'Storybook' career for Nelson, even without championship as coach
OAKLAND, Calif. -- The question was a necessary and relevant one for a Hall of Fame inductee whose career is being widely chronicled lately in honor of his legacy.
"Are you done coaching?" a local writer asked Don Nelson at an informal luncheon last week. "You can say that definitively?"
What was puzzling, however, is that the question was posed more than once, even after Nelson -- a sun-soaked and svelte 72-year-old who appears to be getting younger with every day not spent on an NBA bench -- described at length his post-coaching paradise in Maui.
Nelson was a lot of things in his career that spanned a half century and included five titles as a player with Boston and the record for coaching victories, but foolish wasn't one of them. So no, the play-caller who was 1,335-1,063 in 31 seasons with Milwaukee, Golden State, New York and Dallas won't be leaving his life of poker games, shaved ice stands, coffee and olive trees, and beachfront property in order to chase yet another coaching opening. He did agree to leave the islands for Friday's induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, though, and he'll do so as a man who appreciates the invite and is at peace with his legacy.
It's funny how that one glaring void on his résumé (a championship as a coach) never seems to bother him when he's enjoying the sort of retirement we all should envy, how the bad times he had (like, say, his unceremonious firing by Golden State in September 2010 that brought on retirement before he'd asked for it) have been erased from his memory bank and replaced with a daily dose of beauty and bliss. Nelson, who lives with his wife, Joy, in the town of Paia that sits on the famed Road to Hana, is content and without regrets.
"I've had one of those very special lives, really," said the reflective and relaxed Nelson, who is 30 pounds lighter than he was at the end of his career. "I've been in the NBA since I was 22. It's almost 50 years of my life. ... I'm sure there's a lot of tears when you lose and all that, a lot of down times. But I can't remember any of them. They're all positive now. Even the bad times were good. That's kind of where my mind is right now. One of those storybook lives, really."
To hear Nelson tell his old tales was to be reminded of how fickle fate can be. Just as he was building his reputation as one of the game's great innovators, a proponent of the small-ball approach that changed the way traditional offense was viewed but was also his way of maximizing often-mediocre talent, he said Red Auerbach gave him a chance to replace Bill Fitch as Celtics coach after Nelson's Milwaukee Bucks swept Boston in the 1983 Eastern Conference semifinals.
"After the last game, we were walking in the arena together and [Auerbach] said, 'Would you ever think about coaching the Celtics?' As a career move, I should've jumped all over it," Nelson said. "I was on a year-to-year handshake [deal] with [then-Bucks owner] Jim Fitzgerald. I just said I couldn't do it because Jim Fitzgerald was so good to me."
The Larry Bird-led Celtics, of course, won the title in two of the next four seasons under K.C. Jones while falling in the NBA Finals to the Lakers the other two times. They downed Nelson's Bucks to get there in three of those four seasons, twice in the Eastern Conference finals and once in the semifinals, back when his identity as a coach was -- no typo here -- more defensive-minded.
Still, Nelson reiterated, no one should be feeling sorry for him. There were the three Coach of the Year awards, a distinction shared only by Pat Riley. There were memorable battles in Milwaukee, the wondrous Run TMC group of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin with the Warriors, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki with the Mavs, and enough wins down the stretch of his career to help with the Hall selection after he had been turned away four times.
"Part of that was my own doing," Nelson said of never winning a title as coach after passing on the Boston opportunity. "The other part was that I really enjoyed taking over bad teams and making good ones out of them. Building something that wasn't very attractive and making it attractive was something I enjoyed doing. You get a lot of losses doing that, but I enjoyed it. It was fun."
Interestingly, Nelson's calling card as a coach was born out of his days in Boston, where he played 11 of his 14 seasons. Small ball was an Auerbach production, a clever way of keeping his players engaged once the season started to take its toll.
"When it gets to midseason, and practices are drudgery, he would play the big guys against the small guys, and the smalls would always win," Nelson said. "You put Bill Russell on the other team and everybody else big, and put the smalls [on the other team]. It wasn't a close game.
"I think it all started, really, from those practices. Of course it didn't hurt that we had [John] Havlicek on our side in small ball."
He laughed when he mentioned that last detail, just as he'd laughed at least a few dozen other times during a meal that lasted more than an hour. He found the shaved ice industry funny, specifically the idea that someone like him could make 95 percent profit by selling ice and cheap flavoring. He chuckled at how his coffee was voted the fourth best on Maui, grinned during stories of those poker games with his famous and quirky neighbors Willie Nelson, Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson, and smiled while discussing the wedding operation he's opening on his private beach (fit with a 4,000-square-foot reception hall for would-be customers who want to be wed on the water).
Yes, Nelson -- who pursued the Minnesota coaching job last summer before losing out to Rick Adelman -- is happy as a retiree. And no, there's no longer any reason to wonder if he'll be coming back.
"I'm having so much fun not coaching in a life that I didn't know about, doing all these interesting things," Nelson said. "I didn't know that I was going to have so much fun not coaching. There is life after basketball. I didn't know that. I know it now. And I would not go back."