Like most residents, Don Nelson was content with life in Hawaii. He started his days on the golf course and ended his evenings with beer, indulging in his ultimate paradise. With a 30-year basketball career behind him, Nelson was finally ready to embrace the stillness of his new setting, pick up a cigar and watch the waves in Maui.
The Dallas Mavericks and minority owner Frank Zaccanelli had other ideas. As the team worked tirelessly to find its next general manager in 1997, Nelson’s name kept landing at the top of the list.
“We had heard rumors through the league that Nellie was out in Hawaii, he was really happy and he wasn’t really interested in another job,” Zaccanelli said. “As we got to know Don Nelson, that was proven to be completely wrong. He was by his own admission a lifer in the NBA.”
When Texas billionaire Ross Perot Jr. bought the Mavericks from original owner Don Carter, he and Zaccanelli quickly realized they needed more basketball people in the room. Leading up to the 1996 NBA draft, before they added Nelson, the Mavs didn’t even have Kobe Bryant on their draft board. “Gives you an idea of where the franchise was at the time,” Zaccanelli said.
Despite some reservations, Zaccanelli took off for Hawaii. He quickly realized his trip was the worst kept secret in NBA history. “I literally board the plane, and the pilot comes out of the cockpit and says, ‘Mr. Zaccanelli, good luck with Don Nelson.’ We hadn’t even left the airport yet,” Zaccanelli said.
The hits kept coming for Zaccanelli, who reached Hawaii only to receive a blunt assessment of his team from Nelson. “Your team really stinks,” Nelson said. To which Zaccanelli replied, “I hope I didn’t fly all this way for you to tell me something I already know.”
They hit it off from there, forming a friendship that colored their four-year tenure together in Dallas and served as the backdrop to the best move of Nelson’s career as a general manager: drafting Dirk Nowitzki.
But before Nowitzki could enter the picture, Nelson had to reckon with his Mavericks roster—a ragtag group of players who spent the 1996-97 season hoisting three-pointers at an all-time pace and losing at a similar rate.
Nelson didn’t take the subtle approach with his first act as Mavericks general manager. He walked into the team’s locker room and asked if anyone wished to play elsewhere. To his surprise, 75% of the team raised their hands in unison.
“We had to move a lot of people,” Nelson said. “I didn’t want people around who didn’t want to be there.”
“The only piece I believe we kept in the final assessment was Michael Finley, who we got in the 1996 Jason Kidd trade. A.C. Green, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn were all there at the time,” Zaccanelli said. “Nellie came to me and said, ‘We’re going to move things around.’”
Meanwhile the future of the Mavericks was already under the watchful eye of Nelson’s son, Donnie. He first saw Nowitzki while scouting in Europe and fell in love with his game.
The elder Nelson didn’t have time to watch Nowitzki until the future Hall of Famer traveled stateside for a week of training in Dallas and an exhibition game in San Antonio. Nelson watched Nowitzki practice every day. "This kid has a chance to revolutionize the game of basketball,” he told Zaccanelli.
With that, Nelson started his crusade to keep Nowitzki from traveling to San Antonio, worried that Dirk's performance in the exhibition would attract a slew of attention. He went so far as to meet with Nowitzki’s coach, Holger Geschwindner, to make sure Nowitzki didn’t play in front of other NBA teams. Nothing worked.
“We tried to hide him,” Nelson said. “I didn’t do a lot of scouting of high school players, but I’d never seen a young player with more skill than he had.”
Of course, Nowitzki made it to San Antonio and scored 33 points in the exhibition against American high school players, immediately jumping on the NBA radar and complicating the Mavericks’ 1998 draft day.
Dallas now had to orchestrate a master plan to land Nowitzki and beat out Celtics coach Rick Pitino. The Mavericks worked out deals with the Bucks and Suns to secure Nowitzki’s rights and, somehow, trade for Steve Nash.
The Mavericks had their man and the future looked as bright as Nowitzki’s bleached hair. It wasn’t easy at first, but Nowitzki found himself eventually with the help of Nash and Michael Finley to become one of the best big men in the game's history. He won an NBA title against Miami’s Big Three, made 13 All-Star appearances and became one of only six players in history to post 30,000 career points.
“I thought we had the chance to have an All-Star player and I thought we had a chance to draft a guy we could build around,” Nelson said. “Nobody could predict him scoring 30,000 points, but I thought he was going to be a really good player.”
Nowitzki, who still hasn’t announced retirement plans, did it all with the Mavericks. And to think this all started with a trip to Hawaii.
“I’m so proud of him and what he’s done with his life and his basketball career,” Nelson said. “He’s just a wonderful person. It’s more than basketball with that guy.”