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Original Issue

Full Nelson

A coaching legend is celebrated as much for his whimsy as his wins

No one appeared to be having a more agonizing time on the sideline than Don Nelson. His puffy face a smorgasbord of grimaces, his blondish-whitish hair a mess and his mock turtleneck soaked with sweat, Nellie would twist that ample 6'6" body into all sorts of painful-looking positions to protest bad calls, which, in his world view, mostly went against his team. Technicals? He got a few.

Yet when I look back on his coaching career, which may have ended last week when the Warriors parted ways with the winningest coach (1,335 victories against 1,063 losses) in NBA history, the word I think of is fun. Nelson trusted international players long before it was in vogue. He stationed 7'6" Manute Bol outside to shoot threes. He assiduously avoided talking about the defensive end, at least late in his career. Nellie went against the book so often that it's easy to forget that in a few ways he became The Book. He wasn't the first coach to exploit matchup advantages, but he did it with so much resolution and success that it became known as a Nellie innovation. His guiltless use of isolation, whereby he turned his weaker offensive players into statues and basically told them to stay the hell away from the ball, gradually became standard offensive procedure. Almost every team has, or had, a point forward; Nellie had the first (Paul Pressey). He taught a lot of coaches that it's O.K. to play small when everyone thinks you should go big, and O.K. to play fast when everyone thinks you should be deliberate.

Over the last couple of seasons the mind of the 70-year-old Nellie seemed too often to be in Maui, where he has an off-season home. And it's a virtual certainty that opponents' point totals will go down with Keith Smart running the Warriors. Something else will go down, too—the level of fun in the NBA, and, man, that's a hard thing to replace.


A South Bend sports radio host last week suggested that the heart attack suffered by Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio after his team upset Notre Dame on Sept. 18 was God's way of paying the Spartans back for a controversial last-second touchdown on a fake field goal that cost the Irish the game.



THE CONTRARIAN Point forwards and trey-hoisting big men were just a few of Nellie's many innovations.