Full Nelson

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

Nelson savors a Cuban Robusto cigar and a Dewars scotch after every game. He ponders his coaching strategy, pores over stat sheets. If the Warriors play in town, he decompresses at his condo in a Downtown Oakland high-rise. His wife, Joy, refuses to let him smoke inside their home, so in warm weather, he retreats to the patio, the Bay Area's night lights shimmering around him. On cold nights, he climbs upstairs to a rooftop boiler room, where he's moved an old office chair, and unwinds amid the lowing of water tanks.

His post-game ritual has evolved from his younger coaching years, when the nearest bar provided refuge. The psychic dyspepsia he suffers after losing, however, bores deep as ever. The malaise lifts only as the next day's practice or game approaches.

"If it's a close loss, usually one or two plays end up costing you the game. That's on the head coach," Nelson says. He smokes a Robusto as he sits at a square metal picnic table outside the Warriors' training complex, perched atop the Oakland Convention Center's parking garage. Holding an empty Starbucks cup that serves as his spittoon, he pauses now and then to hawk up brown globs.

"I'm pretty single-minded," he says. "I still hate losing, I still have sleepless nights."

A year ago, Nelson could drift off with the ease of a child, whether staying at his homes in Dallas or Paia, Maui. His work as a consultant with the Mavericks, the team from which he had stepped down as general manager and coach in early 2005, demanded little time. He still drew a salary, but after relinquishing his dual roles in response to a falling out with owner Mark Cuban, he felt exiled from the club. (Nelson has entered into arbitration against Cuban over $6.6 million that he claims the franchise owes him. Cuban did not respond to requests for comment to SF Weekly.)

Nelson preferred to oversee his commercial endeavors, including Nellie's Bar in Dallas and a string of small-business and residential rental properties he owns in Hawaii. He played golf on the islands, tended to his 22-acre flower farm near the ocean, and traveled with Joy to New Zealand. Aching for basketball, he insists, stayed off his to-do list.

"I needed to leave when I did. I was too close to everything. I had to let go a little bit."

Friends expected he would find a new grip soon enough. In fall 2005, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich, one of Nelson's former assistants, attended a retirement roast for his old boss, USA Today reported. Teasing his friend, Popovich said, "I look forward to seeing all of you in four or five years, when we have the next Nellie retirement party in another town."

His hoops urge started percolating last March during the NCAA men's basketball tournament. By July, he decided that if he heard from one of two NBA teams, he would consider the pitch. The Sacramento Kings never called. Chris Mullin did.

The man in charge of Golden State's basketball operations wanted a coaching change after Mike Montgomery coughed up another 34-48 season. Mullin had flourished as a player during Nelson's first stint with the Warriors, when the team last tasted playoff nectar. It's well known the two men share a tight bond that traces to 1987, when Nelson forced Mullin to seek treatment for alcoholism, and they remained in regular contact following the coach's exit from the Warriors in 1995.

Mullin recalls their phone discussion last summer as uncomplicated. "Basically, I wanted to know, "Are you gonna coach?'" says Mullin, his New York accent as viscous as the day in 1985 when Golden State drafted him. "There wasn't a whole lot of other checking to do, because of our long-term relationship. It was more just about if he would coach again."

Nelson says he thinks of Mullin as a son. But when Donnie Nelson learned that his father might again pace the hardwood, he grilled the old ball coach. "How many mountains do you have to climb?" asked Donnie, head of basketball operations for the Mavericks. "What's it going to take to be happy and satisfied?"

The younger Nelson encouraged his father to glide into his golden years, to dote on his grandchildren, and save his health; Don Nelson has prostate cancer that is in remission. Donnie told his father that, even without an NBA title to show for his 27 seasons on the sidelines, he could retire a coach in full.

The father listened ... and said yes to the surrogate son, signing a three-year contract worth up to $18 million. But the number of zeroes meant something close to nil, Nelson says. It was a chance to rejoin forces with Mullin, to return to the game Nelson regards as both his trade and art. "You can call it mystical reasons or say the planets aligned or whatever," he says. "I felt I was needed to come here. When you have a talent, you owe it to yourself and to others to make use of it. Basketball is what I'm good at."

His rehiring in August inexorably conjured the reason for his departure the last time around: an inability to tame Chris Webber, the first pick in the 1993 draft. Golden State acquired the power forward in a trade that year before the season began, and his arrival fired dreams of the Warriors winning their first NBA title since 1975. Yet while the team made the playoffs in Webber's first season, tension between the high-priced rookie and the veteran coach balkanized the locker room. Chafing under Nelson's command, Webber pouted until the team traded him early the next season, but by then, Latrell Sprewell and other players had tuned out the coach.

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