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.

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.

Don Nelson is about to detonate. He has called timeout with three minutes left in overtime of a game against Memphis. Seconds earlier, Grizzlies guard Mike Miller stroked his eighth three-pointer of the contest, drawing a communal groan from the 17,000 fans inside Oracle Arena. Happy to hoist shots from anywhere outside the team bus, the gangly Miller has dodged Golden State defenders all night long to score 42 points. [page]

The coach waits for his players to jog off the court. Once they sit down, he drops into a chair facing them and leans forward, pausing a beat as though fighting the urge to light himself on fire.

“Jesus Christ! What the fuck was that?” Nelson yells, his face contorted into a cubist jumble, wide forehead layered over W.C. Fields nose and billowing jowls. He cusses out his men for 45 seconds while exhorting them to smother Miller, repeating at higher volume a message from preceding timeouts. They listen, heads bowed and mouths cinched.

At first, Nelson's edict yields no better results than if he had ranted in Farsi. After Golden State ties the score at 108, Memphis counterattacks. Miller cuts toward the top of the three-point arc, shaking loose of his defender for an instant. A teammate passes to him and, one wrist flick later, Nelson's head drops as the ball ripples the net.

But that basket induces the final communal groan of the night. Over the game's last two minutes, the Warriors harass Miller with multiple players, their arms wind-milling to deny him a clear glimpse of the basket. He manages only one more shot; it caroms off the rim. The Memphis offense sputters while Golden State hits a couple of jump shots and free throws, easing ahead to win by three. The home team leaves the court to a roar that belies the modest feat of a victory in late February over the league's worst club.

Nelson shuffles into his post-game press conference clutching a can of Bud Light. The apoplexy that bloated his features a short time ago has seeped out. He looks and sounds tired, his eyes fixed downward, his voice a scratchy, nasal monotone that bears the flatness of the western Illinois plains where he grew up.

He reviews the game with vintage Nelsonian candor. Miller “would love to play us every night.” Warriors guard Monta Ellis nailed four crucial shots in overtime, but earlier “he missed three lay-ups, as you recall.” Sarunas Jasikevicius, following “two poor days of practice,” acted “too casual” on the court in missing all three of his shots. “He's probably angry at me,” Nelson says of Jasikevicius, who rode the bench nearly the entire game. “We need to sit down and have a little chat. I'm disappointed in him … ”

Nelson's bluntness sets him apart from most pro coaches, a secretive species apt to hedge when asked about their favorite cheese, let alone the play of their team. Given the nature of NBA players — often described as sensitive, code for all must kneel before me — his public criticism would seem a form of career suicide, except that, to them, it's old news.

“Everything you hear, we've already heard it,” Stephen Jackson says. “He tells guys where things are at, so there's no guessing.”

Jackson stands in the Warriors locker room, meltwater trickling down his legs from the ice packs wrapped around his knees. The guard recorded 26 points, 12 assists, and, in the waning seconds, a hand slap from Nelson. “Man, you never see a coach give “five' to his guys, and he does it all the time,” Jackson says. “That's what I love about him. If you screw up, he's going to tell you — he doesn't sugarcoat anything. But he's the first guy to congratulate you when you play well.”

Across the room, Al Harrington seconds the love, on a night he went from wrist slap to palm slap. Nelson yanked him after he turned the ball over in the first quarter, barking at the starting forward as he walked to the bench. But Harrington soon returned to the floor and wound up scoring 22 points, including a jumper late in overtime that clinched the win. “Without a doubt,” he says, “Don Nelson has the purest heart of any coach I've ever played for. He's a coach that wants you to do well.”

Jackson and Harrington joined Golden State in January, along with Jasikevicius and Josh Powell. The foursome arrived from Indiana in a trade that shipped Mike Dunleavy, Todd Murphy, Ike Diogu, and Keith McLeod to the Pacers. The deal, aside from providing Nelson with athletes suited to his tommy-gun brand of basketball, freed him of twin millstones whose playing style befits the WNBA.

Unlike his predecessor Mike Montgomery, Nelson regarded Dunleavy and Murphy as starters in salary only, demoting them to bench jockeys early this season. Before Nelson's arrival, Warriors management, and Mullin in particular, judged the two forwards crucial to the team's long-term prospects. The new coach considered them a pair of elbow-phobes loath to battle opposing big men.

“Our future was invested in two guys who would be the seventh or eighth guy on a really good team,” Nelson says of Dunleavy and Murphy, who will sponge up north of $40 million apiece through spring 2011. “If you're making $8 million or $10 million a year and you're not producing, well, something has to change.”

So far, anyway, the change has failed to spawn the second coming of Run TMC, the nickname of the quick-draw offense that defined Nelson's first Warriors reign. The team began the week with a 10-16 record since the trade, and through 65 games had posted 29 wins, just one ahead of last year's pace.

The virtually identical victory totals prompt some to assert that, compared to Montgomery, Nelson brings scarcely more to the sidelines besides a wider waistline. Yet if still slim in the win column — even as their coach has started chugging diet shakes in recent weeks — the Warriors appear a team reborn. Indeed, for the first time in at least two years, the word team applies to Golden State beyond the loose concept of 14 guys showering together.

The Warriors hired Montgomery in 2004, handing him his first NBA job. The former longtime Stanford coach, struggling to adapt to the pro game and its egos, climbed a steep learning curve that lead to a cliff. He relied heavily on veterans, convinced he needed to gain their loyalty to cure the franchise's addiction to losing. Neither happened as Golden State endured two straight 34-48 seasons. [page]

“He was trying to build relationships with the team,” says Warriors assistant coach Keith Smart, a holdover from the Montgomery years. “But guys don't do that unless they know who you are.”

Nelson carried Oprahlike name recognition into the locker room. In 1997, during the NBA's 50th anniversary season, a panel of former coaches and players named him one of the 10 greatest coaches in league history. And that was before he rehabbed a derelict Dallas franchise into a perennial playoff team, replicating his prior success in Golden State and Milwaukee. “He's a legend,” Warriors guard Monta Ellis says. “Players want to work hard for him.” Ellis embodies the type of athlete who thrives in Nelson's meritocracy, where playing time depends on sweat equity, not merely experience or salary size. The rabbit-fast guard, drafted out of high school in 2005, seldom saw action during the first half of his rookie season, trapped on the far end of Montgomery's bench. Without injuries to guards Baron Davis and Jason Richardson, he may have remained there, watching old hand Derek Fisher perfect the art of never driving the lane. This year, with Ellis averaging 17 points and four assists as a top reserve and frequent starter, Sports Illustrated dubbed him “the NBA's most surprising player.” Nelson one-ups that praise by calling the 21-year-old guard “a great player,” and the rapport between the coach and his budding star shows during games. Against the Grizzlies, while a Memphis player shot free throws, the coach waved Ellis to the sideline to discuss strategy. Striding a few steps up the court together, each slipped his arm around the other's back, an embrace between mentor and pupil.

“He's given me the opportunity to go out there and perform,” says Ellis, who steadied the team when injuries idled Davis and Richardson earlier in the season. “He's a very forgiving coach. He's tough on you, but he lets you learn as you go.”

Nelson's belief that unheralded players can blossom in his system derives in large part from proving his theory with three franchises. Before reuniting with the Warriors, he reached the playoffs 16 times with Milwaukee, Golden State, and Dallas, along the way upending various tenets of NBA popular wisdom: The team with more All-Stars will win; height always beats speed; a 7-foot-7 bamboo shoot named Manute Bol must not hoist three-pointers.

But the origins of Nelson's habit of trolling for hidden talent dates to his own playing career. In summer 1965, on the heels of a season in which he averaged 2 1/2 points and two rebounds for the Los Angeles Lakers, the team released him. The 6-foot-6 forward fretted that his humble stats would snuff his three-year NBA career.

Instead, Red Auerbach, stogie-loving coach and general manager of the Boston Celtics, sensed buried potential in the mop-topped backup. Auerbach's hunch hit nothing but net: Nelson averaged 10 points and almost five rebounds as a reserve during 11 years with Boston, playing on five title teams. In 1978, two years after his playing days ended, the Celtics retired his No. 19 jersey.

His years spent in Auerbach's orbit instilled in Nelson the need for 180-proof honesty, without regard for a player's status as star or scrub. “If I took anything from Red,” he says, “it was the ability to deal with men at the professional level. He just said it the way it was.”

Nelson uncorked his straight talk after the Warriors' season-opening loss to the Lakers, labeling Dunleavy “a disaster” and Murphy “just terrible.” Nor did the coach spare Davis, the mercurial point guard he views as the team's best player, grading his performance as “negative.” For good measure, he knocked the entire squad, telling reporters, “Maybe I got a false impression of the team in camp … I hope it doesn't get any worse than this.”

Such directness would strike most coaches as anathema. Nelson calls it the privilege of age. “I'm 66, I'm gonna say what I want. If somebody doesn't like it,” the coach says with a raspy laugh, “I don't really give a shit.”

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.) [page]

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.

Three months later, with the Warriors listing at 14-31, Nelson stepped down. “It's time for me to change and time for the Warriors to change,” he said at the time. “I don't blame anybody but myself … ”

The coach who came back to the Warriors, while certainly older, appears wiser than the one who engaged in mutual-assured destruction with Webber. Nelson has tamed himself, recognizing that most NBA players today blanche at the hard-driving coaching style he once favored. In November, after Golden State surrendered 140 points in a loss to Denver, he walked into the locker room and, instead of scolding his men, simply brought them together in a huddle. “You're tired, I'm tired,” he said. “Let's go home.” The next night, they thrashed Utah 91-78.

After leaving Golden State, Webber played for Washington, Sacramento, and Philadelphia, wearing out his welcome in each city. Two months ago, 13 years removed from Golden State, he signed with Detroit; acting the gracious newcomer, he offered to fill whatever role his new coach asks of him. “Chris Webber has matured nicely,” says Nelson, who reconciled with the player some years ago. He hawks up another brown glob and smiles.

“And Coach Nelson has matured nicely.”

Don Nelson looks deflated. Golden State trails the Los Angeles Lakers by 16 points with five minutes remaining in the first half. The Warriors, coming off a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers a night earlier, run as if fresh tar coats the court, their leg strength sapped by back-to-back games. About half the 20,000 people jamming the Oracle want the Lakers to win, judging from the cheers that boom when L.A. hits a three-pointer. Nelson shakes his head and calls timeout. [page]

The Warriors plod to the sideline and slump down in their chairs. Peering at the floor, Nelson lets the break pass in silence, perhaps because he realizes fatigue can't be coached out of players. Or at least not on this afternoon in late February.

The coach turns nominally more voluble 90 minutes later while talking with reporters after what turns out to be a 17-point loss. “I don't have a lot to offer,” he says before any of them asks a question. “You saw the mess out there.” He runs down the lowlights of an afternoon he alternately describes as “a nightmare game” and “a letdown game.”

“But anyway,” he says, “those things happen, and you have to move on.”

Three days later, Nelson spoke like a man unable to heed his own advice after a 30-point drubbing in Chicago, Golden State's fourth loss in a row. He delivered an appraisal of the squad's postseason chances to reporters that sounded positively Appomattox. “I thought I could get this team in the playoffs and it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to do it. I feel like I've failed, really, in a lot of ways … ”

Two more road defeats followed, including one to Washington in which Nelson received a technical foul for protesting a referee's call at game's end. (Observers claimed he called the ref “a fucking idiot,” an accusation Nelson denied.) His eruption handed the Wizards an extra free throw with no time left on the clock. Former Warriors guard Gilbert Arenas drained the shot, lifting Washington to a one-point win.

The two episodes, if divergent in tone and content, illumined Nelson's disdain for losing. His impatience represents both blessing and curse: It keeps him forever thinking of new plays, hunting for fresh talent. It also can provoke premature eulogies, as occurred after the Chicago loss. Then as now, the Warriors still lurk within striking distance of the final playoff slot in the Western Conference.

“That was just kind of bizarre,” says Ric Bucher, who writes about the NBA for ESPN.com. “It seemed awfully early to be giving up.”

With his surrender speech, Nelson may have intended to spur his team, lower public expectations, or both. During nearly three decades as a coach, he has observed the forbearance of fans erode, with every franchise under pressure to win now or else. Gone are the days of the five-year plan, when teams mapped out a long-range rebuilding effort. Every new season dawns with demands for a championship.

Nelson's motives aside, however, perhaps the most compelling aspect of his capitulation in Chicago and subsequent flameout in Washington was the reaction of the Warriors. The day after losing to the Wizards, Golden State dismantled Detroit by 18 points, then returned home and pounded Denver two nights later. Visions of the playoffs flickered anew.

The Detroit game marked Baron Davis' return from an injury, inspiring hope among the Warriors that they can make a late-season surge. But as vital as Davis remains to those ambitions, the victory also revealed that, under Nelson, the Warriors are finally something more than simply Davis, Richardson, and a bunch of elbow-phobes.

Andris Biedrins amassed 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Pistons. Last year, the 20-year-old center languished behind the hard-working but anvil-footed Adonal Foyle. De-benched by Nelson, Biedrins ranks near the league lead in field-goal accuracy as he averages 10 points and 10 rebounds a game. Meanwhile, Matt Barnes, who chipped in eight points against Detroit, has morphed from career nomad to vital role player. The forward had played for four teams in three years by the time he entered Golden State's training camp last summer. Nelson spotted him the first day and uttered those six little words that mean so much to a free agent: “We need a guy like you.”

“He turned my career around,” says Barnes, averaging 10 points a game, almost triple his career average. “How can you not want to play for a coach who gives you a chance?”

It's the sort of comment that Nelson regards as the purpose of his work. When asked if his career will be complete if he fails to capture a title as a coach, he smiles yet again. “I should probably say no, but the answer is yes. It's not the destination, it's the journey. It's about teaching players to live the right way, helping them be better people.” Then the coach with the second-most wins in NBA history takes another tug on his cigar.

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