The same athletes who had moaned about Riley's three-hour practices were pining for more challenging workouts from Nelson. According to the players, Nelson, who believed in resting his veterans for the postseason run, often held practices that lasted only an hour, and he sometimes didn't stick around until the end. "I know what it takes to win," said New York power forward Charles Oakley, who has been on the injured list since Feb. 16 with a broken right thumb. "We weren't getting that out of our practices. Nellie was laid-back. I have no problem with the man. But that style won't work for the New York Knicks."
Nelson contends that his practices would have been "just right for a normal team." He said, "I never had one-hour practices; they were an hour and a half. But the players were used to three hours, so it seemed like nothing. And the funny thing is, the guys who wanted those three-hour practices couldn't have physically completed them and survived the season."
Yet Nelson's problems with the players went deeper than a dearth of wind sprints and shooting drills. By turning Mason into a point forward, Nelson created a situation whereby Mason handled the ball on almost every play, diminishing Ewing's impact as the go-to guy. Ewing says he twice went to Nelson with his concerns about the offense but never went to the front office. Team sources say the 33-year-old Ewing believed that Nelson saw him as an aging center who was no longer an elite player, an evaluation that both stung and offended the proud big man. Nelson does not dispute Ewing's interpretation. "I don't think Ewing can carry the team like he thinks he can," Nelson said. "I wanted to conserve him more and have another player or two step forward. I felt, particularly next year, when [the Knicks] got a big free agent, Ewing should have been the second-best player. But he wouldn't let anyone else be the star around here."
A public feud with his players was the last thing Nelson needed in the wake of his 1994 battle with Warriors rookie forward Chris Webber, who thought Nelson was overly critical of his play. The two wound up not speaking to each other, and Webber was eventually traded to the Washington Bullets. "What happened on the West Coast still bothers him," Chaney says of Nelson. "And the minute the heat was on here, it popped up again. Nellie made a change in the lineup, and all of a sudden he couldn't get along with John Starks. That was crap, but [the media] started dragging up all the old stuff about Webber, and Nellie didn't know what to do. It reminds me of teachers in the local high schools. They are so limited in how they can deal with kids. It's kind of scary."
Nelson acknowledges that he has never fully understood what happened in Golden State, and that might have affected his judgment with the Knicks. "I think a lot of people were laying in the weeds with it," he said. "And I think these problems, combined with that, have probably put another nail in my coffin."
What scared the Knicks' front office the most was the appearance that Nelson had stopped trying to reach his players. Said one opposing coach who faced New York in the two weeks before Nelson's dismissal, "He looked like a guy who had given up." When asked if he thought Nelson quit on them, Starks answered, "There's no question he did. It was time for a change, for him and for us. No hard feelings. See you later."
Nelson says he never gave up on the Knicks but realized he would be unable to make his mark without changes in personnel. A source says Nelson tried to broach a Ewing trade, but he was rebuffed by management. And, the same source says, when New York didn't pull the trigger on a swap that would have sent Starks to the San Antonio Spurs for shooting guard Vinny Del Negro, the coach knew he would be stuck with the same core group until next season. "I'm disappointed," said Nelson. "I loved this opportunity. Ernie and Dave were first-class all the way. I loved the city of New York. I loved everything except the team."
Most of Nelson's NBA friends believe his career is over. He will turn 56 in May and will collect the remaining $3.5 million on his contract. He is building a home in Maui and maintains a residence in the San Francisco area, but he might want one more chance to repair his image. "I've always said, when things go bad, the first place you should look is the mirror," said Nelson, whose career record as coach of the Bucks, Warriors and Knicks is 851-629. "So I plan on taking a good look at myself, without blaming anyone else, and trying to figure out why I've failed twice."
Ewing believes that firing Nelson now, instead of waiting until the end of the season, was essential because it makes the Knicks more attractive to prospective free agents, such as Indiana's Reggie Miller and Washington's Juwan Howard. "They're not going to come if it's a bad situation," Ewing says. "Everyone in the league knew it was bad here."
Yet a coaching change won't go far in satisfying the Knicks' glaring needs, which include a small forward, a reliable shooting guard and a younger nucleus (Ewing, Oakley, Starks and point guard Derek Harper are all 30 or older). And unless Van Gundy drives the team deep into the playoffs, New York will be looking for a new coach again after the season. Management was intrigued with the coy answers that Chicago coach Phil Jackson, a former Knicks player whose contract is up after the season, gave the media when he was asked if he had any interest in the Knicks job. But few expect him to leave the Bulls. Kentucky's Rick Pitino, a former Knicks coach, and the Cleveland Cavaliers' Mike Fratello, a former New York assistant, have already eliminated themselves from consideration. Ewing's old mentor, Georgetown coach John Thompson, has been mentioned, but his interest is said to be minimal. Would ever-restless Pacers coach Larry Brown be tempted? Is Massachusetts coach John Calipari ready to jump to the NBA?