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.
“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.
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.
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. 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 Nellie was asked to step in.
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.’’
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.
After Jim Fitzgerald sold the Bucks to Herb Kohl, 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-TMC’’ 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.
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 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.’’
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.