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A career of shaking things up earns Nelson a place in the Hall

POSTED: Sep 10, 2012 7:47 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Don Nelson broke the record for most wins by a coach with this one, his 1,333th, in 2010.

How about the time he put 6-foot-7 Chris Mullin on 7-foot-1 David Robinson in a playoff series? That was quirky. Just like Mullin on 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton, also in the postseason. And Patrick Ewing as a point-center.

Innovative. That was the tag Don Nelson got for decades of trying to lure opponents into mismatch hell as coach of the Bucks, Warriors (twice), Knicks and Mavericks. It was the quirky way he'd encourage Manute Bol to rain threes to force the defense to come out (in the days before zones, thereby opening the interior to give small-ball Golden State a chance to get to the rim) or maybe just to force a good laugh on people. Nelson's fish ties in Milwaukee, Bol launching from distance -- same difference.

Nellie thought differently and acted differently than most coaches, and it became both the best and worst about him. He won more games than any coach in NBA history, steered underdog teams to surprising series wins in the playoffs, was at the forefront of teams that reached rare heights of popularity in a San Francisco Bay Area with a rich sports history. He was named Coach of the Year three times and, in 1996, one of the top 10 coaches in league history by a panel that included former players, executives and many who worked the other sideline.

But that whole point-center thing prompted Ewing to recoil so much that it contributed to Nelson lasting just 59 games in New York. He had other ugly breakups -- Golden State, before, and Dallas, after -- squeezed the unwilling Warriors into a three-year contract one season, and suddenly unconventional wasn't so loveable.

The contradiction became part of his legacy all the way to the Hall of Fame, an overdue honor that finally becomes official Friday night in Springfield, Mass. That Nelson is not being inducted until 2012 -- 16 years after the panel named him one of the all-time greats of the profession, two years after he moved past Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens for No. 1 on the career win list -- is a statement of his damaged popularity within the game, not to mention the political induction process.

His unconventional nature, in play and personality, boosted Nelson, then injured him. In the end, as enshrinement approached, he conceded how much the honor means, after years of downplaying the disappointing results of the secret elections when he sometimes didn't even make it to the finalist stage. This is a level of acceptance that had not come before.

"I thought it was a positive response to my career," he said of the innovator label. "When you're not blessed to coach the best team for all of my career, really, you had to be innovative. The worse your teams, the more innovative you had to be as a coach to stay competitive and win as many games as you possibly can. That's just part of what I was forced into. If I would have been coaching the championship caliber teams, you'd basically just make sure you're solid at both ends of the court. You don't have to be innovative. And I was less-innovative with the good teams that I coached than the bad ones, for sure."

Nelson unknowingly learned the mismatch routine from Red Auerbach as part of 11 seasons and five championships with the Celtics, a playing career that was not supposed to be considered in the coaching candidacy for the Hall. Around midseason, as the schedule began to drag, Auerbach would go bigs against smalls to keep practices fresh. John Havlicek, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Nelson, some others, against Bill Russell and the world.

The image of speed and quickness equalizing -- and often surpassing -- size and strength remained with Nelson. When he spent 11 years as coach of the Bucks, he had 4 ½ seasons with Bob Lanier at the end of Lanier's career, but a lot of Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Brian Winters and Junior Bridgeman. The first Warriors ride was built on Run TMC, small forward Mullin and guards Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond. The Knicks era, in 1995-96, was over before it started. The Mavericks under Nelson were a power forward, Dirk Nowitzki, but not a prototype physical power forward, and point guard Steve Nash. The return to Golden State was another futile and endless search for a center, but they still fired past Dallas in 2007 in the greatest of his playoff upsets. Nellie's new team, just 42-40, played better and with more confidence than Nellie's heavily favored old team and forced the Mavs to play Warriors ball.

"My only regret was when I was starting to get too hard on my players about the [first] time I was in Golden State," Nelson said. "I started yelling too much and carrying on on the sidelines. I thought that when I changed that, it was a positive. I thought I was a better coach not yelling as much and dealing with players a different way than just making demands and using psychology. Those kind of gifts that coaches have to have, as opposed to just demanding and being hard on players.

"I remember Sarunas Marciulionis, he made so many errors coming from the Soviet Union and he had a hard time correcting the errors. You make the same mistake over and over and over -- how frustrated I got as a coach. I found myself yelling at him too much. One game, he just broke out in tears. I was on him so much because he made the same mistake over and over. I got to really thinking about that. Me coaching Sarunas taught me that lesson to do it a different way and stop making so many demands. Players are human and they're going to make errors. Some will correct themselves easier than others, but use a gentle approach. I thought that really helped my coaching as the years went by."

The relationship with Chris Webber that led to the downfall of the Run TMC Warriors? Not a regret.

"Chris was different. There were a lot of coaches who failed with him before he finally got it. About the time he was 30, he kinda figured out maybe it was him, not the coaches. I can't equate Chris' behavior when he was a rookie. He was just kind of a spoiled rookie."

They made up enough for the Warriors to sign Webber for a final gasp of his career, another attempt by the team to find a big man. Mullin has come to terms with Nelson enough, after Mullin the general manager felt undercut by Nelson the coach during their pairing in Oakland, that Mullin has accepted the ceremonial role of presenting Nelson for induction. And Hall voters made their own dramatic change of direction, clearing a spot for the enshrinement after so many years of setback. Unconventional, indeed.

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

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