Pop the Don Nelson life-story cassette into your VCR. Ignore last year's image of the overweight coach mainlining caffeine and nicotine as his Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated from the NBA Eastern Conference finals in five games by the Boston Celtics. Skip over the scene of Nelson flinging his sports jacket so far during a game in Philadelphia two years ago that the 76ers later staged a coat-throwing contest in his honor. Keep the reels spinning. Ooops, that's too far. We're not looking for those pictures of the young Nelson, a pasty farm kid patrolling Big Ten baselines in the early '60s for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Stop! There's the image: Nellie the Boston Celtic at the free-throw line, ball in one hand and body crouched, effetely shot-putting the ball and following through with the cutest little hop. A nerd, but a lifetime .765 foul-shooter of a nerd. "With one hand off the ball there's less chance for error," Nelson says. "I do things that make sense to me."
While pondering the Bucks, who through week's end had a surprising 26-14 record during a supposed rebuilding season, keep Nelson's foul-line manner in mind. "He says everything we do will make sense," says guard Craig Hodges, one of Milwaukee's five new faces. "His system is waterproof and soundproof. He stresses logic."
In building a 3½-game lead over the second-place Detroit Pistons in the Central Division, Milwaukee has had streaks of 10 straight home victories and, from Dec. 16 to Jan. 3, nine in a row overall, including consecutive wins at Boston and Philly, a feat no team had accomplished since 1977. "They're past rebuilding," says Boston's Cedric Maxwell. "There are already tenants in the building."
The Bucks' success has given the rest of the NBA food for thought. "They aren't a trout amandine team," says Pat Williams, the Sixers' general manager. "They're hamburgers and French fries. On paper they look like a bunch of rejects and also-rans. Yet they've been beating teams that are stronger, man for man."
On Sept. 29 Milwaukee began its youth movement by sending three veteran mainstays—Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings—to the Los Angeles Clippers for Terry Cummings and two young reserves, Hodges and Ricky Pierce. Says Williams, "I thought they took those last two players so the trade wouldn't look so lopsided in the papers the next day." Now, however, the only lop-sidedness is the difference between the Bucks' and the 18-21 Clippers' records.
Last Wednesday night in Indianapolis, with four seconds left and the Bucks trailing by a point, Hodges, the throw-in who is shooting 50% since becoming a starter six weeks ago, threw in a 15-foot fall-away to beat the Pacers 106-105.
Of course, the Bucks made the trade primarily to acquire Cummings, who has turned out to be better than Johnson in the half-court game, which is the Bucks' bread and butter. "He gets more rebounds than Marques did," says the Bullets' Jeff Ruland, "and draws more fouls."
When Cummings arrived in Milwaukee, he knew how to score and rebound but wanted to learn how to win. But a large part of winning is defense, and a large part of defense is concentration. "Terry's skills are so great he can get the right thing done the wrong way," Nelson says. "Therefore, his concentration is poor. In the 35 minutes it takes us to go over scouting reports, his mind starts to wander. When someone doesn't concentrate, my wrath really comes out."
"Next to my wife, Nellie's probably the most demanding person in my life right now," Cummings says.
He copes with Nelson's demands partly out of gratitude for the trade and partly because of an almost sublime optimism that comes with being an ordained minister in the Fundamentalist Church of God in Christ. "Like the other night," says Cummings, who is averaging 23.4 points and 9.0 rebounds a game. "I went five for 25 [in a 99-95 loss to Washington]. But there was a bright spot. Those shots felt good to me. I could have made them."
Nelson doesn't mind Cummings or anyone else hoisting shots, provided they're the result of the Bucks' system. "I've never seen him shake his head or groan if I miss a shot, as long as it's a good shot," says reserve guard Kevin Grevey. "For a shooter, it's all confidence. Our offense isn't complex like the Dallas Cowboys', but we have something for any player on the court if he gets hot. The only time you get in the doghouse is when you don't execute Nellie's system. I know, because I've been there."
The Bucks' system isn't merely their offensive set, though that's part of it: Three outside players weave around two post players, who themselves move up, down and across the lane. The result looks like a carousel. With Cummings and All-Star guard Sidney Moncrief, the Bucks do more posting than a Pitney Bowes meter.
Nor is Nelson's system just a helping defense, though Milwaukee is the stingiest team in the NBA: Its opponents score the fewest points and sink the lowest percentage of their field-goal attempts. By shuttling 7'3" Randy Breuer, 7-foot Paul Mokeski and 6'11" Alton Lister in and out of the lineup, Nelson has 18 fouls to play with in the center position and gets a combined 15.5 rebounds and 3.38 blocks a game out of his pivotmen.
The system is also applied logic:
•It's turning Paul Pressey, into a "point forward" to draw the bigger and slower player guarding him away from the basket and free Moncrief and Hodges to cut, screen and shoot.
•It's putting Pressey, who's 6'5", on Dallas's Kurt Nimphius, who's a 6'11" center, so the Mavs will ignore their strengths, Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman, and force the ball in to Nimphius.
•It's placing Lister or Breuer, who aren't scoring threats, at midcourt, where Utah's 7'3" Mark Eaton, whose blocked shots and outlet passes trigger the Jazz's offense, must follow or risk an illegal defense call.
•It's going 2-0 against the 32-6 Celtics by sticking Pressey and his octopus arms on Larry Bird, who's shooting only 16 for 40 against Milwaukee this season. Of course, it hasn't hurt that Nelson may know the Celtic offense better than the Celtics themselves.
•And it's being just unpredictable enough that the Bucks' logic-first approach can't be taken for granted. "Nelson calls so many damn numbers and changes them all the time," says Cleveland scout Gene Littles, whose Cavaliers were 130-117 losers to the Bucks last Friday night. "When New York calls a three-down, you know it's for Bernard King. With Milwaukee, there's so much switching and motion, you never know who they're going to."
Sometimes the Bucks themselves hardly know. Year after year, Milwaukee is near the top of the league in player-games lost to injury, and this season even the misfortune has a new look. Moncrief has missed five games because of assorted leg and foot bruises, and Nelson, Grevey, forward Charles Davis and guard Mike Dunleavy were left with neck and back injuries when the Bucks' plane stopped suddenly to avoid hitting a fuel truck at Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Dec. 1. Davis missed three games, while Dunleavy hasn't played since and may not be back at all this season. The whiplash even forced sweet Nellie from the bench for two games.
This year's coach isn't exactly a half Nelson, but he is on the lean side after a summer of dieting. And the changes are not merely physical. "I pushed myself so hard the last five years [in which the Bucks won five division titles], as long as I thought we had a legitimate chance to win it all," says Nelson, who had an exhaustive physical last July and dropped 25 pounds by going on an apple-supplemented regimen of one meal a day. "I want to feel good about myself again. Roll with the punches a little better, and maybe not take losses so hard."
Nelson, who won his 400th NBA game with Sunday's defeat of the Nuggets, very nearly didn't coach at all this season. He had cast his lot with the Bucks' veterans, and, because he knew that Bob Lanier and Brian Winters wouldn't be back, he took last spring's playoff elimination particularly hard. Only the lobbying of friends like Al McGuire. Wayne Embry and Pete Newell kept him from retiring. "They made me realize I have a talent and I should use it," Nelson says. "And I started to feel kind of guilty about making all the changes—and possibly having a bad team—and having a new guy come in."
Now with the fourth-best record in the league, the Bucks are hardly a bad team. And that may put a quick end to Nelson's serenity. "Come March or April, he could be right back where he was last year," frets Bucks vice-president John Steinmiller. "He's a living, walking embodiment of that coach's credo, 'You're only as good as your last game.' "
But that, considering what the Bucks have already accomplished, wouldn't be logical.