A Maverick in Exile, Donnie Nelson Watches Dallas’s NBA Finals Run From Afar

In a lawsuit against the team, Nelson claims he was fired after 24 years with the franchise for making sexual assault allegations against a Mavs executive.
Nelson spent 24 years with the Mavericks.
Nelson spent 24 years with the Mavericks. / Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports
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In 2022, Donnie Nelson attended Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement ceremony at Dallas’s American Airlines Center. While he may have been the figure most often credited with discovering Nowitzki when he was a teenager in Germany, Nelson was not on the court for the festivities.

As Nowitzki said that night, in a voice dripping with emotion, “Donnie has been my biggest supporter from day one.” Nelson was standing in a suite. Wearing a thick beard and thick jacket, he had stealthily entered the building after the game had ended. He stood watching, trying to lock eyes with as few former colleagues as possible, prepared to leave the arena abruptly if spotted by the media.

This spring, as the Dallas Mavericks thrashed the Minnesota Timberwolves to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2011, Nelson took considerable satisfaction. The team’s longtime general manager and president of basketball operations, he felt he’d help fertilize this team. And, again, he may have been the figure most instrumental in scouting and tracking the Mavs’ current overseas star, Luka Doncic. But Nelson hasn’t bothered going to the arena lately, not even incognito. Too painful, he says. 

“There's a big hole there now and I've been working through that,” he tells SI. “It’s definitely different. I was in diapers when Dad played for the Celts so in many ways it’s the only life I’ve known.”

Donnie Nelson is second generation in a seminal basketball family. His father, Don—apart from having played for Boston in the 1960s and ‘70s—is a basketball Hall of Famer who retired as the NBA’s winningest coach. Starting in the 1980s, Donnie was a sort of precursor to the Adam Sandler character in Hustle, making his bones opening the NBA international pipelines, venturing to gyms overseas to mine, well, uncut gems. In 2005, after his father stepped down as coach of the Mavericks, Donnie was named Dallas’s general manager. He was a fixture of the team’s front office for 16 years, with 12 playoff appearances in that span.

Now, he is a man in exile. 

Much as he characterizes himself as the “behind the scenes guy,” Nelson is playing the lead in an operatic NBA story, equally sad and strange, studded with classic themes of betrayal, family, fatal flaws, and power imbalance. But this saga also comes with the contemporary touchpoints of #MeToo era allegations, dueling high-powered lawyers, and the kind of financial stakes that could have bought an NBA franchise not long ago.

“I miss most everything about my whole life's career,” Donnie, now 61, laments. “It hurts, because I spoke out to protect Mavericks employees from a sexual predator and I was fired in retaliation for doing the right thing.”

Nelson has made those claims in a lawsuit against the team, but the Mavericks have framed his NBA expulsion as something altogether different. The team asserts in its answer to his suit that after Nelson’s successful run that included overseeing the franchise’s only championship team, his performance slipped and his other business interests distracted him from the job. The Mavericks said in court filings that Nelson was fired for cause and “poor job performance” and that he concocted a "lengthy scheme to extort as much as $100 million."

The underlying dispute stems from an alleged incident that occurred during the 2020 NBA All-Star festivities in Chicago. Nelson’s nephew, in his 20s, was interested in a career in the sports sector. Nelson invited the nephew to join him for the weekend and introduced him to a Mavericks executive, hoping that the colleague could be of help.

Nelson alleges in his lawsuit that, after a meal in the restaurant of the hotel where the Mavs delegation was staying, the executive invited Nelson’s nephew to his room, ostensibly to discuss career opportunities and hold an informal job interview. Once in the room, the executive allegedly invited the nephew to sit on the bed and sexually harassed and assaulted him. 

Christie Nelson, Donnie’s daughter, tells SI that her cousin had texted her a photo of the inside of a hotel room, followed by, “I’m scared.” Afterward, the nephew told his cousin, Christie, what had occurred. He took pains not to tell his uncle, and pleaded with Christie to do the same, concerned that it would alter Nelson’s relationship with his colleagues and with his boss, Mavs owner Mark Cuban. 

But, after honoring her cousin’s request for five months, Christie told her father over the 2020 July Fourth weekend what had transpired in Chicago. Donnie says that he was overcome by an entire spectrum of emotions. “It’s like getting hit by a train. I was shocked, saddened, enraged, and betrayed all in one big tidal wave.” He says he also felt stabs of guilt, having been the person responsible for introducing his nephew to the executive.

In mid-August, Nelson confronted the owner. Asked why he waited so long, Nelson says that Cuban is “volatile” and “I knew that if I didn’t get him at the right time, he would just be defensive and not listen—which is what happened anyway.”

As it turned out, Nelson and Cuban had additional matters to discuss. A few years apart in age, bonded by the ascent of the Mavs, the two were, at the time, as much longtime friends as they were longtime colleagues. Even when Cuban was locked in messy litigation with Don Nelson, Donnie strenuously removed himself from the feud and remained a Mavs executive. 

For years, Cuban and Donnie operated on a handshake agreement on what Donnie has described as a “lifetime contract,” whereby he was paid $5 million a year. But by the summer of 2020 their relationship showed signs of fissures, and Nelson used an agent and undertook a more formal negotiation of a contract extension. According to documents, the offer in principle was a 10-year deal for $66 million. Nelson’s representatives at Wasserman Media Group countered with $77 million over 10 years.

In what would soon become a rare point of agreement between Cuban and Donnie Nelson: both sides confirm that Nelson’s contract extension became entangled when he brought up allegations against the executive. Donnie Nelson raised concerns that the allegations put the organization at risk, especially since the Mavs were, purportedly, operating under a “zero tolerance policy” after previous reports of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. In court documents, the Mavs counter that Nelson claimed he knew of scandalous allegations he could “make go away” in exchange for a lucrative long-term contract.

After Cuban and Nelson began negotiating the contract, Nelson’s nephew retained a Florida-based lawyer, Boz Tchividjian, who represents sexual abuse survivors in civil cases around the country. Within weeks, the nephew and the Mavs had negotiated a settlement over the allegation. Sources tell SI that it entailed a six-figure payout to the nephew, and came with a nondisclosure clause. (Through his lawyer, the nephew declined to speak with SI for this story, citing the non-disclosure terms of the settlement.) 

On Sept. 18, 2020, Cuban sent Nelson a text, viewed by Sports Illustrated, delaying another discussion about a contract extension. It read in part: "But honestly, before I can talk, I have to find out more of what's going on with the other matter. Since it's related to some of the discussions we have had.”

Eventually, Nelson said, Cuban withdrew the 10-year, $66-million offer to Nelson. (The Mavericks contend in their court filings that Nelson rejected the offer.)  With frost layered between Nelson and Cuban, the Mavs played out the 2020-21 season, a campaign awash in much publicized front office dysfunction. The Mavs finished 42-30 and, upon finishing the season, fired Nelson after 24 years with the team.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 11:  Donnie Nelson during the Coaching Clinic as part of Euroleague Final Four May 11, 2013.
Nelson was fired after the 2020-21 NBA season. / Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

In December of 2021, Nelson filed a charge with the EEOC and Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) against the Mavericks, alleging that he had been illegally retaliated against. Though the Mavericks contended that Nelson had been terminated for poor job performance, the franchise came back with an offer: Nelson would receive $52 million on the condition that he withdraw the charge and enter into a confidentiality agreement over the alleged sexual assault of his nephew. The Mavericks would deny Nelson's claims and admit no wrongdoing; he would be barred from discussing or disclosing his allegations.

Nelson declined this offer and says that he felt he had little choice but to “go the legal route.” In March 2022, he filed a lawsuit in Dallas County court, first reported by ESPN. Explosive by any definition, it alleged that Cuban fired Nelson in retaliation for reporting a “high-level Mavericks executive sexually harassed and sexually assaulted a job applicant,” and warning that team employees and players were at risk.

The complaint does not read like your average legal filing. Nelson lays out his case that he was fired in retaliation for his whistleblowing. He references the executive by name as a “sexual predator.” He includes, as an exhibit, a PDF of the $52 million settlement offer. 

Nelson also uses the filing to settle—or at least address—past personal scores. At one point, Nelson notes that “despite Nelson’s and his father’s strong recommendations” to re-sign Steve Nash, “[Cuban] substituted his own judgment to instead sign Erick Dampier.” (Playing for the Phoenix Suns, Nash would be named MVP the following season.) Another line in the lawsuit alleges that Nelson had hoped to select Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 13th pick in the 2013 draft. Cuban rejected the suggestion in order to save $400,000 in cap space to devote to Dwight Howard. (The Mavericks drafted Kelly Olynyk; the Bucks selected Antetokounmpo two picks later.)

The suit also includes proposed permitted public statements that were part of the settlement offer.

Nelson: “I appreciated and enjoyed my time with the Mavericks’ organization. I will always appreciate the time I spent with the Mavericks.”

Mavericks: “We thank Donnie for his time and work with the Mavericks and wish him well.”

Cuban and the Mavericks were no less aggressive in response. The team’s filed response not only categorically denies the basis for the suit; it portrays Nelson as the bad actor, someone who had concocted the allegation as an extortion plot and, separately, violated various Mavericks policies with outside business interests. 

Or as Cuban said at the time: “Everything in that filing is a lie. We did multiple complete investigations and the only person that did not live up to the standards of the Dallas Mavericks was Mr. Nelson. He was fired as a result.”

In their response filed in court, claiming to be “Hostages to Nelson’s scheme no longer,” the Mavericks wrote: ”This lawsuit—and its utterly fictitious Petition—represents the final desperate effort of Nelson’s lengthy scheme to extort as much as $100 million from the Dallas Mavericks… Nelson’s lawsuit is nothing more than the culmination of his long-running scheme to obscure his own failures as an NBA general manager and businessman, conceal his own personal misconduct, and repulsively attempt to profit from threatening to “out” a former Mavericks employee.” (In an amended complaint, Nelson denied the Mavericks’ allegations and stated that his report regarding the executive was not motivated by the executive’s sexual orientation or an intention to “out” him.)

The Mavericks also asserted that Nelson was not given severance because he was an at-will employee. And that Nelson “refused to fully cooperate” in the independent investigation, the only Mavs employee to do so. (Nelson denies this, telling SI, “The only thing I refused was when [the investigator] asked me to speculate whether [the executive] was [romantically involved] with a player.”)


The case may yet settle. But for now, the matter of Don Nelson vs. Dallas Basketball Limited d/b/a Dallas Mavericks and Radical Mavericks Management LLC is scheduled for trial this December, before presiding judge Dianne K. Jones in Dallas County Court. 

Much has changed since Nelson was fired four years ago. After a first-round playoff defeat in 2021, Rick Carlisle resigned as coach and Dallas replaced him with Jason Kidd. Doncic has emerged as perhaps the NBA’s best player. In December 2023, Mark Cuban sold a majority stake of the franchise to Miriam Adelson, widow of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, and her family. In an unusual transaction. Cuban made a reported $3.5 billion from the sale and he remains in control of basketball operations. Though he’s kept a lower profile relative to prior years, when Dallas won the Western Conference Finals, Cuban was on the floor congratulating players.

Nelson, meanwhile, was watching quietly from his home in the Dallas suburbs. Over the years a boutique sports company he owns with his family has taken stakes in two Texas-based professional soccer teams as well as a minor league baseball team. Since filing his lawsuit, he has pivoted away from basketball 

He says that, painful as his divorce from basketball has been, he is loyal to his former colleagues, his former team and the player he scouted from the bleachers in Slovenia. “There’s great pride watching Luka and the boys,” he says. “It’s only two guys I have an issue with at the Mavs: Mark and the guy who assaulted my nephew…Otherwise I cheer for good people and friends.”


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Jon Wertheim

JON WERTHEIM

Jon Wertheim is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and has been part of the full-time SI writing staff since 1997, largely focusing on the tennis beat , sports business and social issues, and enterprise journalism. In addition to his work at SI, he is a correspondent for "60 Minutes" and a commentator for The Tennis Channel. He has authored 11 books and has been honored with two Emmys, numerous writing and investigative journalism awards, and the Eugene Scott Award from the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Wertheim is a longtime member of the New York Bar Association (retired), the International Tennis Writers Association and the Writers Guild of America. He has a bachelor's in history from Yale University and received a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He resides in New York City with his wife, who is a divorce mediator and adjunct law professor. They have two children.