The turning point in the Milwaukee Bucks' season might have occurred on Feb. 7 in Kansas City. The Bucks, losers of six of seven games, gathered in their Kemper Arena locker room before a game against the Kings, ostensibly to receive words of wisdom from coach Don Nelson. What they got, however, was something of a more lyrical nature. Accompanied by assistant coaches Mike Schuler and Garry St. Jean, Nelson startled the Bucks by giving them his rendition of the Oak Ridge Boys' Dig a Little Deeper in the Well.
Thus inspired, Milwaukee beat the Kings 112-110 in overtime and went 24-10 for the rest of the regular season. The fact that Nelson can still occasionally be heard singing the ditty goes a long way toward explaining Milwaukee's presence in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics following a three-games-to-two victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the opening playoff round and a 4-2 decision over the New Jersey Nets in the conference semifinals. The Bucks' 94-82 win on May 8 in Milwaukee and their series-clinching 98-97 victory two nights later in New Jersey could be considered a triumph for the happy warblers, as much as anything else.
"I've had more fun coaching this season than in any of my previous eight," Nelson said after the Nets were eliminated. "To do a job on paper and have the team believe in your principles and then carry them out on the court gives me a very special feeling."
Given the jubilant reaction of the Bucks and Nelson, who played on five NBA championship teams with Boston, to their win over New Jersey, one might have thought they had pulled off an upset for the ages, one on a par with, say, the Nets' first-round dethroning of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers.
But this wasn't a usual season for the Bucks, and that perhaps explains their inspired, almost crusading, style in the playoffs. The Bucks had romped to the Central Division title the last four years, but this season found themselves in a scramble with Detroit, prevailing only when the Pistons lost their final game of the season to Atlanta. Nelson had to juggle his lineup as most teams do because of injuries, and even had to reach out on March 6 to Wall Street, where retired guard Mike Dunleavy was working, to replace Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who went out for the season with a torn right hamstring. That sort of desperate maneuvering, combined with the prospect of losing 35-year-old center Bob Lanier—Milwaukee's sole source of consistent inside strength—to retirement, even prompted Nelson to say he would give up his coach's job to concentrate on his G.M.'s duties.
"I've spent eight years shaping this team and it would be hard to adjust to struggling to win," says Nelson, who has a 374-264 regular-season record. "That's what it would be without a dominant center, and maybe I don't take losing well enough to handle it."
Lanier, for one, thinks Nelson is just blowing smoke. "He's been more intense this season," says Lanier. "But he ain't going anywhere. He likes the chess-game situation too much, the drama and the challenge."
Nelson, who suffered from a case of ennui during the regular season, admits the playoffs have him excited. "This is the greatest part of the whole deal," says Nelson. "The high-level atmosphere, the big-game situation, that's what the whole year is all about. It's what I love."
Nelson seems to be at his best in the playoffs, devising whatever strategy is necessary, on offense and defense. "There's a forward in the Central Division who loves to shoot the ball, who'll only pass it when he has to," Nelson says. "When we play against him, what we do is actually leave him open early, let him take shots. Gradually we tighten the screws, until by the end of the game he's really covered, but now he's so into shooting that there's no way he'll pass the ball and he forces up shot after shot."
Nelson had to make an unusual tactical adjustment against the Nets. New Jersey assistant coach John Killilea worked under Nelson in Milwaukee for six seasons and knew all the Bucks' plays. In order to hide his offensive plans from Killilea during the game, Nelson held one side of his sportscoat open in front of him as he flashed his signals to conceal them from Killilea.