Perhaps the final basketball-related stop on Don Nelson’s 50-year journey comes Friday in Springfield, where the former Celtic — and the NBA’s all-time winningest coach —
Nelson, 72, spent 30-plus seasons as an NBA coach, winning three Coach of the Year awards and leading 18 of his teams to the postseason. It’s an accomplished career, one littered with fast breaks, thrilling moments, and franchise reclamations.
And Nelson, a man known for his nonchalant style, casual on-court attire, and free-wheeling offense, is humbled by the honor.
He helped resurrect the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, and Dallas Mavericks into winners, coaching in the golden ’80s, high-flying ’90s, and hip-hop 2000s.
His brand of basketball remained relevant late into the last decade, his high-scoring philosophies translating well with current players who frown at defense. Perhaps his offensive success was his biggest drawback, because many of his teams — especially during his two stints in Golden State — were known for their defensive negligence.
While Phil Jackson, K.C. Jones, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, and Rudy Tomjanovich were winning multiple titles over the past 30 years, Nelson — though always entertaining — never took a team to the NBA Finals.
Instead of focusing on what wasn’t, Nelson chooses to emphasize the good fortune that brought him in 1965 to Boston, where he was part of five championship teams through his retirement in 1976.
“My whole life has just been a lucky blessing,” he said. “The Boston Celtics was an example. I was waived by the Lakers. Not having a job and they call me up and give me a tryout and I’m there for 11 years and five championships. That’s the way my whole life has been.”
Those close to Nelson thought he would enter corporate America after his retirement as a player, but he got a call from Bucks general manager Wayne Embry and agreed to joined Larry Costello’s coaching staff for the following season.
Eighteen games into the 1976-77 campaign, Costello, who had led the Bucks to their lone NBA title with Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson, abruptly resigned. The 36-year-old Nelson was handed the responsibility of reviving a sagging franchise. And with his roster options limited, Nelson decided to speed up the pace with smaller, quicker players.
“I like going to bad franchises and making good ones out of them,” he said. “I like building things, and that was the attraction, and when you are going to a bad team, they don’t have very many good big players.
“So out of necessity I try to be creative and try to give my team a chance to win games. We were playing guys who were bigger and better, so I tried to even the playing field by playing up-tempo, putting those teams at a disadvantage. I won a lot of games doing that.”
The Bucks basically scrapped their roster and gave Nelson young players such as Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner, Alex English, Brian Winters, Ernie Grunfeld, and Marques Johnson, who had played for legendary high school coach Willie West at Crenshaw High and John Wooden at UCLA.
“Without overstating it, it’s probably the greatest thing that ever happened to me as a professional, to be able to hook up with him coming right out of college,” Johnson said.
“He used to take the approach with me, with us, that even though we may have been terrific college players, in terms of the NBA game, we were empty vessels and he had to fill us up with the knowledge he had gained.
“It was a cooperative kind of dynamic where during the course of the game he would ask me what play I would want to run. It was more of a partnership than normal coaching type of dictatorship. With Coach Wooden, it was ‘my way or the highway,’ but [Nelson] wasn’t over-controlling like a lot of coaches tend to be.”
Nelson’s relationship with Chris Webber in Golden State a decade and half later quickly decayed, leading to the budding superstar’s trade to the Bullets when management decided the duo couldn’t coexist. That is perhaps Nelson’s biggest personal regret, and it may have given him an unwarranted reputation as a coach who couldn’t blend with younger players.
“Relating to players has never really been difficult for me,” he said. “There’s only a couple of players who haven’t enjoyed playing for me.”
Johnson has a different perspective than Webber. During the early 1980s, when the league was plagued by drug use, Nelson approached Johnson about it. Johnson’s scoring averaged had decreased by 5.2 points over the previous two years, prompting an intervention by Nelson.
“It was something I didn’t appreciate at the time,” Johnson said. “But looking back, having been sober for a number of years, once he sent the invitation for me to appear at the Hall of Fame induction, it was just no hesitation, hands down.
“The man may have not saved my life, but he got me back on the way to healthy living. From that standpoint, I’ll always love him and appreciate him more than just basketball-wise.
“He took a sincere interest in me as a person. As a young player, I wanted him to leave me alone and let me do what I was doing. He confronted me about some issues that I had that some coaches would slide under the rug.”
Eight years later, he was invited to Warriors training camp during the “Run TMC” era, playing 10 games to finish his NBA career.
Nelson would take those Golden State teams to three playoff appearances before having four more with the Mavericks in the 2000s, including a trip to the Western Conference finals in 2003. He had perhaps his greatest coaching moment when the eighth-seeded Warriors defeated the No. 1 Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs.
“What I am most proud of is that I went to those teams when they were down, and when I left them, they were all better,” he said. “They had a chance when I left. If you were evaluating my career, you would say that’s what I did, what I enjoyed.
“I thought I was always appreciated as being a good coach but I never thought I’d be in the Hall of Fame. The few years I didn’t make it, I just assumed it wasn’t in my future. But that happened now, too. So I got the cake, I got the frosting, and I will be able to eat it, too.”