SI Vault
 
Renaissance Men
CHRIS BALLARD
May 07, 2007
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 07, 2007

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

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

Compounding the mismatch issue was the play of Davis, who through Sunday had averaged 25.8 points on 55.2% shooting while making Papa Smurf beards all the rage in the Bay Area. He has shot over smaller Mavs and driven past larger ones. Simply put, he is playing out of his mind. In one surreal 35-second, third-quarter-concluding sequence on Sunday, Davis hit a fadeaway three-pointer, blocked a jumper by 6'6" Jerry Stackhouse, then stole an inbounds pass and raced the other way to beat the clock with a two-handed dunk. "You can't stop him," says Jackson. "Only his knee or a bad shooting night can. Nobody can stay in front of him."

For a player who was accused of giving up on one coach ( Byron Scott of the New Orleans Hornets) and running another out of town ( Mike Montgomery, Nelson's predecessor in Oakland), it has been a remarkable display, and one Davis credits to his current mentor. "Throughout all the frustrations, all the injuries, the ups and downs with coaches, I never lost my love for basketball," says Davis. "Having a coach like Nellie now, all the hard work and everything that I've been through is starting to pay off."

When Davis first came back from surgery, Nelson says that he was "fairly conservative," content to play Davis 32 to 36 minutes. "Now I have no limits," Nelson said before Davis played 44 minutes in Game 4. "If he breaks down, he breaks down, and we go home. What am I waiting for?"

Through it all, Nelson has been the steadying presence. When he arrived in Oakland last August, he announced that he was too old to worry about losing his job; he was going to tell it like it is. And he has. When most NBA coaches call a timeout, they first meet with their assistants briefly on the court, then address the team; Nelson just sits down and gives it to his players. At the start of the year he told the team's starting center, Adonal Foyle, that he wouldn't play because he didn't suit the system. (Foyle hasn't.) He told Davis he needed to get in shape. ( Davis has.) And after the Game 4 win, he told the media that Ellis and Harrington were playing so poorly that he basically had a six-man rotation. "He holds everybody accountable, but not in the same way," says assistant coach Keith Smart. "He knows how much each guy can handle, and that's unusual."

None of this is lost on the players in Dallas, where, lest anyone forget, Nelson traded for and groomed the two-time reigning MVP ( Steve Nash), drafted and groomed the presumptive MVP ( Nowitzki), mentored last season's Coach of the Year ( Johnson) and drafted the Mavs' other All-Star ( Josh Howard). "You have to give him a lot of credit--he knows this team," says Stackhouse. "He was around this organization forever. I think he's been able to instill in his team that they have a good chance of beating us, and they believe him."

Nelson's job is made easier because his Warriors are the quintessential nothing-to-lose, everything-to-prove team. Davis and Jackson are rehabbing reputations, Richardson is tasting the playoffs for the first time in his six-year career and Nelson himself was considered washed up two years ago. Now? Davis is hearing M-V-P! chants, Jackson is lauded as a team leader, Richardson is hitting game-breaking threes, and Nelson is inspiring signs like the one Sunday that read nellie smokes cuban. "This is as much fun as I've had coaching," says Nelson. "I've never enjoyed a year more than this one."

Not since the Run TMC teams of the early '90s--coached by, of course, Nelson--have the Warriors been at the forefront of Bay Area sports. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that there is such a nostalgic feel to this run. Chris Mullin (the C of TMC) is now the team's executive VP of basketball operations, Mitch Richmond (the M) is a special assistant and Rod Higgins is the G.M. Late Sunday night they all crossed paths outside the locker room. There went Richmond, then Higgins, leaving Mullin and former teammate Tom Tolbert, who held a giant cup of beer and, in shorts and a backward hat, looked like a 6'8" frat boy at the world's greatest kegger. Someone suggested it was a veritable Warriors reunion, to which Tolbert cracked, "It can't be a reunion without Chris Gatling."

No doubt Nelson would have appreciated the joke, but he was already gone. After the win he had walked off the court and down the tunnel, high-fiving fans as confetti colored his white hair, then grabbed his customary Bud Light, followed by his customary second Bud Light, which he brought with him to the podium for the press conference. There, as usual, he played the role of aw-shucks Midwestern coach and praised Dallas, asserting that he was just happy to be part of all this craziness. Then he retreated to his downtown Oakland apartment to revel with friends and have a cigar. It's safe to say that the man had earned it.

1 2