The two reporters came to Don Nelson's open office door one afternoon last week and knocked tentatively on the frame. Nelson turned his head away from a visitor in his office and looked at them with tired, tired eyes. "I'm in a meeting," he said.
The reporters said they had only one question. Or maybe two. Or three. All-Star guard Latrell Sprewell had apparently missed the Golden State Warriors' closed practice earlier that day. Nelson, the Warriors' general manager and coach, had not mentioned this fact during his postpractice press conference. What was the deal? Where was Sprewell? What did Nelson think about this latest tribulation to slide across his desk? Was Sprewell going to be fined? Suspended? What?
"I don't want to talk now," Nelson said.
"Is that, 'No comment'?" one of the reporters asked.
"It's...." Nelson sighed. He asked the reporters to call him later at home. O.K? He closed the office door. It was three o'clock in the afternoon of only his third day back on the job—back from five days in the hospital and 13 days at home battling viral pneumonia—and already a new problem was being added to the mountain of old problems.
The effects of his sickness lingered and will continue to linger for a while. "Good days and bad days," the doctors told him. This was another bad one. Nelson, now 54 years old, has been blessed with one of those eternally boyish faces, but that was missing now. His complexion was gray, his features drawn in wider, fatter lines. His energy level was low. His team stunk. He needed a nap.
"What happened with Sprewell?" his visitor asked.
Nelson shook his head. He held up his hand as if trying to stop traffic at an intersection. Nothing to say about that. No.
He really did need that nap.
This was the season that was going to be . the highlight of Nelson's career. That is the thought that will not go away. After 17 years of taking teams from Milwaukee and Golden State around the NBA map, after three Coach of the Year awards but never a title, the tall pieces for success finally had been assembled. This was real championship stuff, the first time he could put as much talent on the floor as anybody.
A cartoon on the cover of the 1994-95 Golden State media guide showed the possibilities. The five Warrior starters—Sprewell, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Billy Owens and Chris Webber—were pictured on an elevator. They were smiling. Nelson, dressed in a blue bellhop's uniform, was pushing the button for up. The starting floor was 50 WINS, last year's victory total, and the potential stops ahead were PACIFIC DIVISION TITLE, PLAYOFFS, WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS and NBA FINALS. Less than three months ago Nelson himself predicted his team was "going for the NBA championship." The idea seems almost silly now. Laughable. in a very sad way.
"I remember getting mad once at Alton Lister when he was a rookie," Nelson says in his weary voice, recalling his 1976 to '87 stint with the Bucks. "I said, 'Alton, how could you forget your own play, the one play that's run for you?' Alton looked at me and said, 'You know, I had it, but it went.' That's the way I guess I feel these days. I had it, but it went."
Nothing in the NBA this side of coupons for free pizza has ever disappeared faster than the Warriors' chance for a championship. Their record through Sunday was 10-19. They weren't first but next-to-last in the Pacific Division. They had lost a staggering 18 of their previous 21 games. Both Webber and Owens were long gone, traded. Mullin, sidelined with a chip fracture and sprain of his left knee, had yet to play a game. Sprewell, sulking as he had been since Owens and Webber left, had missed two practices and had been suspended for last Thursday night's game—a 111-103 loss to Milwaukee. Nelson was spinning, coming oil' his sickbed to coach the two latest losses, running a weekend minicamp with three-hour practices each day. The hope was simply to revamp, rethink, to pull together just to make a run for the playoffs.
"The whole thing has become this Shakespearean tragedy," San Francisco Chronicle beat writer George Shirk says. "And Nellie has become Lear, muttering at the heavens, walking the stage cluttered with bodies, blood all over his robes. So many things have happened. So many forces have dragged him down. This has become this epic drama, all wind and rain and lightning in the background. You try to look for some happy ending, but what could it be?"
Every day has brought some new soliloquy from somebody about something. Basketball has become secondary to the words and the personalities and the machinations. Is Nelson a good coach? Is Nelson a bad coach? Can he handle the modern-day, multimillionaire rookie? Or is he trapped in older times, back when coaches had a no-nonsense level of control they don't have today? A lifetime reputation—last August he was standing in Toronto with Dream Team II, accepting a gold medal as the coach of the winners of the world championship—has been put to this sudden test, the toughest test he has ever faced.
"He's had a tough go," says Milwaukee coach Mike Dunleavy, a former player and assistant coach under Nelson. "I don't know exactly what's happened. But I do know my own experiences as a player with him. I loved playing for him. He was very demanding, and you had to get things right, but he made you a better player."
What could or should Nelson have done? Haven't his recent big decisions all backfired? Will they seem better three or lour months from now? Better yet, three or four years from now? Will he still be part of the scene?
The trade of the 6'9" Owens, a multitalented player who has yet to live up to the promise that made him a top draft choice in 1991, to the Miami Heat for Rony Seikaly two days before the season began seemed logical. Seikaly was a true center. 6'11". a taller and bulkier rebounding complement to Webber, last season's Rookie of the Year. Wasn't this just going to make that team on the cartoon elevator even stronger? Or was it the move that started to make the cartoon smiles disappear, the final push that made Webber demand to get off the elevator?
Webber. He was the kind of superstar big man Nelson had always wanted but had never had, but Webber became the player who walked away. There had been rumblings throughout the second half of last season about the rookie Webber's dislike for the way he was being treated by Nelson, rumblings about what he would do in the future. Should Nelson have done something then? What? The debate, however devoid of details, was public, highlighted by charges by Webber—who had signed a one-year, $2.08 million contract with the Warriors—that Nelson embarrassed him, berated him, wouldn't talk to him. Nelson's rebuttals were buried by the louder language of the charges.
"There's nothing I can go back to and say I would have done differently," Nelson says. "I still can't understand what I did wrong. He says I didn't talk with him, but even after the world championships, after all of this stuff began, he came to my basketball camp. He stood with me and the campers for an hour, posing for pictures. We worked on his free throws with a free throw expert. We talked. Maybe we didn't talk about his contract and his situation, but he didn't say anything to me about it, so I figured it was O.K. There have been things I've read in the paper.... Just because people say things, doesn't mean they're true."
What, really, should he have done? Webber was a holdout this fall; he said he wanted to be traded. Everything was headline news. Nelson said he would resign as coach if he were the problem. Webber said that was a grandstand play, a public relations move. What were the options? What was the truth? Who should have crossed an invisible line and put out a hand? Was that ever possible for either of the parties?
Webber's demand was met on Nov. 17. He was sent to the Washington Bullets for 6'10" small forward Tom Gugliotta and three first-round draft choices. At the Oakland Coliseum the night of the trade, Nelson was given a standing ovation by the crowd before Golden State beat the New York Knicks to go to 7-1. He was the hero, standing strong against the coddled, fathead athletes. Who needed those guys anyway?
He knew better in his heart. An illusion had been created. The Warriors were winning. Cheers can be temporary.
Four games later, all losses, and Nelson was lying on a hotel room floor in Detroit and did not know how he had landed there. He had been watching some film and was going to the shower, and then he was waking up on the floor. He had blacked out. The drama had begun to exact its price.
"Luckily I didn't hurt myself, so I got up and said, 'Gee, that's strange,' and went ahead with what I was doing," he says. "But then we returned home [on Nov. 27], and this time I got up to see where my wife was and blacked out again. I gave myself a pretty good knot on the head. My wife found me, and I decided to go to bed. That was when I started having chest pains. I thought I was having a heart attack. That was when I decided I'd better go to the hospital."
He wasn't having a heart attack, but he had been hit with viral pneumonia backed by a strong case of mental and physical exhaustion. He spent one night in the hospital and then coached the next eight games. After another blackout, following a loss to the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 13, he retreated to the hospital again, then to his bed at home. He missed seven games, his 32-year-old son and assistant, Donn, taking his place for two wins and five losses.
"I thought about a lot of things while I was home," Nelson says. "What I decided was that I was going to come back and try to do the best job coaching that I possibly can do. After that, whatever happens, happens. I do know that I'm good at this job. I still love basketball. I still love being around the game, working with the players. I still love Chris Webber, believe it or not. I just think that he's young.' "
Nelson returned to his job on the day after New Year's. He coached a night practice, then coached the game against the San Antonio Spurs the next night. When he was introduced at the Coliseum before the game, the ovation was muted. Golden State lost 91-86.
"I'm tired right now," he said in his office. "I'm going home to rest."
His friends and his wife were still worrying about him, worrying about his health, but they were saying they noticed that the lire seemed to he returning. His son said the one thing his father had to do was take things easier, realize he couldn't control every factor that arose. Nelson agreed.
He said he wished he had left the office earlier that day. Then the reporters wouldn't have found him, wouldn't have asked about Sprewell, who has worn sneakers with the uniform numbers of the departed Webber and Owens written on the back in protest of the moves that were made.
"It's time to move on," Nelson said. "It's time to get past the sadness."
He did not go home. Not directly. He went to Sprewell's house, looking for his All-Star guard, looking to see what was wrong and what had to be made right.
Sprewell was not home. Somehow that figured.