Full Nelson

Can pro basketball's second-winningest coach put the Warriors back on the warpath? Don't count him out too quick.

The office of the coach with the second-most wins in NBA history smells like dog. The musky bouquet rises off Lucky, a Jack Russell terrier mix that, at the moment, lies curled on his owner's black leather desk chair. Lifting his head, the pooch greets Don Nelson's return from morning practice with a gaping yawn. His arching tongue resembles the Nike swoosh.

Minutes ago, while Nelson patrolled the practice court, grown men obeyed his orders with a sense of urgency. Now, confronted with a drowsy dog, the coach of the Golden State Warriors finds his words falling on floppy deaf ears. Trying to lure Lucky from the chair, he coos, "C'mon off there, c'mon down." The mutt won't budge. Nelson drags over a floor pillow the size of a tractor tire, emblazoned with Lucky's name and the team logo. Persuaded at last, Lucky hops onto the cushion to resume his nap, receiving a pat on the head for his trouble.

Watching a silver-haired grandfather sweet-talk his dog can make one forget that the man in the bulky gray sweatshirt belongs to pro basketball royalty. Nelson's choice of decor intensifies the amnesia — his office lacks any of the hardware he's earned from his hardwood exploits. Looking for his three Coach of the Year trophies? Try his agent's office. The five title rings from his playing days? Search the attic of his ex-wife's house.

“I’m 66, I’m gonna say what I want. If somebody doesn’t like it, I don’t really give a shit.” — don nelson
Paul Trapani
“I’m 66, I’m gonna say what I want. If somebody doesn’t like it, I don’t really give a shit.” — don nelson
"He tells guys where things are at," Jackson says of Nelson.
Paul Trapani
"He tells guys where things are at," Jackson says of Nelson.

Only a wood-framed wall collage evokes the golden past of a coach who has won more than 1,200 games during 28 seasons roaming the sidelines. A cluster of photos, player cards, and newspaper headlines from Nelson's NBA career surround a picture of him from his earlier coaching days. The image shows him flashing a stare that could sear flesh, beer gut pouring over his belt. But even these artifacts elicit from Nelson nothing beyond an acerbic jibe.

"What do I see?" he says, gazing at the centerpiece photo. "A young fat guy."

Front-office staffers gave him the collage during his previous stint with Golden State, an era as distant as the Shang Dynasty to the team's long-suffering faithful. Anyone vaguely familiar with the Warriors knows the tale of Nelson's first tenure and its ensuing fallout. The abridged version: He guided the team to the playoffs four times between 1988 and 1994, twice reaching the second round. His undersized squads employed a shoot-first, play-defense-later style that exhausted opponents and electrified the home crowd.

Then came his clash of wills with über-malcontent Chris Webber, leading to a mutiny by some players and Nelson's resignation in early 1995. His exit began an 11-year stretch during which the Warriors lost two out of every three games as required by league rules, or so fans suspected. None of the team's eight head coaches over that period could muster so much as a .500 season, amassing a collective record of 318-589. It was off-Broadway farce disguised as an NBA franchise.

So last summer, Chris Mullin, Golden State's head of basketball operations and a former All-Star player under Nelson, mined the team's past to unearth its future. Hiring his old coach inspired hope that the club would awaken from its state of embalmed mediocrity.

Seven months later, the enormity of the project explains why Nelson devotes little thought and less office space to accolades already won. He needs his energy for the job at hand. Golden State entered the week with a 29-36 record after dropping seven of its prior 10 games. Its road record stood at 7-26, a mark that recalls the darkest days of P.J. Carlesimo, Dave Cowens, or any other of the team's last eight coaches. Fans praying for an end to the Warriors' 12-year playoff famine may go hungry again this spring.

Nelson has coped with a spate of injuries to his squad and a January trade that turned over one-third of his roster. Yet owing to the preseason buzz that he would deliver Golden State to the postseason — chatter stoked by the team and media alike — critics strafe Nelson with blame. Two weeks ago, after the lowly Milwaukee Bucks flogged the Warriors by 21 points, syndicated radio host JT the Brick tarred him "one of the most overrated coaches in the history of sports." The next night, Nelson himself took up the brush, telling reporters in the wake of a 30-point drubbing by Chicago that he had "failed" to cultivate his team's potential this year.

The 66-year-old Nelson rejoined the Warriors 17 months after stepping down as general manager and coach of the Dallas Mavericks, another franchise he helped save from self-destruction. He relished his sabbatical from the NBA grind, splitting time between homes in Dallas and Maui, hanging out with celebrity pals Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson.

"I really enjoyed my time off," he says with a smile, crow's feet framing his pale blue eyes. "Now that I'm working again, I enjoyed it even more than I thought."

The sarcasm-impaired might interpret the quip as proof that he's turned as soft as Lucky's brown-and-white fur. But age has dulled neither Nelson's wit nor his obsession with Xs and Os, to gauge from the game tapes, stat sheets, and scouting reports piled on his desk. In previous stops with Dallas, Golden State, and Milwaukee, he defied basketball orthodoxy to revive ailing teams, pulling within view of the all-time coaching mark of 1,332 victories. Whether he breaks the record in his second stay with the Warriors depends on his surviving the win-today fervor of pro sports — and his own impatience.


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