RealClearSports
Advertisement

Warriors Send Don Nelson Swimming

He was busy. "Probably swimming with the dolphins,'' was the message on Don Nelson's answering machine. He meant the real ones, off the coast of Maui.

As opposed to swimming with sharks, the figurative kind, who symbolically chewed him up.

The ones who chomped him out of pro basketball, this time apparently for good.

Six months ago, Nellie said he would be back for one more year as coach of the Golden State Warriors, back as the all-time record holder for victories in the NBA. Even his general manager, and his pal, Larry Riley insisted it would take "something that would be uncharacteristic or an oddity,'' for Nellie not to return.

He's not returning. Don Nelson, at 70 both a legend and a dinosaur, is going to resign, with special circumstances. It's a gentleman's agreement. He leaves but not without the $6 million for the last year of a contract he will not fulfill.

New owners, Joe Lacob and the movie guy Peter Guber, took over the Warriors in the summer. It was inevitable they would name a new coach, when they officially gained control under league rules, which won't happen for a month or two.

Nellie could have waited out the situation, but he showed a bit of class. After the Warriors certainly showed him a lot of cash.

Keith Smart, one of Nellie's assistants, the guy who hit the winning shot for Indiana in the NCAA final against Syracuse in 1987, if you're into history, is the new man. When Nellie was ill at times with pneumonia, Smart last season coached. It's his team now, fulltime.

An era ends. Nellie is the Joe Paterno of the NBA. Our world has changed. There won't be any 60- or 70- or 80-year-olds running franchises any longer. Won't be any Red Auerbachs or Vince Lombardis. The games grind one down.

If 50 is the new 40 in society, for coaches, 40 is the new 50. Too many demands, too many interviews, too many second guesses, too many chances for failures even if you're successful, which for his body of work, for his 34 years as a head coach, Don Nelson was.

Nellie was a winner as a player, with the Celtics, and as a coach. He was a country boy, from downstate Illinois, who knew how to charm and maneuver any city slicker he wanted. I saw him star for Iowa in a four-overtime game against Cal in December 1960 in something called the Los Angeles Basketball Classic. I saw him work magic against the Dallas Mavericks in April 2007 in the NBA playoffs.

Nelson was old-fashioned and opinionated and clever. He lived on coffee and mismatches. There was always a pot brewing at practice. There was always a plot brewing in games. He put 6-foot-5 Chris Mullin against 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton of Utah in one playoff.

His Iowa coach, Sharm Scheuerman said of Nellie, "Some players have the body but aren't mentally tough. Others are mentally tough but don't have the body. Don had both.''

He also had a Marine drill instructor's approach. If toughness was good enough for the man under whom he would play with Boston, Auerbach, it was going to be good enough for Nellie. He got on Chris Webber to the point where Webber wanted out. And got out.

Nellie could do some mystifying things, some irritating things, trading Mitch Richmond for Billy Owens, alienating the franchise, Patrick Ewing, when Nelson coached the Knicks. He also could do some brilliant things.

He had centers bringing down the ball, guards - Mullin, for example - in the pivot. He had three awards as NBA Coach of the Year. He made the Dallas Mavericks winners from 1997 through 2005; he also made Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who bought the team after Nelson arrived, just a little crazy.

After a contract dispute, with Nelson already owning property out there in the Pacific, Cuban said, "I'm not going to let Nellie sit in Hawaii and play golf and get a suntan if I can't get one.'' So Nelson took a hike.

That was late in the 2004-2005 season. Months later, Mullin and team owner Chris Cohan, the beleaguered one, disposed of Mike Montgomery and re-hired Nelson, who had left the Warriors in 1995. Stability? In the NBA? You kidding?

Nelson wasn't kidding. His first season back, 2006-07, they made the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons, as an eighth seed beat the No. 1 seed, those Mark Cuban Mavs. Oracle Arena was full of people attired in T-shirts with the words, "We Believe.''

What you have to believe now is a great career, 1,335 victories as a coach, five NBA championships as a player, has run its course. Nellie can sit back with one of his cigars and contemplate a half-century which from this point certainly never will be duplicated.

Or he can jump into the sea and swim with those dolphins, a very beguiling alternative.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

Author Archive