Nelson: 'Luckiest guy in the world'
The labels, flattering or otherwise, are immaterial to Don Nelson now.
The same questions have been posed for years, over and over, about an NBA coaching lifer who was also somehow seen as staunchly anti-establishment the whole time, but Nelson's done trying to sway you.
Offensive innovator? Or stubborn contrarian?
Charming master of mismatches who turns bad teams good? Or drama-loving mad scientist who almost always left those teams in acrimony?
Or all of the above?
"Whatever people say, that's all right with me," Nellie announces into the phone, speaking with the unmistakable tone of a man at peace.
Which must be because, as of Friday night, you'll have to call him a Hall of Famer no matter how you see it.
With the highest regular-season win total (1,335) of any coach in NBA history, Nelson finally broke through with Hall voters in the spring, earning a spot in the 2012 class of Springfield inductees alongside the likes of Reggie Miller, Chet Walker, Ralph Sampson and Jamaal Wilkes, despite the fact that he never managed to coach a team onto the NBA Finals stage.
The 72-year-old, unreservedly calling himself the "luckiest guy in the world," dialed into ESPN.com to rewind through his colorful (and controversial) career in this Q-and-A visit as this weekend's induction ceremonies draw near:
Q: What are you looking forward to most this week?
A: Oh, wow. ... You got any easy questions?
Q: OK, fine. How true is the statement that you had pretty much given up all hope of getting into the Hall?
A: Absolutely. I didn't think this was going to happen. I think I got rejected four times, so I had pretty well dismissed it from my mind. But I think Jerry Sloan helped me. He got in a couple years ago without winning a championship and I think that might have helped open the door for me.
[Former Bucks and Warriors owner] Jim Fitzgerald is the guy that wanted it to happen so bad. He's the one who kept having [ex-Bucks PR man] Bill King send in all the [Hall of Fame application] materials, all the stats and whatever else they look at. Fitz kept having him doing it. And then right before Fitz died [in June], I got in and he got such a kick out of it. He already knew that he wouldn't be able to be there, but he was just so happy.
Q: The story you used to tell, as I remember it, is that you didn't even want to be a head coach when you took over the Bucks during the 1976-77 season. What happened again?
A: I turned the job down three times, but Fitz made me do it. Larry [Costello] resigned suddenly, but I just wasn't ready to be a head coach. I was 36 years old. I wanted to coach two or three years with Larry and then Jack Ramsay is the guy I really wanted to work under. I thought after six or seven years I'd know enough to be a head coach. That was my plan. But the third time Fitz said: "Just try it out. We'll just have a handshake deal, so just try it out and we'll move on after a year if you don't like it." We had a game in two days -- they had to get somebody to stand in there -- so that's what we did. We tried it for a year.
Q: How much were you thinking about coaching when you were still playing with the Celtics?
A: I never thought about coaching. I always wondered what in the world I'm going to do when I retire. That's why I tried refereeing [in summer league before joining the Bucks]. I didn't really know any coaches other than the Celtics' guys. I didn't get friendly with other coaches and I played so long with the Celtics that they were the only coaches I knew. I wouldn't have even known who to call.
Q: So how did you get on the Bucks' radar?
A: [Then-Bucks GM] Wayne Embry is actually who thought of it. Larry was very conservative and Wayne thought he needed a guy that the players could identify with. He asked if I'd come in and be Larry's assistant. I was the type of guy he was looking for -- ex-player -- and that's why I got the job.
Q: You were part of five championship teams in Boston as a player and no one ever talks much about that. Maybe they'll show an occasional replay of your shot against the Lakers [in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals that bounced high off the rim and in], but that's it. How much, deep down, does that bug you?
A: I was just a so-so player anyway. I was lucky enough to hang around with a great team for a long time. What I brought to the party was in a reserve role. I was just a 25-minute player.
But I'll never forget, when I was coaching my first stint with the Warriors, we're playing in Boston and we're having a morning practice or shootaround. So I went over to Mitch [Richmond] and said: "See that No. 19 hanging up there?" I said: "Yeah, that's my number." And Mitch said: "You played, Coach?"
Q: I know I've asked you a variation of this question before, but how much did winning those rings as a player soften the blow of not winning a championship as a coach? Or did [playing success] actually make coaching more frustrating?
A: I always felt that my teams overachieved ... or we at least gave everything we had every time in the playoffs. When we got beat, it was a better team that beat us I think all except one time, where Seattle beat [Golden State in the first round in 1992]. When we were supposed to win, we won. And we even won a bunch of times when we weren't supposed to win. As long as we played to our potential, or over it, I didn't really have any problem with it.
There's only one time, when the Celtics beat us in Game 7 there by a couple points [in 1987], that it really affected me. I lost it after the game, started crying like a baby. Players were coming over to me to console me, which was pretty strange. That's the only time I can remember where I just felt that I let the team down and we should have won. But guess what happened? The Lakers beat the Celtics and won the championship that year. There's always somebody better.
Q: What's your reaction when you hear people talking about Nellie Ball? How would you define it?
A: I suppose it means small ball, fast and exciting, point forward, players playing out of position ... all those kinds of things. It's kind of funny to me when people talk about stuff like that. I don't necessarily think it's accurate. You only play Nellie Ball when you don't have a very good team, or when you have a bunch of good small players and not many good big players. When you have bad teams, you've got to be creative to win games you're not supposed to win.
I was innovative when I had to be, but I wasn't innovative when I didn't have to be. When I had good teams and big teams, I didn't play small ball. When I was in Milwaukee and we had Bob Lanier, we went inside. What I did really was evaluate the team and play the way that I thought we had to play to be the most competitive. If I had a big center, I wouldn't have played so fast. I would have waited for Lanier to get down [the court] like I did in Milwaukee. Those teams were defensive-oriented and those were my best teams, too, by the way.
Q: Best players you've coached?
A: Sidney Moncrief. [Dirk] Nowitzki and [Steve] Nash. [Chris] Mullin, [Tim] Hardaway and Richmond. I think those would be the top guys.
Q: Not a lot of people get to coach or build teams with their son. How much more meaningful is the whole Dirk Nowitzki experience and what he's become because your son Donnie was such a big part of it?
A: Any time you get a chance to work with your son, it's got to be a 10. To go through those things together, first with Sarunas [Marciulionis] and all the stuff Donnie did to get him, and then finding Nowitzki and him becoming the player we thought he's going to be and the success that the team had ... are you kidding me? You couldn't write a book better than the way all that stuff turned out.
When I saw Dirk for the first time, he was the greatest 17- or 18-year-old or whatever he was that I'd ever witnessed. But the best part was that Donnie somehow got the practices [for the European All-Star team that Nowitzki was playing on leading up to the Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio in 1998] to be in Dallas at the YMCA. And no one was allowed to go into those practices except Donnie and I. So for a whole week I watched Nowitzki play. I hadn't seen many players at a young age, but he was the most unbelievable played I'd ever seen at that age. I couldn't believe what he was capable of.
Paul Pierce was [available] there [with the ninth pick in the 1998 draft] and he would have been a great pick as well, but we still took Nowitzki because of the size and the things he could do.
Q: We can't ignore the fact that you've had your share of run-ins along the way and that's probably one of the reasons it took you so long to get into the Hall. Chris Webber, Chris Cohan, Patrick Ewing, Mark Cuban ... how many of those [feuds] have you patched up now and put behind you?
A: They're all behind me as far as I'm concerned. I'm at the stage of my career now that I can't remember any of the bad things that happened. All the tough losses, all the ups and down ... I can only remember the good things. I guess it's like going through childbirth. Like the women who say they can't remember how hard it was when they look at their baby.
Q: You sat down with some Bay Area writers recently and re-told the story about how you might have had a chance to coach the Celtics in the '80s, but I also remember you telling us the story of a chance you might have had to coach the Spurs. Which one is the bigger regret?
A: That [latter] one really is a regret. I couldn't have left Fitz [and the Warriors], but it was clear that it wasn't going to work out with Webber and I. So I begged [Fitzgerald] to keep Chris and let me go. [Gregg] Popovich was holding the [San Antonio] job open for me. All I had to do is make sure I was free. I knew I was going to get fired in Golden State, that's the way things were looking, but they wouldn't let me go. And then they fired me four months later.
They were also selling the team right around that time, so there were issues. I don't know exactly how much influence that had, but I should have been the guy that left. Keep the star player, get a new guy in that does a better job of handling him and let me move on. I'd have gone to San Antonio and I'd probably still be coaching today.
Q: I'm not sure San Antonio would have been big enough for you and Pop.
A (Laughing): Pop would have been my GM. What fun we would've had.
Q: What about this nonsense you've been trying to peddle lately that you're finished with coaching?
A: All done. All done. I'm cooked. I'm having so much fun not coaching now I can't even imagine ever even thinking about it again.
Q: I don't know that I believe you.
A: It was hard for me [to say that a year ago]. That's why I tried to get the Minnesota job. But not anymore. I'm just having a ball.
I spent 50 years in the NBA. Can you imagine doing something that you love the most in the entire world and doing it for your entire life and, besides that, getting a pile of money for it? It's unbelievable. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. And I know it.
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