
Jon SooHoo/NBAE via Getty Images

"Look, it was an incredible run that he had. To get the record last year was kind of the cherry on top. He's had a full, great career. I don't know how much [he'll miss this]. That's a question he's got to answer. I know he's enjoying his time with Joy and playing plenty of golf and One-Eyed Molly with Willie Nelson and the boys out there.

"It's really a personal thing how people will remember his career. Some people will remember him as a Celtics forward. Some people will remember the Mavericks coach and GM. For others, it's Golden State. It really depends on what part of the country you come from. If you go to China, he's kind of remembered as one of the original guys who went over there. It depends on what your orientation is."

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs forward

"I have no idea [if he's gone for good]. He's just unpredictable. With his lineups, with his game plans. He's liable to pull out anything. I thought he was done after Dallas, after he got a little sick of stuff. Next you know, he said, 'I'm coming back.' With Nellie, I learned that quick in my first year -- he's liable to do anything.

"In my second game ever in the NBA -- obviously I wasn't a defensive presence -- he wanted me out there in the game but he didn't have anybody for me to guard. So he let me guard [5-foot-3] Muggsy Bogues for a couple possessions. He said, 'Just stand there in the paint and wave at him. He doesn't want to shoot.'

"I owe him a lot. If I come to a different system, I don't have that freedom to just roam and shoot and develop into the player that I am right now. Probably they'd make me a back-to-the-basket player, weightlifting and all that stuff. Nellie just gave me the freedom from Day 1: 'Whenever you get on the court, you shoot from wherever you are.' He gave me a lot of confidence. For me, it was just the perfect situation. We weren't a playoff team the first two years, so there wasn't a lot of pressure going. So I could develop. Yeah, Nellie's the man. I can't describe it any other way."

Kevin McHale, Hall of Famer

"When I first got in the league in the fall of 1980, he was coaching in Milwaukee, and those teams were murder to play. He inverted his offense -- long before anybody had heard about it, he was plyaing Marques Johnson kind of as a point forward. He'd put Sidney Moncrief down in the low post. He had the Big Dobber, Bob Lanier, in there. He had a lot of good players and he really coached his tail off. Playing against his team was so different, and then all of a sudden Nellie got into small ball and everything changed. But back then, in the early 80s, I thought his teams were one of the toughest outs in the playoffs mostly because he had good talent, but he really coached them up and he knew how to go after mismatches.

Don Nelson
As coach of the Bucks in the 1980s, Don Nelson never shied away from the unconventional.
Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

"I go back with Nellie a long time, and he'll be missed. He got into small ball -- I remember when he came out and said, 'I want everybody to be 6-7. I'm just going to run up and down.' Every once in a while, he'd catch a spark, like when they beat Dallas with that [Golden State] small ball team in the playoffs. Maybe because I'm close to 7 foot, but I like big, strong, knock-them-in-the-mouth types myself. That's just me. But I'll really miss Nellie.

"We were out there in Milwaukee and it was Robert [Parish] and Larry [Bird] and I across the front line. And the biggest guy he started that night was 6-5. He said, 'None of our big guys can guard you, so I'm just going to go small.' And every time there'd be a ball by the sideline or a side out of bounds and I'd be by Nellie, I'd say, 'Nellie, do you really think this is going to work?' We just pounded it inside. By halftime, Nellie came out and said, 'Yeah, that didn't work out too well. I'm going to go with my big guys this half.'

But it was the funniest thing -- I looked out there and everybody was, like, Danny Ainge's size. And Nellie was over there laughing, running up and down. It was actually just crazy. It was like playing volleyball -- we'd just throw it up on the board and go get it. We might miss five times on one possession but get five offensive rebounds and finally score."

Steve Kerr, NBA player, GM and broadcaster

"He looked at the game differently. He made it very exciting. I loved watching and playing against his teams. Now, you never felt threatened defensively. You always felt like you could get any shot you wanted. But you also knew they were going to get any shot they wanted.

"It was a fun style, but when you remember him and write the legacy, you also have to note that style never made it to The Finals. He had a lot of success with Milwaukee as Kevin mentioned, he had some success with Dallas, he had that great playoff series with Golden State. But for the most part, I think it's been proven ... [when] you get into the playoffs and those shots don't fall, if you don't have that size and rebounding and defense, it's tough. As entertaining as it was, it never proved to be championship winning basketball."

Reggie Miller, former Pacers guard

"I'll tell you what, he had some unbelievable talent and players that would go to war with him. I was fortunate to be with him when he coached me in the 1994 World Championships with Team USA, and I believe in one of those games, I may have started at power forward, if you can believe that.

"His early stint at Golden State with the original 'Run-TMC,' when you had Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin. That was really the start of it all. As Steve mentioned, you could get any shot that you wanted. But to try to guard Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin, who you felt was in constant motion, they were almost unguardable. So I agree, a void definitely has been left."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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