Pop the Don Nelson life-story cassette into your VCR. Ignore last year's image of the overweight coach mainlining caffeine and nicotine as his Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated from the NBA Eastern Conference finals in five games by the Boston Celtics. Skip over the scene of Nelson flinging his sports jacket so far during a game in Philadelphia two years ago that the 76ers later staged a coat-throwing contest in his honor. Keep the reels spinning. Ooops, that's too far. We're not looking for those pictures of the young Nelson, a pasty farm kid patrolling Big Ten baselines in the early '60s for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Stop! There's the image: Nellie the Boston Celtic at the free-throw line, ball in one hand and body crouched, effetely shot-putting the ball and following through with the cutest little hop. A nerd, but a lifetime .765 foul-shooter of a nerd. "With one hand off the ball there's less chance for error," Nelson says. "I do things that make sense to me."
While pondering the Bucks, who through week's end had a surprising 26-14 record during a supposed rebuilding season, keep Nelson's foul-line manner in mind. "He says everything we do will make sense," says guard Craig Hodges, one of Milwaukee's five new faces. "His system is waterproof and soundproof. He stresses logic."
In building a 3�-game lead over the second-place Detroit Pistons in the Central Division, Milwaukee has had streaks of 10 straight home victories and, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3, nine in a row overall, including consecutive wins at Boston and Philly, a feat no team had accomplished since 1977. "They're past rebuilding," says Boston's Cedric Maxwell. "There are already tenants in the building."
The Bucks' success has given the rest of the NBA food for thought. "They aren't a trout amandine team," says Pat Williams, the Sixers' general manager. "They're hamburgers and French fries. On paper they look like a bunch of rejects and also-rans. Yet they've been beating teams that are stronger, man for man."
On Sept. 29 Milwaukee began its youth movement by sending three veteran mainstays—Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings—to the Los Angeles Clippers for Terry Cummings and two young reserves, Hodges and Ricky Pierce. Says Williams, "I thought they took those last two players so the trade wouldn't look so lopsided in the papers the next day." Now, however, the only lop-sidedness is the difference between the Bucks' and the 18-21 Clippers' records.
Last Wednesday night in Indianapolis, with four seconds left and the Bucks trailing by a point, Hodges, the throw-in who is shooting 50% since becoming a starter six weeks ago, threw in a 15-foot fall-away to beat the Pacers 106-105.
Of course, the Bucks made the trade primarily to acquire Cummings, who has turned out to be better than Johnson in the half-court game, which is the Bucks' bread and butter. "He gets more rebounds than Marques did," says the Bullets' Jeff Ruland, "and draws more fouls."
When Cummings arrived in Milwaukee, he knew how to score and rebound but wanted to learn how to win. But a large part of winning is defense, and a large part of defense is concentration. "Terry's skills are so great he can get the right thing done the wrong way," Nelson says. "Therefore, his concentration is poor. In the 35 minutes it takes us to go over scouting reports, his mind starts to wander. When someone doesn't concentrate, my wrath really comes out."
"Next to my wife, Nellie's probably the most demanding person in my life right now," Cummings says.