Meet the Men in Green - Don Nelson
By Bill Bonsiewicz
Born May 15, 1940, in Muskegon, Michigan, Don Nelson personifies the hard-working, blue-collar roots of the Midwest where he was raised. Whether he was playing on the hardwood or coaching from its sidelines, Nelson, or "Nellie" as he is often referred to, has carved himself a place in NBA history as one of league's toughest competitors.
Standing an imposing six-feet, six-inches, Nelson followed an All-State high school career in Illinois with a stellar four-year Big Ten stint at the University of Iowa, where he traded baskets with the likes of Ohio State's Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, who were playing for the Buckeyes.
Nelson was selected in the third round (19th overall) of the 1962 NBA Draft by the Chicago Zephyrs and began what proved to be an illustrious 14-year NBA playing career that included five championships. After the Zephyrs' franchise was moved from Chicago to Baltimore and renamed the Bullets prior to the 1963-64 season, the club sold Nelson's contract to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would spend two years before being released in 1965.
The Lakers loss proved to be the Celtics gain as Nellie posted his best NBA numbers (10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds) in his still-young NBA career as a member of the green and white in 1965-66. Boston was crowned the NBA Champions in Nelson's first season. Nelson would go on to win four more rings, culminating with his last in 1976, also his last year as an NBA player.
Nelson spent 11 seasons in Boston, preparing himself for a NBA coaching career by playing with and learning from the best. Battling on a front line with the likes of Bill Russell and former college nemesis Havlicek, Nelson was like a sponge - absorbing basketball know-how from Celtics patriarch, Red Auerbach.
"When I was playing," Nelson said, "I always came early an talked philosophies and game situations with Red. I don't even know if he was aware of what he was doing for me. But I probably picked up more things from him than anybody else during my 14 years in the league."
He was rewarded for those years of hard work when his number 19 was raised to the Boston Garden rafters in 1978, honoring his career as one of the game's greatest sixth men.
In 1976-77 season he continued to do what he did best, provide leadership off the bench, by assuming an Assistant Coach role with the Milwaukee Bucks.
His first head coaching position quickly followed just months into the season, as he replaced Larry Costello in November of 1976. A playoff appearance a year later launched Nelson's coaching career that would place him among one of the league's premier head coaches. He led the Bucks to the postseason in nine out of his 11 seasons at the controls.
Nelson headed West in 1988 where guided the Golden State Warriors for seven seasons (1988-95) before taking over the New York Knicks for a season in 1995-96. Throw-in NBA Coach of the Year honors three times (1983, 1985, 1992) and an 8-0 mark as Head Coach of Team USA's entry in the 1998 Basketball World Championships, and it is safe to say Nelson has continued to do what he has always done...work hard and win.
His golden mop of hair has gently faded to gray, but his passion and competitive fire burns brighter than ever. Nelson took over the Dallas Mavericks in 1997 and has revitalized the organization and city with a 2001 playoff appearance, the team's first since 1990.
Today Nelson stands as the pillar of the Mavericks organization with the foundation of a 979-781 (.556) head coaching record. Only Lenny Wilkins of the Toronto Raptors has more combined games as a player or a coach. Nellie also has 22 years of service as a NBA general manager.
A solid career posted by a rugged Midwest man.