Former Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson was profiled recently by Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard and the 73-year-old was his usual blunt self.
Nelson lives in Maui now, a year or so removed from his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he remains an interesting character.
He is the all-time wins leader among NBA coaches with 1,335 in 31 years, three more than fellow Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, and is one of just eight coaches in NBA history with more than 1,000 wins. So he knows of which he speaks.
But his teams were just 75-91 in the playoffs and he never coached in an NBA Finals, despite two 60-win campaigns (one in Milwaukee in 1980-81 and one in Dallas in 2002-03) and 13 50-win campaigns.
He coached the Bucks from 1976-87,was with the Warriors the first time from 1988-95, had a partial season cameo with the Knicks in 1995-96, coached the Mavericks from 1997-2005 and returned to the Bay Area for one last go-around with Golden State from 2006-10, abruptly retiring—he claims he was fired—in September 2010.
Nellie took the job in Milwaukee games into the 1976-77 season, just months after retiring with his fifth NBA title as a player with the Boston Celtics.
Yes, he’s one of those coaches, much like Wilkens and Jerry Sloan, guys who were pretty darn good players but coached for so damn long that most people forget that.
Nelson was a third-team All-America at Iowa in 1961-62 and was taken by the Chicago Zepyhrs in the third round of the 1962 draft. Who are the Chicago Zepyhrs? Complicated question; they were first the Chicago Packers, then became the Zephyrs, Baltimore Bullets, Capital Bullets and Washington Bullets. We know the franchise today as the Washington Wizards.
He was a Laker for a couple of years and then signed with Boston in 1965. He wound up playing 11 seasons in Beantown and his No. 19 is one of the 6 bazillion or so retired numbers in the rafters at TD Garden. He was never a star, but he scored 11.4 points a game and led the NBA in field-goal percentage in 1974-75.
It would be great if Nelson had been nicer in his assessment of Ellis, who he coached for four seasons, and Lee, who he had for a maybe a week or so in training camp before he retired/quit/was fired/showed up at the facility and his key no longer worked.
But that’s not the way Nellie rolls. It was never the way Don Nelson operated. It was why he clashed with Chris Webber to the point that the Warriors had to trade Webber to the Bullets after his rookie season. It was why he was an unmitigated disaster in New York.
And it’s also why, along with some extraordinarily bad timing, he was never able to coach on the NBA’s biggest stage. Teams adapt in the postseason; it’s what they do. Nellie was never very good at adaptation. There was the way his teams did things and that was that. It’s what led to the 2007 upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks, when the NBA fan at large was first introduced to the phenomenon known as “Roaracle Arena.”
But it’s also what led to his Bucks never being able to get past the Celtics or 76ers in the 1980s or why his Mavericks could never get over the hump against the Lakers or Spurs in the early 21st century.
But he was all original, there was never any doubt about that. His interview zingers with SI prove that point yet again.