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An Oldie Again Golden

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Depending on who's cheerleading these days, Don Nelson is the mad scientist who resurrected Golden State while defrocking Dallas and his former pupil, Dirk Nowitzki. Or he's the visionary who brought back stop-and-pop transition play and made NBA basketball watchable again. Maybe it's both and more.

Why, by giving Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis freedom to break some ankles in the open court, Nelson got credit last week from John Thompson Jr. for making the inner-city player relevant again.

That's a new one for Nelson, whose longtime infatuation with international players -- from Sarunas Marciulionis to Dirk and beyond -- led to him once being blamed for outsourcing America's game.

Now Nellie is giving the Warriors more street cred than Nelly?

"That's great, I love it," Nelson said, speaking from a cellphone aboard the team bus yesterday afternoon in Salt Lake City. "Keep it coming." Nellie's patented cackle was not quite sinister. But the laugh got to the crux of the current national love-in enveloping Golden State's rumpled, 66-year-old, scotch-and-a-beer coach, whose Warriors have electrified a star-dudded postseason.

At some point over his 40-plus seasons in the NBA -- 28 as a coach, 14 as a player -- you end up next to Nelson on a bar stool, playing revisionist historian for him.

You forget the firings, how he was labeled so out-of-touch with the modern player -- from former Gen-X kids like Chris Webber to creaky-kneed warriors like Patrick Ewing -- that it cost him two jobs in two years.

You forget the small-ball gimmickry that's never gotten one of his teams to the NBA Finals and few out of the second round. And you end up lauding Nelson for upping the league's entertainment quotient, for his offensive genius at a time when Pat Riley and every copycat's stated goal was to stop the opponent from scoring.

You forget about conniving and devious, two of the traits Nelson used to exile players and coaches while winning public opinion. Somehow, over time, they morphed into the more palatable "competitiveness" and "gamesmanship."

Don't misunderstand. Don Nelson is one of the great innovators of the modern game. He is a carnival barker as much as a coach who's won more NBA games than anyone except Lenny Wilkens.

Who greenlights 7-foot-6 stick Manute Bol to recklessly launch three-pointers the way Nelson did in his first tenure with Golden State? That was the NBA equivalent of Bill Veeck paying the midget Eddie Gaedel to bat in a major league game.

Nelson's craggy-faced, haggard appearance -- the Iowa folksiness and his Bud Light-fueled follies -- make him as familiar as your grandmother's ottoman. Nellie is musty. He comes from the attic. Even the nickname invokes a dilapidated stripped-down '70 Chevy, running more on memories than fumes. He's an aged Han Solo, forever trying to fix the Millennium Falcon.

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."

I told him I found his renewed commitment to the playground player (read: young, black and athletic) interesting, given that it's being highlighted almost three years to the day after he fended off charges of racism from Wayne Embry, whose character few have ever questioned.

Embry wrote in his autobiography that the two discussed the dismissal of San Diego Clippers coach Paul Silas after the 1982-83 season. Embry noted how unfortunate it was for Silas because it was so difficult for blacks to be hired to coach in the NBA.

Wrote Embry: "There was a pause in the conversation and then Nellie said, 'They're not qualified.' "

Nelson has denied making the statement and asked that I not bring it up in this story. It should be noted that one of his Golden State assistants is Stephen Silas, Paul's son, and that many former players and coaches came to his defense when the allegation first came out.

If anything, the story reveals less black-and-white clarity about Nelson and more gray areas. Distilling who he is and what he is about is an ongoing science.

Take the former boss who asked me to do a story about cronyism in the NBA, specifically how a washed-up old Celtic like Nelson could still get a job after he was fired by the Knicks. I called up Nelson and, somewhat uncomfortably, asked if I could speak with him while in Dallas.

"Hey, how ya doin'?" he said, gleefully. "Whaddya got goin' on this summer?"

Nellie, whom I peripherally knew, wanted to know if I could housesit for him in Maui, that he wasn't going to be there all that much with the new job and all. The cronyism story died about the time the Mavericks took flight.

Two refurbished franchises and 11 years later, Nellie's story is still a work in progress. I asked him yesterday what was the best thing about Golden State's surreal run.

"Well, it's nice the writers don't have to come up with the cliches, like: 'He's too old. That offense will never work here.' I kind of got rid of that for a while, don't you think?"

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