After spending 31 years coaching in the NBA, Don Nelson now enjoys the good life in Maui. (Marco Garcia/SI)
In his 2012 Hall of Fame induction speech, Don Nelson expressed gratitude to those who influenced a playing and coaching career that spanned five decades, as you probably expected. But it also included an atypical farewell to the sport's establishment.
"Hopefully this will be my last tuxedo," the NBA's all-time winningest coach said, prompting laughter from commissioner David Stern and others, even though he wasn't really joking. "I'm going to go to Maui. There is life after basketball. ... Come out and have a cup of coffee on Maui with me. I'm in a little town called Paia. I have a coffee shop there and some shaved ice. Come on down, we'll enjoy it."
The invitation seemed both genuine and unlikely to inspire many takers among the hoops legends assembled in Springfield, Mass. Enter Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard, who recently ventured to Paia, where things were much as Nelson, 73, had promised. There was coffee, shaved ice and the peace and quiet offered by a town that consists of a one-road strip and ocean views that extend in every direction.
Don Nelson owns five pieces of property on Maui. (Marco Garcia/SI)
Ballard's piece in this week's SI detailing his Hawaiian meet-up with Nelson -- which included beer and watching basketball, of course -- serves as both a profile of a former coach and a brain-picking session. A slimmed-down and tan Nelson sounds fully committed to his post-hoops life, which includes cigars, golf and poker games with Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson, but he still follows basketball with zeal. Nelson, whose career record is 1,335-1,063 (.557), first offers a cutting assessment of the television broadcasters as he takes in a game between the Warriors and Grizzlies. As the contest unfolds, Nelson opines on Warriors past and present, and gives his assessment of Golden State's current coach, Mark Jackson.
The following are a few snippet-style highlights from Nelson's play-by-play in the magazine:
Later, when Warriors forward David Lee gets the ball on the block, Nelson smirks. “You better go to him,” he says, “because he can’t guard anybody.”
Still, even after they lose, he says only positive things about [Mark] Jackson: “A good guy. I thought it would hurt him when he lost his assistant [Mike Malone, now the Kings’ coach], but he’s doing fine. He’s got enough bulls--- that works as a coach.” Nelson chuckles, picks up his Chardonnay. “You got to be a bit of a bulls---ter.”
Unlike many coaches, he loved Stephen Jackson. “That guy’ll give it to you all day,” Nelson says. “He just had some mental issues. He played his ass off for me. You just never knew when he was going to blow his mind.”
Nelson also provides a candid vignette about polarizing Mavericks guard Monta Ellis, whom he coached from 2006 until 2010.
As for former Golden State guard Monta Ellis, now with the Mavericks, Nelson calls him “an incredible, gifted athlete” but “a pain in the ass when I had him.” One day, Nellie recalls, “I said, ‘You know, Monta, this is what I want you to do in practice today. I don’t want you to take a shot. I think you have the ability to create and make plays. If you could ever be a point guard, the way you can score, you could really be a special player.’ So he did. He found people in practice. And I said, ‘Monta, why don’t you focus on being a great point guard. They have the most fun of anybody. They’re the man, they control everything.’ ” Nellie pauses. “He said, ‘Coach, I just want to play. I just want to play.’ He wouldn’t consider that. Now, as he’s matured, he’s started making plays. To his credit, he’s a pretty good player right now. When I had him, all he wanted to do, little selfish bastard, was to shoot every time. And never pass.”
Nelson was on the bench in 2009-10, when Ellis registered career highs of 22 shots per game and a usage rate of 29.5 percent. In the four seasons that Nelson coached Ellis, the nine-year veteran averaged more than five assists only once. Ellis has reached that passing threshold in all four seasons since Nelson's retirement, and he's managed to shoot fewer than 18 times per game in each of the last three seasons. Still, his usage rate is 26.9 this season, ranking him among the NBA's top 20.
Don Nelson commissioned a painting of his poker crew, which includes Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson. (Marco Garcia/SI)
Even if Nelson's observations about his former players are blunt, the tone throughout this profile is anything but malicious. Ballard hints that he thinks Nelson might be slightly exaggerating his delighted facade, but the takeaway seems to be just how successfully Nelson has managed to remove himself from the NBA world and carve a new identity in the middle of nowhere. Possible links to his previous life -- Facebook, Twitter, blogs, an autobiography -- are generally ignored in favor of an active social life and a regular pursuit of his hobbies.
“I try to live in the now,” Nelson tells Ballard, singing the same tune as he did during during his Hall of Fame speech. “The past really doesn’t interest me that much.”