Grampa Celtic Talks Nellie
NEW ORLEANS - He stood on the stage with his fellow rookie Hall of Famers for a good half-hour, and the grin never once left his face. Don Nelson truly was a legitimate candidate to be acclaimed as The Happiest Man In The World
This should have been a no-brainer. He has won more games than any coach in NBA history. As a player he was an integral member of five Celtics championship teams. He played and coached in a staggering 3,451 games, beginning as a rookie with the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962 and ending with a second stint as coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2009-10. He may have been the ultimate NBA Guy
"I am the luckiest man in the world," he says of his Basketball Hall of Fame election. "I've been involved in the game of basketball for over 60 years and I've never had a bad day. I've lost games, but still I've never had a bad day. I'm one of those guys who's been able to do what he loves for his entire life, and to get in the Hall of Fame is the cherry atop the ice cream."
Nellie is the proud member of a 12-member Class of 2012, one that is the product of Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo's drive to open up the Hall by forming subcommittees, if you will, to evaluate specific segments of the basketball community and select an annual representative by what we shall call "direct appointment," rather than being elected by a vote of the 24-person Honors Committee
The five direct appointees are Russian coach Lydija Alexeeva, African-American pioneer Don Barksdale, ABA rep Mel Daniels, Veterans Committee rep Chet Walker, and Contributor Phil Knight (yup, the Nike guy)
Elected along with Nellie by the standard Honors Committee were Reggie Miller, Jamaal Wilkes, Ralph Sampson (a three-time national Player of the Year), referee Hank Nichols, two-time Olympic gold medalist Katrina McClain, and the All-American Red Heads, the female version of the Harlem Globetrotters and the first women's professional basketball team.
Biggest omissions from the list of nominees: Rick Pitino, Dick Motta, and Maurice Cheeks
The Don Nelson NBA saga began as a rookie with the Zephyrs (forerunners of today's Washington Wizards), but life began anew in 1965, when he was picked up on waivers by the Celtics after being let go by the Lakers
"I was scared to death when I joined the Celtics," he recalls. "They were on the road at the time, and it wasn't like today where there might be an assistant coach to stay there and work with you until they got home. I was totally on my own for three or four days, and I didn't have anywhere to play. I had to go to a park to find a game."
It was the beginning of an 11-year relationship that included those five titles, the retirement of his No. 19 and an amazing feat in 1974-75, when he led the league in field goal percentage at age 34/35 by shooting .539 from the floor, approximately 80 percent of his field goals being 15-foot jumpers.
Upon retirement in 1976, his first quest, believe it or not, was to referee, and he actually worked summer league games before Milwaukee honcho Wayne Embry, an old Celtics teammate, called him to become an assistant coach to Larry Costello. Eighteen games into the 1976-77 season, Costello was fired and a totally overwhelmed Nellie was asked to step in
"I had never coached a day in my life," he says. "I was totally unprepared. He had to ask me three times to do it, and finally he said, 'Well, there's a game tomorrow night, and somebody has to coach the team.' "
He knew only Celtics plays, so that's what he put in. "I also tried to play Celtics' defense," he says with a laugh. "Without Bill Russell."
By that time Nellie had been around the league 14 years and he obviously had a good feel for the game. "But it took me a while to figure out what you were supposed to do at the end of the game," he says
When the first crisis came, Nellie had an inspiration. Down 1 late at home, he huddled the team, and the dialogue went something like this
"Who makes the most money here?"
"What did you say?"
"Which one of you guys makes the most money?"
Brian Winters piped up. "I guess it's me."
"Then you're taking the last shot."
Nellie picks up the story. "I ran a 'rub' play and Winters missed the shot. But it was a good shot."
From that beginning dose of OJT, Don Nelson brushed up his coaching technique well enough to set a record with 1,335 wins, while winning 50 games 11 times and 60 twice
His decade in Milwaukee made him one of the most beloved citizens of the state and brought him a relationship with Bucks owner Jim Fitzgerald that put him on the road to permanent financial security. Nellie cites Red Auerbach and Fitzgerald as the two most important figures in his career
But Fitzgerald sold the team to Herb Kohl, and Nellie moved out West to the Warriors, where he earned a reputation as either an innovator or nutty hoop professor, depending on your point of view. He won 50 games twice by running and gunning with an undersized team led by the "Run-DMC" trio of Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Mitch Richmond, spicing up the action by turning 7-foot-7-inch shot-blocker supreme Manute Bol into a 3-point shooter
"Anything I did was out of necessity," Nelson says. "I always felt what I did best was build up a bad team. I was just trying to win games with whatever I had to work with."
His next big run was in Dallas, where he won 53, 57, 60 and 52 in a four-year stretch, building the team around a 7-foot German sensation by the name of Dirk Nowitzki
But one thing eluded Nellie as a coach - a championship
The truth is, Nellie never even made it to the Finals, something he was afraid would keep him out of the Hall. But the voters simply had to ask themselves a simple question: did he ever have a team that, based on talent, should have gotten that far? The clear answer, most people have decided, is "No."
The hardest period was in Milwaukee, when he had to bang heads with the Celtics and 76ers
"We did beat each one of them once," he points out, "but then we lost to the other. We were good, but we were never good enough to beat both of them the same year."
The toughest one to take, he says, was a 1987 Game 7 loss in Boston. "Hardest loss I ever had," he claims. "I cried like a baby after that one."
He saw the door to the Hall open a bit when Jerry Sloan was elected. Sloan never won a title, either
"That's when I felt I might have a chance," Nelson says
Nellie gave all he had to the NBA for almost 50 years, and now he has received an appropriate thank you. It's going to take a heap of bad news to wipe that grin off his face
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