While many NBA coaches sit in their offices before a game and agonize over an opponent's ability to upset their evening, the Golden State Warriors' DonNelson sneaks out a back door at Oracle Arena, slides behind an area specifically curtained off for him, plops down on a stool, pulls out a lighter and fires up a cigar as big as a baby's arm. He takes a deep puff and soon his head disappears in a great plume of smoke.
It is difficult to even see Nelson until the smoke rises and dissipates into the East Bay air. Hell, some think it is always difficult to see Nelson -- the true Nelson. He's a living, breathing contradiction, one of the most polarizing figures in the NBA, known for infamous battles with players and owners and viewed warily by his peers, many of whom have felt the sting of his political maneuvering or know somebody who has and have been apprised of the stories. Nelson is creative, innovative, daring and enduring. And if his last name were Brown, he would have been in the Hall of Fame long ago.
Instead, another spring weekend went by with Nelson on the ballot for enshrinement in Springfield, Mass., and he once again fell short, despite a playing and coaching résumé that spans more than four decades and includes more victories (1,333) than any coach in his sport -- an achievement he reached Wednesday with a 116-107 victory at Minnesota, breaking a tie with Lenny Wilkens.
Nelson, 69, says he does not dwell on being passed over multiple times by the voting committee, a combination of Hall of Famers, basketball executives, media members and other contributors to the game whose identities are not revealed. But he has to know that many in the sport see his foibles more prominently than his contributions, and whether through outright collusion or simple human nature, voters appear intent on making him a pariah for as long as possible, until uproar over his exclusion can no longer be overlooked.
The fact that Nelson has more wins than any other coach is ironic if only because he said he never even thought about coaching when he retired as a player in 1976 after 14 seasons with three teams. The majority of his career was spent in Boston, where he won five championships and will forever be remembered for the shot that bounced high off the back rim and through the net in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.
After Nelson first attempted a post-playing career as an official -- he failed out of referee camp, according to one contemporary -- he landed in Milwaukee when general manager Wayne Embry, a teammate of Nelson's in Boston, asked him to join coach Larry Costello's staff. After firing Costello following a 3-15 start to the 1976-77 season, Embry sought to have Nelson take over as head coach. Nelson said he refused because he felt he needed more experience as an assistant. When Embry asked once more, Nelson again said no with the hope he'd eventually get to work with and learn from JackRamsay, who led Portland to its first and only title that season.
When Embry asked a third time, Nelson finally relented.
"I told them I would do it for the rest of the year, and we'll see how it goes," Nelson said. "I really liked the owner. He gave me a test [and] said I was the most competitive person he had ever met. He told me to give it a go, so I did."
It was the beginning of a coaching run that later sent him to Golden State, then to New York, then Dallas and back to Golden State -- a tenure that has produced 18 playoff teams and many more enemies.
A man of his stature should be celebrated, a parade of young colleagues fervently seeking advice from the dean of coaches. They could inquire about the seven consecutive division titles in Milwaukee. Or the Run TMC days of TimHardaway, Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond in Golden State. Or his experience with Dream Team II, which won the gold medal at the 1994 FIBA World Championships in Toronto. Or his successful stint in Dallas, which helped transform the Mavericks from perennial doormats into a consistent playoff team. Or they could even ask about his "We Believe" run in Golden State in 2007, when the Warriors upended the Mavs, the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 in a seven-game series, a result that helped lead to the firing of Avery Johnson, the man whom Nelson groomed to succeed him in Dallas.
The milestones, the medals -- he has more than a few of those. But perhaps more notable is Nelson's influence on the game. He's known for his unique style of small ball, which developed when he picked up on a trend in practice and which he used time and again in his various coaching stops.
"I always wondered why big players couldn't do what small players do," Nelson said. "And I always thought that small players could beat big players because it is a fast game. It is harder for bigs to guard smalls than for smalls to guard bigs in a fast-paced game. That was proved many times in practice when the smalls would play the bigs in a full-court game. So I tried to take advantage of that: If I could guard you but you couldn't guard me, that was a mismatch either way."
Nelson is also widely credited for developing the point-forward position when he let the 6-foot-5 Paul Pressey of Milwaukee bring the ball up the court and make plays, creating another mismatch. (However, some say the founder of the point forward is Hall of Famer Wilkens, who, with Seattle in 1977, instructed 6-7 small forward John Johnson to help guards Gus Williams and DennisJohnson distribute the ball. The following year, the Sonics won the title and John Johnson led the team with 4.4 assists.)
"I wouldn't argue with [Wilkens getting credit for it]," Nelson said. "That would be fine with me. I don't care to take credit. I just used point forward because I thought it was a tremendous advantage."
But with his small-ball style and use of the point forward, Nelson has received his share of criticism: Is the goal to pile up meaningless regular-season wins, or is it to hang championship banners from the ceilings of state-of-the-art arenas? In his 18 postseason trips, Nelson advanced as far as the conference finals only four times -- three with Milwaukee, one with Dallas -- and never reached the NBA Finals.
In most observers' eyes, there is a difference between the winningest and the most successful. Just ask Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach, who trail Nelson by 237 and 395 wins, respectively, but who have 19 more championships between them.
For each success, there has been a companion dose of controversy and back-office mayhem that has perhaps shaped Nelson's legacy more than anything.
Embry, a Hall of Famer and the league's first African-American general manager, accused Nelson of calling him a racial epithet not long after Embry hired him in Milwaukee. Nelson strongly denied the claim, including as recently as this season, when the agent for Bobcats swingman Stephen Jacksonused the alleged incident as grist to get Jackson traded from Golden State.
Nelson achieved a lot of success in Golden State with the Run TMC core, but it essentially ended when he had a public dispute in 1993 with then-rookie Chris Webber, a strong-willed player and member of Michigan's Fab Five, who felt Nelson disrespected him. Webber was ultimately dealt to Washington for Tom Gugliotta and three first-round picks, the first misstep in owner Chris Cohan's largely unsuccessful ownership stint; Nelson was fired soon thereafter.
Nelson had a mostly unpopular and brief stint in New York, where he openly clashed with players and was probably the wrong coach to take over after PatRiley had built defensive-oriented teams. In Dallas, he recorded four straight 50-win seasons, but again, it all ended with a feud. (He sued owner Mark Cuban and was awarded $6.3 million in deferred payments by an arbitrator.) And when he returned to Golden State, Nelson stirred controversy as rumors circulated about his role in the firing of then-GM Mullin and the dismantling of the roster that briefly invigorated Warriors fans with Golden State's first-round upset of Dallas.
By most accounts, this season has been a debacle. Nelson feuded with Stephen Jackson, ridiculed Andris Biedrins for his dreadful free-throw shooting and clashed with star guard Monta Ellis, whom many think got worn down after Nelson continued to play him in a string of 48-minute games.
But Nelson's supporters say he has never done a better job. While the Warriors have dealt with more injuries than any other team in the league, Nelson has helped a roster full of D-League players stay competitive in most games. Even when the Warriors are losing by more than 20 points, they almost always seem to make a comeback.
Perhaps it is Nelson's mien and countenance that have polluted public opinion. He knows his lengthy career is over either after this season -- if he is fired -- or next, when his contract runs out. He no longer plays the public relations game with the media, choosing instead to sometimes endure but mostly ignore and dismiss questions he doesn't feel like answering.
Nelson simply appears to not care any longer.
"For those of us who work our butts off every day because we appreciate being in this league, it is an insult the way he acts," said one coach who wished to remain anonymous. "He has no energy for the game."
Yet Nelson disputes that notion, insisting that he approaches the game with the same amount of zeal as he did in those uncertain days in Milwaukee.
"I enjoy every day of it," he said. "Every day. I love to compete."
Those within the Warriors' organization know Nelson will not retire after this season, not with $6 million left on his contract. Whether he gets another chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame as an active coach remains to be seen. He's been nominated three times since 2007, with this year being the latest setback. There are many possible reasons why: his demeanor, voters' knowledge of him, the résumé of other nominees on the ballot, the fact that he's never won a title -- who knows when the process is so secretive?
"I think [winning a title] is important," Nelson said. "But Jerry Sloan got in, so that probably helped my cause, whatever the cause is."
Sloan did not win any championships as a player with the Baltimore Bullets or the Chicago Bulls. He has not won an NBA title as a coach, though he made it to the Finals twice. He has about 250 fewer victories than Nelson (though Sloan's winning percentage is superior). He has no Coach of the Year awards, while Nelson has three. And yet, the Hall of Fame inducted Sloan in 2009.
"I never said I don't care about the Hall of Fame," Nelson said. "I said I'm not worthy of the Hall of Fame, not that it doesn't matter for me. It would be a great honor.
"But I don't have to have any accolades. I have been a good coach. Anybody you talk to will tell you I have been a good coach wherever I have been, and that is what is important to me."