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An Oldie Again Golden
But it's hard to completely square the lovable carouser everybody is gloating over now with the NBA survivalist, the man who has done everything imaginable to stay employed in this league for almost a half-century.
Beneath the Uncle Nellie veneer, there is an old, aloof Celtic who believes you cannot possibly know more about the game than him.
There is the aging veteran who once drank a former teammate under the table, until the kid was ill equipped to take Nelson's starting job during his last Celtics training camp. Steve Kuberski could slog, but not like Nellie. "First of all, I liked beer," Nelson said, remembering the story. "And, well, I could probably drink more than the rookies could."
While coaching the Knicks for an abbreviated 59 games in 1995-96, Nelson told me a story involving John Starks. He said a fan approached the former Knicks guard after a game and asked him to sign a pennant for his brother. "His name is Marc. Marc with a 'C.' "
When the fan got the pennant returned, Nelson said, it read, "To Cark." Marc with a "C," get it?
Nellie delighted in telling that story, prefacing it with, "This is how stupid John Starks is." He wanted Starks traded and was prepared to give up any information that might lead to that end.
Starks didn't remember the incident when I asked him about it years later, and to this day I don't know if it is true. I know Nellie used a similar "not bright" comment while trying to get Michael Finley traded from Dallas.
And I know beating Avery Johnson in the first round felt like vindication for Nellie, who, although he gave Johnson his start, could not stomach the attention Johnson was getting for molding the Mavericks into a championship-caliber team.
Does this make Nellie a bad guy or merely another ultra-competitive coach interested in preserving his own legacy? I don't know.
I do know the Warriors and Jazz played a classic on Monday night. Until Utah flexed at the end and held on, America's church-league team almost ran the Jazz out of its gym in one of those games from the 1980s. It was Helter Skelter State vs. Pick-and-Roll U. On steroids.
One of Nelson's many contributions to the game was bringing back the beauty of chaos to the court, the idea that anyone could score at any time from any angle.
"It'll finally make the turn for good when one of the running teams win the title," he said. "If the Suns win it all, then things will really change. Because everyone in this league wants to do what the winners do."