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Renaissance Men

With nothing to lose and everything to prove, the Warriors' cast of castoffs had run the league's best team to the brink of elimination and revived hoops in the Bay Area

Posted: Tuesday May 1, 2007 12:49PM; Updated: Tuesday May 1, 2007 12:49PM
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Nelson has brought out the best in Davis (above), who went over smaller Mavs defenders and blew past bigger ones.
Nelson has brought out the best in Davis (above), who went over smaller Mavs defenders and blew past bigger ones.
John W. McDonough/SI
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Here he comes now, the Sultan of Small Ball, the Maven of the Mismatch, the Pioneer of the Point Forward, the hottest new old thing in coaching, a 66-year-old, white-haired man with a cup of coffee in one hand, a stubbed-out stogie in the other, a belly that spills over the lip of his khakis and only one nickname that will stick: Nellie. But what a nickname it is, one that can describe a style of play (Nellieball) or be inserted into a tired headline (whoa, nellie!) or, these days, be spit out like an epithet, at least around Dallas -- particularly, one imagines, in the lair of a certain hyperactive, media-savvy owner who just 25 months ago was paying Nelson to coach his team.

Nellie. It's a name that conjures images: of the consummate sixth man during his Boston Celtics days; of the aquatic-themed neckwear he wore as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks; of the many runnin', gunnin' teams he coached that ran out of gas in the playoffs. And while fish ties may not be back in vogue (though, really, were they ever?), Nellieball is. On Sunday his Golden State Warriors, for 13 years the hapless riders of the basketball apocalypse, stormed to a 3-1 lead over the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in a first-round series that has been alternately mystifying and -- for the long-suffering Bay Area fans now mainlining on Baron Davis half-court heaves and Andris Biedrins dunks -- electrifying.

As the Warriors won game after improbable game, members of the national media -- carrying hastily printed MapQuest directions, for many had not been to Oakland since, well, that Sprewell business a decade ago -- came to ask the same thing of Don Nelson: How the hell was he doing it? How had he taken a team that was so bad in February and made it so good in April? How was eighth-seeded Golden State, which slipped into the Western Conference playoffs on the final day of the regular season, dismantling the 67-win Mavs?

But first they have to wait, for the guru always starts his morning with a cigar and a Starbucks latte on the rooftop of the Warriors' practice facility alongside longtime assistant Larry Riley. Then Nelson shuffles into the gym, trailed by the league's smallest, hairiest entourage: Lucky, a Jack Russell mix, who's a constant, wagging presence in the gym. And only when Nelson has settled on a stool with Lucky at his feet is he ready to not answer the media's questions. For this is part of the Nellie mind-set: deny success and deflect credit. To him, his Warriors are "not very good" or simply "schmoes," a jump-shooting collection of hardwood Forrest Gumps lucking their way through a series against a vastly superior foe.

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