He does not look like a man on the brink of history, sitting outside Oracle Arena on game night, white-haired and tired-eyed and staring into the gray Oakland dusk, a cup of coffee in one hand and an embering stogie in the other. But then Warriors coach Don Nelson never had the look of a winner, be it the CEO chic of Pat Riley or the swami smug of Phil Jackson.
Nellie is the guy who wore fish ties, who prefers tall boys to top shelf, who is forever adjusting his belt, lest his pendulous gut slip loose its moorings. While his peers earned labels like genius, he was deemed the mad scientist. And yet it is Don Nelson who is weeks, perhaps days, from becoming the winningest coach in NBA history.
What, you didn't know about the record? You're not alone. Through Saturday, Nelson was only four behind Lenny Wilkens's mark of 1,332, yet there is no fanfare, no SportsCenter countdown. It's not even a lock to occur. Injury-ravaged Golden State had only 20 victories through Saturday; of its 10 remaining games only five seem winnable. And while Nelson is under contract for next season, the rudderless Warriors are for sale, which means that it's morning again for fans in Oakland but likely twilight for Nellie. After all, what are the chances a new owner—say, Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison—will want to "start over" by keeping a 69-year-old who's gone 49--105 the last two years?
Sure, some will welcome Nelson's exit, but I'm not one of them. The rap on Nellie as a coach has always been that he feels compelled to prove his own genius, that he engages in too many power struggles with players and management, and, foremost, that he has never won a ring. All true. Perhaps Nelson is like the comedian who needs to debut a new bit each week rather than honing what works: too restless and too creative for his own good. The point forward? Manute Bol shooting threes? Seven-footer Dirk Nowitzki guarding 5'3" Muggsy Bogues? Camping an offensive player at half-court to force shot blocker Mark Eaton to stand there too? Intentionally fouling—early in the game and in the shot clock—players who can't make free throws? They all seemed brilliant ideas to Nelson, and some even were. Remember, we have Nellie's prescience to thank for Dirk becoming Dirk, Steve Nash becoming Steve Nash and Chris Mullin not leaving his talent at the bottom of a beer bottle. Nelson once described his approach as "I do what makes sense to me," and to his credit he stuck with it, even if it didn't always make sense to anyone else.
In every sense he's a basketball lifer. From sixth man on the Celtics to guiding the Bucks, Mavericks, Knicks and Warriors, Nelson has played or coached in more games than anyone in NBA history, 3,441 over 45 years. A couple of years ago he tried to retire to the paradise of Maui but found he'd rather be in Detroit on the second night of a back-to-back. Hobbies? Most nights Nelson sits in what he calls his "man shack" outside his penthouse apartment in Oakland, smoking cigars and watching NBA games with assistant coach Scott Roth, who lives with Nelson and his wife, Joy. (The only way Nellie could match a Raptors offer for Roth was to throw in free rent.) "He loves to watch certain teams—Charlotte, Houston, Dallas," says Roth. "He'll come in for dinner, then head right back out. He's a junkie."
Yet for all his accomplishments, Nelson remains underappreciated. A three-time Coach of the Year—only Riley has been honored as often—he was named one of the 10 best coaches in league history in 1996, but in six years of eligibility has yet to make the Hall of Fame. The new class will be announced on Monday, and if there's any justice Nellie will be in it. But don't hold your breath. And now he could retire just a W or two shy of the record.
Nelson professes to be fine with that. "I'd be honored to be part of a two-man membership in the 1,300 club," he says. "Numbers have never been very important to me." And while this may sound disingenuous, in a sense it's true; Nellie has never been about numbers, or even wins. Had you walked into Oracle an hour after that pre-tip-off cigar you'd understand. There 17,123 fans—on a Wednesday night, in a meaningless game—were roaring as an undermanned, lottery-bound team led by a rookie and boasting five D-Leaguers scored 78 points in the first half to dismantle the Grizzlies. And this is how it's been all year. Undoubtedly, there has never been a more entertaining 20--52 team: Golden State puts up video game scores and finds new ways to almost win every night. This is the eternal story of Nellie's teams, playing three-ball-slinging David to every Goliath.
So if the last game Nelson coaches turns out to be on April 14 in Portland, take a moment to appreciate the man for his iconoclasm and inventiveness. And if it is the end, I hope he comes out with 6'3" rookie Stephen Curry playing center and 6'11" banger Chris Hunter set up beyond the arc, just for old times' sake. Hell, maybe the Warriors can fly in Bol to sing the national anthem or at least throw out the ceremonial first ugly three. I hope the fans pay tribute too. Because there are plenty of coaches who have won games. But only one has done so as often, and none has made the NBA more fun.
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Warriors coach Don Nelson is weeks, perhaps days away from ascending to the pinnacle of his profession. So why doesn't it seem like it?