Don Nelson: Respect, 1991

[On January 21, 1990, Don Nelson notched his 600th career win as an NBA head coach. Nelson, the former Celtic great then coaching the Golden State Warriors, reached this milestone, where else, but in Boston Garden. The Boston Globe’s Michael Madden nicely captured this moment for posterity:

“The long banner, the garland, had been made from computer paper. “My sister made it,” Joy Wolfgram said. “We had it in Milwaukee [a few night earlier], but I’m glad we were able to unfurl it here in Boston . . . this is as good as it can get. Here.”

“Congratulations Nellie on Your 600th Win,” the banner read. Joy Wolfgram, who lives with Don Nelson, had unfurled it with two friends, the three sitting in the first row opposite the Golden State basket, with 11 seconds left in the game. There is justice in this world, after all; Don Nelson won his 600th game where his No. 19 hangs from the rafters. 

“Nelson was moved deeply after the game, and the long garland somehow found its way into the Golden State locker room. Where it was rolled across the training table, where all the members of the Warriors took a magic marker and signed it. ‘To the Greatest—Winston Garland’ . . .  ‘Nellie, Congrats on your 600th win—hope you get to 1,000—Tim Hardaway.’

“It was a sight, for sure, Nelson was always one of the beloved Celtics and here he had come into the Garden with his little midget of a team and played a spread offense without a center     . . . and had the Celtics bamboozled . . . And Nelson, always a thinking-man’s player, had thought his way to another win. His Warriors repaid him by all giving him noogies to the head, playful noogies, noogies of respect.” 

This article offers another noogie of praise for the great Coach Nelson. It’s from the outstanding reporter Dwight Chapin, co-author of the classic The Wizard of Westwood about John Wooden. Chapin’s “Nellie” story appeared in the 1990-91 issue of Street & Smith’s Pro Basketball Yearbook.]

It’s the last week of the 1989-90 NBA season and the Golden State Warriors are going nowhere but home for a rest. After a long, gritty struggle, they’ve missed making the playoffs and, at a morning practice, you might think they’d just be playing out the string. But playing out the string is not coach Don Nelson’s style. 

While his stars—Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, rookie Tim Hardaway—work down at one end of the College of Alameda gymnasium, he’s up at the other end, basketball in hand, meticulously demonstrating pivot moves to a couple of big guys who probably won’t even be around when the next season begins. He isn’t sure of that, though. This is no time to leave anything to chance. One of these big men might suddenly blossom. So, Nelson keeps working, keeps teaching. 

Sitting off to one side, observing is Warrior vice president Al Attles. He’s been in this uncomfortable spot himself, watching teams in limbo in the final week of a season. But he’s also been on top. He coached Golden State to its only NBA championship, in 1975. He understands—and appreciates—what Don Nelson is doing and who Don Nelson is. 

“It would have been easy for him to have come in here today and just had a shoot-around,” Attles says, “but he’s still evaluating people, and they know it. You don’t see anyone fooling around, because he may be deciding on their jobs.”

But nobody seems about to come unglued because of Nelson’s scrutiny, either. “The players respect him,” Attles says, “but I think they also like him. More important, they trust him, because he’s very honest with them.” Honesty and innovation have long been Nelson hallmarks. 

“He’s not afraid to try things,” Attles says. “He throws out the so-called book. He’s always thinking about what he can do, rather than what he can’t do.”

Still, Nelson’s mind, always active, always involved, sometimes moves in surprising directions. He would like to coach the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, for instance. That’s unheard of for a pro coach, who is usually engulfed in play for pay, but Nelson’s desire to represent his country internationally is unabashed. 

“I’d love to do it,” he said, “and I’ve let people know I’m interested. I never dreamed I’d have an opportunity, because pros didn’t have a chance to participate until now.”

Several of his peers, like Denver Nuggets coach Doug Moe, have endorsed Nelson as Olympic coach. “I’d give it to him right now and get it over with,” Moe said. “Because it’s a headache. I’m sure there is a lot of pride in doing it, and it’s a great honor, but I wouldn’t want to do it. They should just give it to someone who wants it.”

Nelson has already checked his calendar to see if Olympic coaching would conflict with his Warriors’ job, and he said there wouldn’t be any problem. It would be just one more milestone in the life of a complete basketball junkie, a man who lives only eight minutes from work, so he can get there just about any time he wants, and in his spare time has been known to watch as many as six games a night off a TV satellite. 

“I’m absolutely in love with basketball,” he said. “I’ve been in pro basketball for 29 years, and I want to be in it for another 29.”

Nelson’s basketball roots go back to the Midwest to high school in Rock Island, Ill., and the University of Iowa. He came into the NBA as a third-round draft choice of the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962, played one undistinguished season with them and two more of the same with the Los Angeles Lakers. It looked as if his basketball career was over at that point. “I was down and out,” he said. 

The Nelson push shot

But Arnold “Red” Auerbach, in his final year as coach of the Boston Celtics, stepped in and saved Nelson, taking him off the waiver wire as a replacement for the retired Tom Heinsohn. “He became the classic Celtic,” said columnist Joe Fitzgerald of the Boston Globe. “He couldn’t run, he couldn’t jump, and he was totally devoid of pizazz—but, oh, how he could beat you with precision shooting and plain-old basketball smarts. 

“Since I never had speed, size (he was a relatively small forward at 6-foot-6) or jumping ability,” Nelson himself offered, “I looked for little ways to make up for that, and I found hundreds. It’s knowing when to get your shot off, how to keep your man off balance, how to do things for other people on the floor. It’s nothing special, just reducing the game to its simplest elements.”

Still, Nelson said he used to wonder why Auerbach chose him over someone with more obvious skills. “I’d like to think it was because he saw something—maybe the same thing he saw in Wayne Embry or a Bailey Howell or a Paul Silas. What did you see when you looked at them? You saw a winner. I’d like to think Red saw a winner in me.”

Nelson spent eleven seasons with the Celtics, playing on five championship teams before retiring after the 1975-76 season. “Leaving was kind of traumatic,” he said. “There hadn’t been a lot of money for a guy like me. What in the hell was I going to do?

“I wanted to stay in pro basketball, and I thought being a referee would be a good way to make a positive contribution. I thought I’d be good at it. I refereed in the Los Angeles summer league and just loved it. But (NBA official) Darrel Garretson said I should start down at a lower level.”

While he was contemplating that, old friend and teammate Embry, then Milwaukee Bucks’ general manager, called and asked if Nelson would like to be coach Larry Costello’s assistant. Nelson said yes, but he didn’t dream he’d be offered the head job when Costello quit just 17 games into the season. “I was sort of persuaded to take over,” Nelson said. “I had youth and enthusiasm and the concept of the Celtics going for me, but I certainly wasn’t ready to be an NBA head coach. I worked on two very simple priorities: teach good defense and run like hell on offense.”

Neither of those things has changed a whole lot since. The Warriors led the league in scoring last season, and Nelson continues to emphasize defense, with a scheme that is intricate and often brilliant. 

Nelson coached 11 years in Milwaukee, won 540 games against just 344 losses, and led the Bucks to seven straight division championships. His teams, which never had a Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were constant overachievers, much as Nelson himself had been as a player. 

And he became one of the most-respected coaches in the league—perhaps the most respected—as well as the best paid, at $500,000 a season. At the same time, he became a part of Milwaukee’s fabric—a plain-folks guy in a plain-folks town. Tough and direct, but down-to-earth. And his concerns extended beyond the basketball court. 

In 1986, after receiving a letter from a Wisconsin farmer who poignantly detailed his family’s efforts to save their land and dairy herd, Nelson started a one-man campaign he called, “Nellie’s Farm Fund,” which raised $400,000. Nelson, who’d grown up on an Illinois family farm that failed in the mid-‘50s, even drove a tractor around Wisconsin for nine days, towing a hay wagon carrying a huge plastic piggy bank he called “Barkley,” after Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley, to hold any contributions he received. 

But while he still had strong Midwest ties, and still loved Milwaukee when he left for the San Francisco Bay Area three years ago, Nelson didn’t like the situation he was in—stemming from squabbles with Bucks owner Herbert Kohl. These were difficult times. 

“Leaving Milwaukee was awful,” Nelson said. “The way it happened was the worst thing I’ve ever gone through. I had some bad publicity, something I can’t even recall having had anywhere in my career. One writer took the owner’s side and chastised me a lot. 

“But things happen for the best sometimes. I didn’t really think so at the time, but the move West was really positive. The Bay Area is a wonderful place. The weather is so good and the excitement of the sports fans is so much greater than I thought it would be here. It’s everything I had in Milwaukee and a much bigger market. As a businessman, I’ve gone from the have nots to the haves.”

Nelson spent a year in the Warriors’ front office, working for old friends Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane, before succeeding beleaguered George Karl as head coach. “Contrary to what some people thought,” Nelson said, “my year off from coaching was great. I didn’t miss coaching at all. It’s a very, very tough job. You sweat blood when things go poorly on the court.”

Nelson is anything but a sedate coach. He is on his feet a good deal more than he’s on the bench, bounding around, instructing, complaining to officials. He draws his share of technical fouls, and he’s never learned to live well with defeats. 

At one point in Milwaukee, he began to agonize so much over losses his friends feared coaching would put him in an early grave. “It went deeper than job burnout,” he said. “I was still a young coach and had a very, very aggressive assistant who wasn’t doing me any favors. I found out that rather than being my ally, he was trying to get my job. I’d been listening to him and getting more and more depressed, and I thought of quitting. Wayne Embry stepped in, encouraged me to stay and get rid of the assistant, which I did.”

Nelson is well aware of the toll coaching takes, however. “I’ve seen pictures of myself before and after a season,” he said, “and it almost doesn’t look like the same person.”

Nelson tried to help himself a little when he quit smoking in 1984, but he began eating away his worries. “I’m so big,” he said when his weight hit 272 pounds, “I’ll have to lose 20 pounds just to get down to obese.” He ended up losing 50, soliciting pledges for every pound he dropped while he was on his farm fund drive. In 1988, Nelson went to the Pritikin Clinic, dropped his weight to 230 and learned to eat “better and wiser.” He also started walking five miles a day, carrying weights, with long-time secretary Jean Schuler and his dog, Goldie, along as frequently exhausted companions. 

And when the Warriors made the playoffs in the 1988-89 season, mostly through an undersized lineup astutely directed by Nelson, he looked very trim. Last season, however, the Warriors’ lack of success was measured in a noticeable rise in Nelson’s weight. He is miserable when he loses. But he did his best to keep his composure, along with his perspective. 

“I love this team, I really do,” he said just before the end of the year. “It has worked to every bit of the potential it has. The problem is: it’s not very good.”

Boiling things way down, the Warriors’ continuing concern, after center Alton Lister was lost early to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury, was a still-notable lack of size and heft that could not be overcome even by superior coaching. Nelson didn’t stop coaching, though, and he clearly didn’t lose respect from his staff and his players. 

His staff treats him with an almost palpable reverence. For example, Sam Schuler, who took over as the team’s director of player personnel after the death of Jack McMahon, said, “I’ve done a lot of the scouting, but Nellie is The Man. He makes the ultimate decisions about who we draft.”

And, as general manager, executive vice president, and 10-percent owner of the Warriors, he make decisions about almost everything else, it seems. His players call Nelson “Big Whistle,” and when the Whistle blows, everybody stops to listen. He can be a very demanding coach, but the players know what a major difference he has made in a team that as recently as the 1987-88 season, under Karl, won just 20 games and fell into the NBA graveyard. 

Nelson and.a young Chris Mullin

“From Day One, he just took over,” said Mullin. “He changed our team, changed our game, and it paid off. The thing I like most about him is that I think we’re just going to keep getting better under him. He just has so much knowledge, so many things to pass on to us.” Including sensitivity and understanding. Nelson was a major force in helping to get Mullin through what could have been a killing bout with alcoholism and see him become an All-Star forward.

Nelson gave Mullin almost parental guidance and encouragement during his troubled times. At one point, Mullin wanted to leave the Warriors and return home to New York and play for the Knicks, but he wound up signing a nine-year deal with Golden State. “If you’re looking for a reason,” said Mullin’s agent, Bill Pollak, “you can really sum it up in two words: Don Nelson.”

Added Mullin, “He’s the best coach I’ve ever played for. The situation here is ideal for me. I enjoy being here and dealing with people like him every day.”

John Lucas, who was given another chance in Milwaukee by Nelson, despite continuing drug problems, said, “He’s the perfect coach. You know he cares about you by the way he deals with you. He doesn’t hide from anything. He talks to you about real life. He cares about you, and he makes you care about him. 

“I don’t think anyone can make everyone happy,” said Nelson, “but if you are honest and don’t jerk anyone’s chain, you’ll be OK. I consider what kind of person someone is as a skill, just like shooting and playing defense, and it has to be weighed. Talent is still the highest priority, but character is important, and the ones who don’t have it won’t stay around very long.”

Nelson doesn’t look much like the guru many think he is. He is 50, but he could pass for 40 because he’s still Scandinavian blond after all these years. But his personal image has improved markedly in the ‘80s. 

You’ll still find him in tennis shoes during games, but he’s no longer a sartorial mess. Gone are the famous fish ties he wore in Milwaukee, the mismatched colors, the ugly sports coats with elbow patches, the green blazer he’d don several nights in a row. Some might argue, but thanks to an advertising contract with a San Francisco clothier, Nelson thinks he’s now the best-dressed coach in the NBA—”from the ankles up.”

Nelson has a private side, a reserve he won’t let you touch, but he is keenly aware of the benefits of both team and self-promotion, and, in general, he is one of the most open and accessible people in big-time athletics. “It’s just the way I am,” he said. “I want to be as honest as I can because I’m not comfortable being any other way. But I’ve been burned because of it. My first two years in Milwaukee, I was labeled the best and most-open interview in town. Later, I wasn’t labeled as good.” 

Opinion is mixed on just how Nelson views himself. Some people in basketball have resented him over the years because they think he has too much ego. But Norm Sonju, the Dallas Mavericks general manager, says, “The reason Don Nelson is successful is that he has a total lack of ego. He couldn’t care less about superficial things.”

Nelson’s self-analysis: “I think we all have an ego. I want to be respected by my peers and my team and the fans and the writers. If that doesn’t happen, I’m going to be uneasy and hurt. But I know I’m a good coach. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else, but I know what I’m doing. I know how to relate to good and bad players. I picked that up from Red Auerbach, who always said you’ve got to get good people and good players who will play your way. I strongly believe that.”

There are quite a few observers who think Nelson is now the best coach in pro basketball. He got his 600th professional coaching victory last January, becoming only the 10th coach in NBA history to reach that number and, at 49, the second youngest. It came at Boston Garden, where one of the banners has Nelson’s retired uniform No. 19 on it, recognizing the contribution an ordinary player can make to extraordinary teams. He made a little speech that night, getting through some tears in a lack of breath. 

“All the years I played here in all the great championship teams I’ve been on,” he said, “it couldn’t be more apropos for me to come back here and get my 600th win. All that 600 really means is that I’ve had a great career.”

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