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Nellie in Paradise: A Love Story, with Cards

Dec. 23, 2013
Dec. 23, 2013

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Dec. 23, 2013

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Nellie in Paradise: A Love Story, with Cards

SAY WHAT? DON NELSON, THE NBA'S MAD SCIENTIST, OUTGREW HIS OBSESSION WITH COACHING AND RETIRED HAPPILY TO SMOKE CIGARS, PLAY POKER AND GAZE AT THE WAVES ON MAUI? A STUPEFIED REPORTER WENT OFF THE GRID TO SEE FOR HIMSELF

TO GET TO DON NELSON'S HOUSE on Maui, you drive 20 minutes east from the Kahului airport through sugarcane fields to the small beachfront town of Paia. This is not the Hawaii of tourist brochures. Paia consists of one strip that includes a bar, a tattoo parlor, a pharmacy and a Minit Stop where leathery 50-year-olds in flip-flops buy forties. Just before a burrito joint and adjacent to a shaved-ice shop is Nellie's Bistro 19. The coffee shop is recognizable by the grinning Nelson caricature on the sign and by the two glass backboards that are attached 20 feet up the trunk of a palm tree out front.

This is an article from the Dec. 23, 2013 issue

Behind Bistro 19, down an alley and through an electronic gate, is Nellie's place. (Or one of them; he owns five properties on the island.) His two rescue mutts, Pebbles and Lili, spill out of the house in greeting, tails swishing back and forth. They are terrible guard dogs. Inside, a Spurs game blares on the living-room TV. In the back, past a pair of double glass doors, Nellie sits on his lanai, watching the waves come in and puffing on a stogie.

He looks different. Thinner, by 30 or 40 pounds, than in his coaching days. More angular, the rounded edges gone. His hair is white and short, recalling the flattop he wore at Iowa in the early 1960s. A single curl flops down in front, making him look like a septuagenarian greaser. He wears a brown T-shirt, shorts, sandals and a string necklace. He is so tan, he's almost amber. He stands to welcome a guest, who produces a six-pack of Bud Light, Nellie's favorite beer and a frequent postgame companion. It was, the guest figured, a surefire housewarming gift. Nellie appraises the bottles nostalgically. "We don't really drink beer anymore," he says. "No reason, just stopped."

Still, he cracks one for old time's sake and settles into his favorite wicker chair. He gazes out past the thin lawn that gives way to palm trees, a rocky shore and an expanse of blue. Nearby are his two rental cottages; above the coffee shop is his poker den, where he hosts regular games with buddies Woody Harrelson, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson. But it's out here, on this deck, that the coach with the most wins in NBA history spends much of his time, barefoot, cigar smoke curling into the warm Maui evening. It would be hard to get much farther from an NBA sideline.

Old pro coaches rarely disappear, at least not entirely. Phil Jackson retired to the hinterlands of Montana but then wrote another book and began tweeting, and he seems forever one phone call away from returning to the Lakers. The Van Gundy brothers joined the media. Others take jobs as NBA assistants or head to the college ranks. A few, like Hubie Brown, are resurrected in their twilight years, propped back up to wheeze at 22-year-olds. Nelson always seemed like a candidate to make such a return. Nellie coaching at 73? Why not? Surely there is an owner just crazy enough to consider it.

There's only one problem: Nellie says he has "no interest" in coaching again. He says he doesn't miss the game. He has been approached to be a consultant and a broadcaster, "but I couldn't do that from here," he says, nodding toward the ocean. "Plus, the money's not that good." Instead he revels in his daily existence, in what he calls "life after basketball," playing golf and poker and tending to his various businesses. "I just watch the game as a fan now, nothing more," he says.

It's a little hard to believe. After all, this is a man who spent 50 years in basketball, as a player and a coach. A man whose number hangs in Boston's TD Garden. A man who invented the point forward and exploited the game's loopholes as few had before. (He once told his center to stay at half-court so the opponent's shot blocker would have to stay there too.) A man who encouraged 7'7" Manute Bol to shoot three-pointers and had 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki guard 5'3" Muggsy Bogues. That kind of man—one who's enamored with not just the game but also the possibilities of the game—can't just leave it behind.

Can he?

THE LAST thing you remember about Don Nelson depends on how closely you follow the NBA. Maybe you heard that he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012 after years of not making the cut, introduced by former Warriors star Chris Mullin, among others. Maybe you remember his final seasons at Golden State a few years earlier, when the team floundered and Nellie appeared to take a coaching-optional approach to his job. Perhaps you recall that glorious run in 2007, when the Warriors, as the eighth seed, knocked off the No. 1 Mavericks to advance to the second round of the playoffs. That was Nellie at his best, siccing Stephen Jackson on Nowitzki, riding the crest of Baron Davis's talent, sticking it to his old boss Mark Cuban and endearing himself anew to a fan base that had spent decades looking for something, anything, to celebrate. We believe, the Bay Area said, and Nellie was its basketball pastor. Here was a man who made a first-round victory feel like a world championship.

All along, his eye for talent was undeniable. As coach of the Mavs from 1997--98 to 2004--05, he bet the house on Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash when both men were considered marginal NBA players. Three years after moving to the Warriors, Nelson insisted that they take Stephen Curry with their lottery pick in the '09 draft. Even near the end of his career he was plucking fringe players out of the basketball minors—Anthony Tolliver, Kelenna Azubuike, Reggie Williams—and turning them into men who could, on any given night, drop 20 points.

It was the ring that eluded him. Nellie won five as a Celtics forward in the 1960s and '70s, but he never even made the Finals as a coach of four teams from 1976 to 2010. Sure, he was creative, entertaining, interesting. But he put innovation ahead of victories, valued aesthetics above the bottom line. Or so his critics claimed. He could turn Bol into an offensive threat and often win with a roster of D-Leaguers, but he couldn't bear to just throw the ball in to Patrick Ewing in the post, even if it was the best option. Where was the fun in that?

NELSON FIRST fell in love with Maui when he played an exhibition game there with the Lakers in 1963. The gym was decrepit, and it rained much of the time, but Nellie was smitten and vowed to move to the island one day. In 1991 he happened upon Paia while on his honeymoon with his second wife, Joy. Like many tourists, they rode bikes down from the Haleakala crater. "We got down and emptied out into Paia, and we got off our bikes at this little gas station," says Nelson. "We said, 'What is this? This is the s---tiest little town. Who would want to live here?' " He guffaws, which he does often. "And we ended up living there." The reason: Beachfront property was a steal.

By now the sun has set, and Nellie has lit a fire pit. He works his cigar down to a nub and banters with the man who trims his palm trees. The man spends his weekends hunting giant island pigs, cornering them with his dogs and then slitting them open with a knife. Nellie is amazed. "Guy's killed thousands of pigs in his life," he says. Finally, around seven, he heads inside to watch the Warriors-Grizzlies game, which he has recorded. Golden State is one of three teams Nelson watches these days. The others are San Antonio (coached by his old friend Gregg Popovich) and Dallas (where his son, Donn, is the GM, at least in theory).

On his couch, Nelson fiddles with the remote, jacking up the volume to a prodigious level before apologizing. He has two hearing aids.

As the game begins, Nelson is upbeat. He mentions his fondness for Warriors forward Harrison Barnes ("He's gonna be a superstar") and center Andrew Bogut ("He doesn't know how important he is to the team") and Memphis center Marc Gasol ("So good—who ever thought he'd be better than his brother?").

For the most part, watching a game with Nelson is like watching it with a friend, or maybe your dad. He gets excited after a pretty lob from Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala to Bogut ("How sweet!"), and he fumbles with the DVR, as we all do. He fast-forwards too far. He clicks a button that takes him to some other menu and almost deletes the whole game. ("Uh-oh, what'd I do?") And he realizes, about five minutes in, that he's recorded the Memphis feed instead of the Warriors' on League Pass, which means he has to listen to Pete Pranica and Brevin Knight instead of his good friend and former teammate Jim Barnett. "I tell you one thing about this game," Nelson says at one point, "these announcers should be fired. Horrible."

Even though Curry is out with a concussion, Golden State jumps to a lead. By halftime Joy has returned from a Hawaiian cultural studies and language class, and she joins in watching over grilled salmon and Chardonnay from Popovich's Oregon winery, in which Nelson was once an investor.

In the third quarter the Grizzlies come back to take the lead, and Nellie, despite his claims to the contrary, gets sucked into the game. "What the hell was Bogut doing on that one?" he says when the big man backs off a pull-up by point guard Mike Conley to protect the rim. "That was a 14-foot jump shot." 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."

By the fourth quarter Nelson is animated. He has begun referring to the Warriors as we. He pauses plays before they happen, to assess the floor spacing. He rewinds to pick out the defensive culprits—usually Lee. After the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph backs Lee down for another score, Nelson grimaces. "When I was coach, I put my center on Zach," he says. Two possessions later, Mark Jackson does just that, switching Bogut onto Randolph. "Pretty good move," Nellie says.

The game goes to overtime after Iguodala misses a wild shot at the buzzer. "Oh, Christ, you don't want to set him up for the jump shot," Nelson says. In OT he questions the Warriors' attack—"Why do they keep posting Iguodala up?"—and wonders why they don't go to Barnes more often. Still, even after they lose, he says only positive things about 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."

TO PROVIDE a sense of Don Nelson's life after the NBA, an admittedly strange story is in order. It's about how, about five years ago, a man died in Nellie's poker room.

The man, Greg Booth, was a dear friend of Nelson's, in his 60s. He was part of a rotating group of 20-odd guys who play regularly, including Harrelson, Wilson and Willie Nelson, who incidentally compose something of a dream team of Guys You'd Want to Get High With. If, you know, you're into that.

One evening Booth showed up, flush from having won big a couple of nights earlier. He brought a spread of food, slapped people on the back and then, upon walking to his chair, keeled over backward. Aorta burst.

There was shock and, of course, grief, followed by confusion. The coroner was taking forever to get there. Should everyone go home? The players looked to Nellie. He needed to go be with Booth's family, but as for the others? Booth had always been a big party guy. Loved this group, and this game. "No," Nellie declared solemnly. "He'd want you to play on."

So they picked up Booth and laid him on the couch out on the veranda. Then they played until after midnight. Every time somebody went for a smoke break, he had to step around the lifeless body. When the game ended, the coroner still hadn't arrived, so the players went home, each paying his respects on the way out, until finally only Booth lay there, the last man at his last poker game. "Poor bastard," Nellie says, "but he went out doing what he loved."

Nelson tells this story while standing in the poker room. It's 9 a.m., but he's been up since five, when he walked his property, as he does very morning, wearing a Fitbit on his left wrist. His goal is to walk 20,000 steps a day; in a year he says he has failed only a few times. By 7:30 he had lit his first stogie. Then it was off to Nellie's Bistro 19 for Greek yogurt and a berry smoothie. Nelson is renovating the coffee shop to turn it into a restaurant and bar, and he aims to serve vegan options, because he thinks healthy eating is the future. Plus, Paia is on the upswing—Gene Simmons of KISS is opening a burgers-and-beer joint across the street—and Nellie senses an opportunity.

Nelson has never shied from opportunity. Over the years he's been a serial investor—real estate, coffee, olive trees, watches (a company called Shinola, based in Detroit)—though not always a successful one. And he's been a card player. While playing for the Lakers in the '60s, he would pick up his hotel phone and hear only the shuffling of a deck. Finally swingman Dick Barnett would say, "They're playing the national anthem, baby." ("He took all my money," says Nellie.) He says he regularly wins thousands of dollars playing table shuffleboard against a billionaire friend, Tom Kartsotis, even though Kartsotis insists on 3-to-1 odds. "I'm not ranked," Nellie says of his shuffleboard game, "but I'm pretty decent."

As for the poker game, the group gathers a few times a week, depending on who's on the island. It's dealer's choice. Nelson prefers a seven-card high-low game of his own devising, which he calls Dirty Nellie. A few years back Nelson commissioned a painting of the poker crew in which he is wearing a Warriors cap and Harrelson is wearing a knit cap with a marijuana leaf. After Wilson showed off a print on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Nelson started getting calls. "Sold 25 of them at a thousand a pop," he says. (The group also inspired Don to write a country song, which he hopes Willie's son Lukas will one day record. It's called "Whiskey and Weed.")

The poker room itself is modest, a converted upstairs apartment filled with, for lack of a better term, lots of weird crap. There's a giant refrigerator shaped like a Bud Light can, a life-sized statue of a bald butler, and a cigar tin with some of Booth's ashes. And there, on Nellie's cluttered desk, hidden behind a broken router and a certificate naming Nellie's coffee the fourth best on the island, is his dusty NBA Hall of Fame trophy. An NBA Coach of the Year trophy is similarly obscured, propped up in a little-used downstairs room next to the shuffleboard table. As for his other two Coach of the Year trophies, Nellie can't remember where they are. Inside a big wood box downstairs are a few signed jerseys—"Mullin and [Tim] Hardaway," Nelson says, "or maybe [Latrell] Sprewell." For a while Nellie was going to decorate his bistro with NBA paraphernalia, but he changed his mind. "Going to make it a surf museum instead," he says. "People like that stuff."

His main house is similarly devoid of basketball memorabilia. Instead there's a wall mural featuring Nelson and his 27 family members, each depicted as a type of fish. There's an Africa-themed room (Joy loves Africa), a wall sculpture of the Hawaiian islands and a large mystical painting full of elves and wizards. Not a single memento from Nelson's career is easily visible. It feels at times as if he's trying to wash the game out of his life.

THE STORIES remain, though, and with some coaxing Nellie begins telling them on the half-hour drive southwest to his property in Kula. He talks about the time his flight got canceled and he returned to his Oakland pad to find forward Tom Tolbert, half-naked and grinning sheepishly, in front of the fireplace with his girlfriend. He talks about the time he saw two beautiful women leaving the hotel room of one of his sweet-shooting star players at three in the afternoon on a game day. Nellie figured the player would be worn-out. He was wrong: "He went for 40 that night!"

Nelson professes to have gotten along with almost everyone he coached, with the exceptions of Ewing and Chris Webber. 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."

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."

The way Nelson sees it, there is a prime window when you want to coach a player. DeMarcus Cousins, the volatile, talented Sacramento center, "is so good," Nelson says, "but you don't want to coach him until he's about 27."

Nelson's property in Kula is breathtaking. Four thousand feet up, the three-bedroom house has views of the ocean, and there's a hot tub embedded in the lawn, on the lip of a hill. The surrounding 22 acres are home to all manner of exotic trees—Nellie loves trees—including koa, Norfolk pine and 1,600 olive trees. Since Nelson rarely gets to the house, he told his landscaper he could live there. That's quintessential Nellie: On one hand, he's always scheming to maximize profits and save money; on the other, he can be wildly generous, especially to people he likes. When he learned, in 1997, that he had a grown daughter—the result of a weekend fling, brought to his attention when she wrote him a letter asking for nothing, just wanting to make contact—he was elated. He had more family! (Nelson has six other grown children.) Lee McBride now lives with him on Maui and runs his wedding reception business and the bistro. Nellie is building her a house on the water and couldn't be prouder of her.

Some years ago Kartsotis, founder of Fossil watches, left the company, and Nelson offered him a job as an unpaid assistant on the Warriors. Never mind that Kartsotis had no basketball experience. Nellie figured his friend could help him communicate with players. Kartsotis was set to do it, but then his mother got sick and he needed to tend to her.

Thus it comes as little surprise when, while driving back to Paia, Nellie pulls over upon spotting a ponytailed man hitchhiking. "How you doing?" Nelson says. "You looking for a ride?"

"Yes, please."

"Hop in. If you don't mind riding with a dog."

The man gets in the backseat with Pebbles.

"Well," Nelson says, in his easy manner. "You're going to miss a nice walk."

TO SPEND the better part of a day and a half with Nelson is to come away with the impression that he is carefree, charming and hospitable, a serial includer. (He invites a guest to his next poker game, while Joy extends an invitation to join in 7 a.m. paddleboarding.) What can be difficult to discern is how much of what Nellie says is in part for show. Throughout his NBA career he played the part of the lovable lug with reporters, and he remains good friends with a number of them in the Bay Area. Which explains why he was so bewildered, and hurt, when he came under increasing criticism in his final years. "Back in the day we used to be friends with the writers, go out with them," Nelson says. "It's totally different now. Now they're all tearing you down. Some of these blog people don't even go to games." Last year an excited couple approached him at his coffee shop. Their son asked to take a photo with Nelson and told him he'd be writing it all up on his blog. "He told me I needed to 'tune in' to his blog." Nelson smiles. "I don't even know what that means. Can you actually make a living writing a blog?"

A few years ago Nelson got a Facebook account, but he quickly tired of it. "That was a mistake," he says. "Now I can't get off the thing. I thought I got off it two or three times. Now if I see a Facebook come up, I just void it." He pauses. "Most of it is just bulls--- stuff anyway. People you don't even know inviting you to parties." Nelson also tried Twitter, with similar results. Now he prefers to leave that type of stuff to Joy and their friends. "I paint the big strokes," he likes to say, "and other people do the little ones."

A number of writers have approached him about ghostwriting his autobiography, but he's turned them all down. He says he'd rather be more private. "Plus, it's a pain in the ass to do," he says. "I can't remember half of the s---." When young coaches call him for advice, he tells them not to follow his lead. "I always told my assistants, 'Don't ever try to be like me or anybody else,' " he says. Instead Nelson counsels them to be original. Otherwise, he says, "you're never going to be successful."

The last time he thought about coaching in earnest, he says, was in 2011, when the Timberwolves job came open. "That would've been a pretty good experience," he says. The problem was the personnel. "They had Darko [Milicic], but I never thought very much of him. But I loved their backup center [Nikola Pekovic]. That probably kept me from getting the job, when I told the GM [David Kahn] that I liked the backup better. He loved Darko."

Nellie's other regrets are few. He wishes he had persuaded the league to move the charge circle out another foot. And he had a couple of last-second plays that he thought would work but never had a chance to try. That's it. "I did about everything I wanted to do," he says.

This can't be true. It just can't. Of course Nelson wanted to win a title as a coach. Who wouldn't? And of course he would like to have one more shot at it. Who wouldn't?

Granted, it's hard to imagine him in today's NBA, in which coaches stay up all night watching film, and more and more front offices are run by analytics devotees. There is little room for dreamers, for experiments. Or at least for the kind Nellie ran. Remember when he had lumbering 7'6" Shawn Bradley guard athletic Bo Outlaw? Probably not, because it didn't work. (Outlaw scored 29 points.) Still, it was worth trying. And that was the beauty of Nellie: He always wanted to find out what would happen. He was forever curious.

Which is why, in person, one keeps expecting him to break character. But he doesn't, even when blatantly tempted. He's asked how he would use the Timberwolves' Kevin Love. He's asked which young players he'd most want to convert into point forwards, and how he'd fix this or that broken team. But Nellie just smiles and redirects the conversation back to his olive trees, or to his kids, or to local politics. "I try to live in the now," he finally says. "The past really doesn't interest me that much."

But it interests us, he's told. To which, of course, he just crinkles his eyes and smiles. And that's when it becomes clear what this encounter has really been about. A reporter flies out to Maui to track down Don Nelson, the legendary mad scientist of the NBA, the man who was addicted to the game. He wants to find a man still brimming with ideas, a man who pulls over when he sees a pickup game and begins directing the locals to push the pace and exploit the mismatch. The expectation is plenty of Bud Light, a healthy dose of regret and a splash of wistfulness, all shrouded in cigar smoke. That's the Don Nelson the reporter came to find. Not a cheerful grandfather. Not a contented retiree who no longer needs the game.

Maybe that's the wrong way to look at it, though. At one point Nellie relays a favorite saying of Willie Nelson's: "We're not happy till you're not happy." And perhaps that's part of the story. But it's also about something else. Nellie's always been a constant. If he can grow out of coaching, what does that say about the rest of us? If he can move on from the game, does it mean someday we will too? Is this what growing old is?

Not that Nelson thinks about any of this. "Those are questions you gotta answer yourself," he says as he drops the reporter off at his hotel. "You can't be somebody else, you gotta be yourself." Then he drives off, waving. He's got a lot on his docket. An afternoon round of golf. Poker games to play. A restaurant to plan. And 20,000 steps to walk. As his voice-mail message says: "You've reached old Nellie. I'm busy, very busy."

Nelson says he has "no interest" in coaching again. He says he doesn't miss the game. It's a little hard to believe.
It was the ring that eluded him. Nelson won five as a player, with the Celtics, but he never even made the Finals as a coach.
Nelson wins thousands playing table shuffleboard against a billionaire friend. "I'm not ranked," he says, "but I'm pretty decent."
A few years ago Nelson got a Facebook account, but he quickly tired of it. "That was a mistake," he says. "Now I can't get off the thing."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPhotograph by MARCO GARCIA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDPAINTING BY JOHN WOODRUFFNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE In his poker den, Nellie (at table, in cap) hosts his good buddies Willie Nelson (white bandanna), Wilson (far left, blue T-shirt), Harrelson (behind Nellie, white shirt) and a rotating cast of friends, all immortalized in a painting displayed in the room.PHOTOPhotograph by MARCO GARCIA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by MARCO GARCIA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDFOAMBOY With his ever-present stogie, Nellie revels in the sun and surf of Maui, the island with which he fell in love half a century ago.PHOTOIOWA SPORTS INFORMATIONSIXTH SENSE A second-team All-America at Iowa, Nelson became a top NBA sixth man during 11 seasons in Boston.PHOTOMANNY MILLAN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above]PHOTOVERNON BIEVER/WIREIMAGE.COMTALL ORDER To reach his record 1,333th NBA win (far right), Nellie had to handle (from left) Bol, Ewing and Cuban.PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT/WIREIMAGE.COM[See caption above]PHOTORON FREHM/AP[See caption above]PHOTODONNA MCWILLIAM/AP[See caption above]PHOTODAVID SHERMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by MARCO GARCIA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDFULL NELSONS Pebbles (right) and Lili may not be ideal watchdogs, but they're fine additions to Nellie's family.