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Scott Howard-Cooper

Don Nelson is recognized in 2010 for setting the NBA record for most wins as a head coach.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite merits, Nelson continues to hit Hall roadblock

Posted Mar 23 2012 10:25AM

In 2012, he is a finalist again. That is not only the update. It is, strangely, progress.

The winningest coach in NBA history cannot get into the Hall of Fame. Plus, he does not always even make it this far in the popularity contest, like in 2011 when he was eliminated in the first secret vote, the vote before the other secret vote by different unnamed panelists with unannounced vote totals that decides the inductees. This time, he is at least back among the finalists.

Don Nelson has steadfastly insisted for years that he is not bothered by being told annually he is not well-liked by whomever makes the call. And maybe it's the truth. He has a great wife, kids and grandkids, a life in Maui, got $6 million to not coach the Warriors last season, and can talk NBA whenever he wants with friends still in the game. He was in the mix for the Timberwolves job last summer that went to Rick Adelman, and that's a statement too now that Nellie is 71 years old and still garners interest from teams.

But it must hurt on some level, because this is about his reputation. Nelson has said for years that it does not, and repeated it as recently as Monday night when he spent a few minutes on the air with Warriors TV broadcasters during the game and the topic came up as the announcement on the Class of 2012 nears. Same response as always: It would be a great honor to be inducted, a highlight to be placed among the greats, many of whom are former teammates from the Celtics dynasty days of Red Auerbach, but he does not worry about it.

This is about his reputation because it cannot be about accomplishment. No one in the history of the game has won more games on the sideline. He was voted Coach of the Year three times, which some people would downplay for coming in a media vote. He was named one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history in 1996, which cannot be downplayed since it came from a panel from within the league, almost entirely outside of the media. He coached Team USA to gold at the 1994 World Championships. (Officially, the vote is on the coaching resumé alone. But should the rest of his career have additional pull, Nelson won five rings playing in Boston and was underrated as a personnel boss.)

That Nelson never won an NBA title as a coach? Neither did Jerry Sloan -- 2009 inductee Jerry Sloan -- and Nellie's rosters didn't come close to the talent level of having arguably the greatest power forward and the greatest true point guard on the same team at the same time in their prime. Hubie Brown didn't win an NBA title but got in as a Contributor in 2005 on the strength of his broadcasting work combined with success on the sidelines, which includes the 1975 ABA championship.

"Nellie had his detractors," said one long-time NBA executive who never had a Hall of Fame vote with Nelson on the ballot. "He was not universally loved. There was always a certain controversy with Nellie. But the numbers don't lie."

The 1,335-win number most of all.

"He could be bristly and prickly and unconventional and radical," the executive said. "Nellie was a controversial character. With owners, he'd usually depart with harsh feelings. He would not win a lot of popularity contests. But he was an innovative coach, and the most remarkable thing was his longevity."

The Nelson debate says as much about the Hall as about the coach. Few candidacies say more, in fact, about the cliquish nature of the voting than the former Bucks, Warriors, Knicks and Mavericks coach passing Lenny Wilkens for No. 1 on the all-time win list in April 2010. In the very next election cycle, announced in February of 2011, he didn't so much as make the list of finalists.

"I can't speak for the people who voted," said Hall chairman Jerry Colangelo about the people who vote but can't speak either. "It's a matter of votes."

Bill Fitch, Dick Motta and Rick Pitino are also finalists as coaches from the North American Committee, the group that handles most candidates from the NBA. Maurice Cheeks, Bernard King, Reggie Miller, Ralph Sampson and Jamaal Wilkes are on the list as players, and NCAA veteran Hank Nichols as referee. At least 18 of a possible 24 votes are needed for election.

The Class of 2012 will be announced April 2 in New Orleans, a few hours before the NCAA championship game there. The enshrinement ceremony is Sept. 7 in Springfield, Mass.

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

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