Nelson leads league in wins, critics
Don Nelson passed Lenny Wilkens to become the all-time leader in coaching wins
Despite his record, Nelson has more critics than supporters throughout the league
He would like to be in the Hall of Fame, but he doesn't feel worthy of the honor
While many NBA coaches sit in their offices before a game and agonize over an opponent's ability to upset their evening, the Golden State Warriors' Don Nelson sneaks out a back door at Oracle Arena, slides behind an area specifically curtained off for him, plops down on a stool, pulls out a lighter and fires up a cigar as big as a baby's arm. He takes a deep puff and soon his head disappears in a great plume of smoke.
It is difficult to even see Nelson until the smoke rises and dissipates into the East Bay air. Hell, some think it is always difficult to see Nelson -- the true Nelson. He's a living, breathing contradiction, one of the most polarizing figures in the NBA, known for infamous battles with players and owners and viewed warily by his peers, many of whom have felt the sting of his political maneuvering or know somebody who has and have been apprised of the stories. Nelson is creative, innovative, daring and enduring. And if his last name were Brown, he would have been in the Hall of Fame long ago.
Instead, another spring weekend went by with Nelson on the ballot for enshrinement in Springfield, Mass., and he once again fell short, despite a playing and coaching résumé that spans more than four decades and includes more victories (1,333) than any coach in his sport -- an achievement he reached Wednesday with a 116-107 victory at Minnesota, breaking a tie with Lenny Wilkens.
Nelson, 69, says he does not dwell on being passed over multiple times by the voting committee, a combination of Hall of Famers, basketball executives, media members and other contributors to the game whose identities are not revealed. But he has to know that many in the sport see his foibles more prominently than his contributions, and whether through outright collusion or simple human nature, voters appear intent on making him a pariah for as long as possible, until uproar over his exclusion can no longer be overlooked.
The fact that Nelson has more wins than any other coach is ironic if only because he said he never even thought about coaching when he retired as a player in 1976 after 14 seasons with three teams. The majority of his career was spent in Boston, where he won five championships and will forever be remembered for the shot that bounced high off the back rim and through the net in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.
After Nelson first attempted a post-playing career as an official -- he failed out of referee camp, according to one contemporary -- he landed in Milwaukee when general manager Wayne Embry, a teammate of Nelson's in Boston, asked him to join coach Larry Costello's staff. After firing Costello following a 3-15 start to the 1976-77 season, Embry sought to have Nelson take over as head coach. Nelson said he refused because he felt he needed more experience as an assistant. When Embry asked once more, Nelson again said no with the hope he'd eventually get to work with and learn from Jack Ramsay, who led Portland to its first and only title that season.
When Embry asked a third time, Nelson finally relented.
"I told them I would do it for the rest of the year, and we'll see how it goes," Nelson said. "I really liked the owner. He gave me a test [and] said I was the most competitive person he had ever met. He told me to give it a go, so I did."
It was the beginning of a coaching run that later sent him to Golden State, then to New York, then Dallas and back to Golden State -- a tenure that has produced 18 playoff teams and many more enemies.
A man of his stature should be celebrated, a parade of young colleagues fervently seeking advice from the dean of coaches. They could inquire about the seven consecutive division titles in Milwaukee. Or the Run TMC days of Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond in Golden State. Or his experience with Dream Team II, which won the gold medal at the 1994 FIBA World Championships in Toronto. Or his successful stint in Dallas, which helped transform the Mavericks from perennial doormats into a consistent playoff team. Or they could even ask about his "We Believe" run in Golden State in 2007, when the Warriors upended the Mavs, the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 in a seven-game series, a result that helped lead to the firing of Avery Johnson, the man whom Nelson groomed to succeed him in Dallas.
The milestones, the medals -- he has more than a few of those. But perhaps more notable is Nelson's influence on the game. He's known for his unique style of small ball, which developed when he picked up on a trend in practice and which he used time and again in his various coaching stops.
"I always wondered why big players couldn't do what small players do," Nelson said. "And I always thought that small players could beat big players because it is a fast game. It is harder for bigs to guard smalls than for smalls to guard bigs in a fast-paced game. That was proved many times in practice when the smalls would play the bigs in a full-court game. So I tried to take advantage of that: If I could guard you but you couldn't guard me, that was a mismatch either way."
Nelson is also widely credited for developing the point-forward position when he let the 6-foot-5 Paul Pressey of Milwaukee bring the ball up the court and make plays, creating another mismatch. (However, some say the founder of the point forward is Hall of Famer Wilkens, who, with Seattle in 1977, instructed 6-7 small forward John Johnson to help guards Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson distribute the ball. The following year, the Sonics won the title and John Johnson led the team with 4.4 assists.)
"I wouldn't argue with [Wilkens getting credit for it]," Nelson said. "That would be fine with me. I don't care to take credit. I just used point forward because I thought it was a tremendous advantage."
But with his small-ball style and use of the point forward, Nelson has received his share of criticism: Is the goal to pile up meaningless regular-season wins, or is it to hang championship banners from the ceilings of state-of-the-art arenas? In his 18 postseason trips, Nelson advanced as far as the conference finals only four times -- three with Milwaukee, one with Dallas -- and never reached the NBA Finals.
In most observers' eyes, there is a difference between the winningest and the most successful. Just ask Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach, who trail Nelson by 237 and 395 wins, respectively, but who have 19 more championships between them.