"He can't jump, he can't run, yet he makes monkeys out of the young guys."
-Tom Heisholm, former Boston Celtics coach
One of the NBA's most innovative and unorthodox coaches, Nelson is considered by some to be genius, while others believe him to be a madman. But his results firmly plant him in the former category. Nellie is the third-winningest coach in NBA history with a record of 1036-806 (.562), while he and Pat Riley are the only coaches ever to be named Coach of the Year three times (1983, 1985 and 1992). Beginning as a player for the the championship Celtics, and currently the Head Coach and General Manager of the formidable Dallas Mavericks, Nellie's NBA career has spanned over forty years. As a survivor of prostate cancer, Nellie has proven himself to be equally perseverant off-court as he has been in those forty years in the league. Nellie Sr.'s son Donnie Nelson, is widely considered to be the NBA's singular ambassador abroad, and also serves as the Mavericks' President of Basketball Operations/assistant coach.
Born on May 15, 1940, Nelson didn't play organized basketball until his second year of junior high in Rock Island, Ill. He attended the University of Iowa and was a two-time All-American. Upon his graduation in 1962, the 6'6" Nelson went in the third round of the draft to the Chicago Zepyrs, who would evolve into the Washington Wizards. After a year with Chicago, he was sold to the L.A. Lakers, where he spent two more years before being waived. When the Boston Celtics lost F Ronnie Watts in the first game of the 1965-66 season, Coach Red Auerbach gave Nellie a call and arranged a tryout.
Auerbach signed the young Nellie, leaving many to wonder what he was thinking. As a player, Nelson provided fuel for a number of critics: he couldn't run, they said, he couldn't jump, and he didn't shoot all that well. Admittedly, all of these observations were true. But they were unable to deny that Nelson could out-think any player on the court. Because of his shortcomings, Nelson only rarely started for the Celtics, but is considered one of their greatest sixth men. He had a lengthy and productive career with the Celtics, earning five championship rings, and having his #19 jersey retired. He missed only 27 games in 11 seasons with the Celts, and notched a franchise record by playing in 465 games without interruption. His career scoring average is 10.3 ppg, while shooting 48% from the field (50% in the playoffs), and a 77% free throw percentage (82% in the playoffs).
"Nelson looks like a football player and shoots free throws like a shot-putter."
-comment from a random sportswriter
Nelson retired as a player in 1976, but kept basketball on his radar. After a stint officiating in the offseason, Nellie received a call from Wayne Embry, the Milwaukee Bucks' general manager at the time (as well as a former teammate) inquiring whether he would like to join the club as an assistant under Coach Larry Costello for the 1976-77 season. Nellie didn't stay an assistant for long, however. 18 games into the season, Costello resigned and Nelson was promoted to a head coaching position that he really didn't want.
Luckily, Nellie was persuaded to accept the position, and he led the Bucks to a poor 27-37 finish. The following year, however, they went 44-38 and stormed into the playoffs. Beginning in the 1979-80 season, Nellie's Bucks finished first in their division for seven consecutive seasons. After 11 seasons with the Bucks, Nelson became the winningest coach in club history, with a record of 540-344.
Nellie's inexperience made him more receptive to try things on the court that most head coaches would shy away from, and his success at doing this made him undeniably popular in Milwaukee (as well as his humanitarian contributions--twice he drove a tractor across Wisconsin to auction off his fish ties to gather contributions for farm families, an effort that helped many families). But unfortunately for his fans, after winning two NBA Coach of the Year Awards in Milwaukee, Nellie resigned in May of 1987 as a result of conflicts with the club's owners.
After leaving the Bucks, he joined the Golden State Warriors as part-owner and executive vice president, but another coaching job soon beckoned. Nellie would take the reins of the Warriors in 1988-89 after the resignation of coach George Karl. In 1988-89, Nelson's first season with the Warriors, the team went 43-39 and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. This record bettered the previous season by 23 more wins, one of the largest turnarounds in league history. Nelson would coach Golden State quite successfully (and win another Coach of the Year Award) until 1994-5, when injuries and a falling out with F Chris Webber hindered the Warriors' season. Nelson suffered from physical maladies as a result, and resigned as head coach in February 1995.
Under Nellie, the Warriors notched two 50-win seasons and four playoff appearances in his seven-and-a-half seasons as head coach. Prior to his arrival, Golden State had failed to make the playoffs in nine-of-10 years, and have not been back to the postseason since his departure. In July 1995, Nellie secured his next job, as Head Coach of the New York Kicks. He lasted less than a season before he left New York and decided to retire from coaching. Nellie was replaced by Jeff van Gundy.
"As long as he doesn't get senile, he'll be able to play this game. His legs and body don't mean a thing. He's all head."
-former teammate Paul Westphal
On February 7th, 1997, Nellie was lured to come out of retirement in to act as General Manager
for the Dallas Mavericks
. By early in the following season, he had replaced Jim Cleamons
as the Mavericks' head coach. In a trade that was highly ridiculed at the time, Nellie gave up Jason Kidd
in exchange for an underachieving Canadian
named Steve Nash
, as well as initiating a draft day trade in 1998 with the Milwaukee Bucks that sent them Robert "Tractor" Traylor
in exchange for Germany
's Dirk Nowitzki
. While these trades were considered, even by some Dallas fans, to be incredibly stupid
and one-sided, Nash and Nowitzki now consitute two thirds of Dallas' "Big Three" and have provided the catalyst
for the Mavericks' ascension from a sub-par expansion team to a member of the league elite
When billionaire Mark Cuban purchased the Mavericks in 2000, he requested that Nellie stay on as Head Coach and GM, two positions which he holds to this day. In NBA history, Nellie is behind only Lenny Wilkens in combined total games, either played in or coached. Nellie was selected as one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA History by a panel of former coaches, players and media in commemoration of the NBA at 50 celebration. He also coached Dream Team II to a gold medal at the 1994 World Basketball Championships in Toronto.
In early 2000, Don Nelson was diagnosed with prostate cancer
. Nellie chose to have a radical prostatectomy
since the cancer hadn't yet spread beyond his prostate, and he didn't want to deal with a recurrance. Around a month after his surgery
Nellie was right back on the court, although his incontinence
(a side effect of the surgery) took about a year to get under control. Nellie plays an active role in financing cancer research, as his wife Joy was also afflicted by the disease (breast cancer
"He's not afraid to try things. He throws out the so-called book."
-former Golden State coach Al Attles
Despite his massive achievements, Nellie is most defined by his reputation as an innovator. At 6'6" tall, Nellie was what was known as a tweener, a player usually put at a disadvantage because they do not have the ballhandling skills needed to be a successful shooting or point guard, but also lack the height needed to play at small forward. However, Nellie's acute perception of mismatches allowed him to overcome any disdvantage he might have faced, an ability which was converted into a successful coaching career.
Nellie is credited with the introduction of the point forward concept, which permitted Bucks forward and defensive ace Paul Pressey to run the offense out front so guards Sidney Moncrief and Ricky Pierce could patrol outside and score on higher percentage shots. When Nellie's warriors met the Utah Jazz in the 1989 playoffs, Nellie gave 6'7" Chris Mullin the task of guarding 7'4" Mark Eaton, a move that prompted observers to declare that Don Nelson was flat-out crazy. But his strategy worked. Since Eaton was being guarded by the much shorter Mullin, teammates would pass the ball to Eaton instead of the formidable John Stockton/Karl Malone tandem. Golden State would sweep Utah in that series. Nellie also goes down in history as the only coach who would encourage Manute Bol to try and shoot three-pointers.