Donn Nelson on Sir Charles
On Saturday, March 20, Charles Barkley will become the 10th member of the Suns' Ring of Honor when his No. 34 is retired during halftime of the Suns-Bucks game. In honor of the big event, Suns.com is turning the tables on the always-opinionated personality, and asking some of his former teammates, coaches and opponents for their opinions and stories of Sir Charles.
Donn Nelson's first year as a Suns' assistant coach was Barkley's last in a Suns uniform. Currently an assistant under his father, Don Nelson, with the Dallas Mavericks, the junior Nelson took time to speak with Suns.com about that 1995-95 season and his thoughts on Barkley's impact in Phoenix and the NBA.
Suns.com: What do you recall about working with Barkley as an assistant coach?
Donn Nelson: It was fabulous. It was just a sheer pleasure working with Charles and being around him. You knew that you were around a Hall of Fame type player. He was a guy that just loved life. Every day was interesting and fun, sometimes challenging, as with all great players. I’ve got nothing but the fondest memories.
Suns.com: How difficult was it during Barkley’s last season?
Nelson: There was a lot of change. We didn’t achieve as much as we wanted internally. It was a real competitive Western Conference. We were dealing with some internal change, we had some young players and even some mid-season change, and we had quite a bit of injuries, as well. That all is part of the challenge in the NBA. We started out with change in training camp and then (John) "Hot Rod" (Williams) came in and gave us a defensive dimension and then he had his injury problems. That was Michael’s (Finley) rookie year and we ended up thrusting Mike into the starting lineup and he responded terrifically, but anytime you start a rookie it’s going to cost you games. It was a strange year, but for me it was storybook-like because of the personalities involved and the chance to be around great people like Charles and Paul (Westphal) and Cotton (Fitzsimmons) and the Colangelos.
Suns.com: What was it like being around Barkley during that season?
Nelson: I hung out with him on a few occasions and he was Elvis while he was here. You walk in to grab some dinner or a drink and there was a line waiting to get an autograph or photo. I think that’s fun in an early part of an All-Star’s career, but as you get towards the twilight, it really becomes more of a hassle than anything else. Charles has always been a fan favorite and it’s no different now, even as a broadcaster. It’s just part of his persona. His candor, his color that he communicates with, it just attracts people, as it should. He’s a very rare, unique and love individual.
There was many a game when he just put the team on his back and willed us to victory. We were going through a real tough time with Westy. We were struggling and Charles’ support of Paul when he was in a real tough time spoke to what king of person he was. Then Cotton came on and Cotton was fabulous. He really understood what buttons to push with Charles. They were friends off the court, but for the good of the franchise Charles put his best foot forward. The internal stuff, the little things, were much blown out of proportion. More than anything, it was just real fond memories of the kind of person he was and still is. I think the thing you have to understand about Charles is when he steps on the stage, whether it be on the court or in the broadcast booth, he is truly an entertainer in the best sense of the word. When it’s you and him, you see the personality from Leeds (Alabama), where he grew up. He’s really just a hometown, big hearted, fun loving guy that’s made the most of what the good Lord has given him.
Suns.com: Do you have any specific recollections of Barkley that season that stand out above the rest?
Nelson: There was one interesting time we were practicing down stairs. We were practicing on the court and Charles was out there doing our regular thing. Towards the middle to late part of the practice, there was a group of grade school kids that were shuffled in. We saw the transformation before our eyes. During the practice he was sort of doing his regular thing. As the small seating section got filled up with young kids, we saw the entertainer emerge and come out. He started playing to the crowd, all to the delight of the kids. It showed that he was one of the best athletes to eve pick up that little round ball, a heart as big as all outdoors and a mouth to match. Just a guy that understood what the fans wanted, not just in the excellence on the court, but with the personality, the candor and no-holds-barred comments about his own performance, whether it be bad or good, challenge his teammates at the right time. It was just really a pleasure to share locker room space with that guy for a year.
Suns.com: What do you think it means to the organization to put Barkley in the Ring of Honor?
Nelson: Just the fact that Jerry (Colangelo) understood the impact that Charles would make to the franchise and he traded for him, shows you the commitment that Jerry had and still has to winning. He understood how to use Charles and put him in a position to be successful. Any time that you trade that caliber of a player in his twilight, there’s always some pain involved. I think now the healing process is complete. Charles belongs there. Jerry put him up there. I think that pretty much says it all.