It may seem strange to say that a man who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs probably more than 300 pounds is bigger than life, but Don Nelson, who will be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame today, is exactly that.
Nelson always coached a different game, on his way to the all-time record for NBA coaching wins, and he lived the same way. After a game, win or lose, he’d light up a cigar and pour a drink. During the season, with all the travel and disorderly meal plans, he’d balloon up. In the offseason, he’d go to his Maui home and shed those extra pounds, and then the routine would start all over again the next season.
His coaching style was a creative one. In Milwaukee, he invented the “point forward,” using Paul Pressey, which meant plays could start from an unusual place, freeing up his guards.
When he came to the Warriors in 1988, he inherited a team with Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond that became known as the Run TMC gang, for their first initials. It was an enormously enjoyable team to watch because of the run-and-gun offense.
Nelson wasn’t an easy coach to play for because he was very demanding and could be harsh in his treatment of players, as Red Auerbach was on him when he played for the Boston Celtics. He did finally back off on his in-game criticism of players, but not in practice.
In the playoffs, Nelson always came up with something new, especially in the first round, that confounded the opposing coach. Again, it was great entertainment, though his Warriors teams never got past the semifinals, even the teams that won 50 and 55 games in the regular season.
Nelson often said that the difference between the Warriors teams he coached and the Celtics teams he played on was that the teams he coached did not have Bill Russell. It was a valid point. The Celtics had also been a highly entertaining offensive team with guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, but not big winners until Auerbach traded Ed Macauley for the chance to draft Russell.
But Nelson’s attempts to emulate Auerbach’s canny move went awry. In his first attempt, he traded Richmond for Billy Owens, which he later said was the worst move he had ever made. For whatever reason, Owens never played well for the Warriors.
Nelson’s next attempt was even worse. He drafted Chris Webber, who seemed like the big man he needed, but then treated him as he always did rookies, with harsh criticism. Webber did not take it well. Nelson made no attempt to heal the breech in the offseason. The feud between player and coach continued until Webber was traded the next year. The team went downhill and Nelson was fired early in his seventh season.
He came back to the Warriors in 2006 and got them into the playoffs once while lasting long enough to get the record for wins which was always his goal, though he denied that.
Nelson is a true original, the type of character pro sports need more of. He’s a welcome addition to the Hall of Fame.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.