Ailene Voisin, sports columnist
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  • Jeff Chiu Associated Press Don Nelson, above, has fun Tuesday with a photo of himself at the Warriors training facility in Oakland. Below, Nelson reacts to a call while coaching Dallas against the Kings in the 2004 NBA playoffs.

  • Jeff Chiu Associated Press Don Nelson is in the Bay Area this week ahead of his Sept. 7 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

  • José Luis Villegas Bee file, 2004

  • Ailene Voisin

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    Full name: Donald Arvid Nelson

    Nickname: Nellie

    Born: May 15, 1940 (age 72) in Muskegon, Mich.

    College: Iowa

    NBA player: Drafted by Chicago Zephyrs in 1962; in 14 seasons (one with Zephyrs, two with Lakers, 11 with Celtics), averaged 10.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 20.6 minutes in 1,053 games; won five championships

    NBA coach: In 31 seasons (11 with Warriors in two stints, 11 with Bucks, eight with Mavericks and one with Knicks), won 1,335 games and lost 1,063 (.557); named Coach of the Year three times (1982-83, 1984-85, 1991-92)

    NBA executive: Worked in top management positions for Bucks (1977-87), Warriors (1987-95) and Mavericks (1997-2005)


Ailene Voisin: For Nellie, all those wins add up

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 - 12:09 am

OAKLAND – The problem with the annual Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame speeches is that they're both too long and too short.

Take the upcoming induction of Don Nelson. The league's all-time winningest coach is one of its quirkiest, most compelling characters, an outsized personality despite his repeated visits to weight-loss clinics.

"Nellie," as he has long been known, was the reigning drama queen long before Shaq started babbling about the Kings. During 31 seasons as an NBA head coach, Nelson offered something for everyone – conflict, competition, humor, ego, humility, turmoil – and that was after he won five titles as a modestly talented forward with the Boston Celtics.

But the coaching ring is the thing, of course, and Nelson wanted one just as badly as Jerry Sloan.

"It wasn't meant to be," a matter-of-fact Nelson said Wednesday morning. "My (Milwaukee) Bucks teams kept running into those great Boston Celtics and Philadelphia Sixers clubs. Bird, McHale, Parish. Erving, Cheeks, Malone. But what are you going to do? I've had a great life. I still have a great life."

Nelson, who is attending various functions in the Bay Area this week as a prelude to the Sept. 7 induction ceremonies in Springfield, Mass., enjoyed most of the NBA travel and even some of the travails, except for that brief stopover with the New York Knicks (1995-96). New York was a downer. Hired as Pat Riley's successor and encouraged to start minimizing Patrick Ewing's influence, Nelson instead clashed with the aging, stubborn Ewing and was let go 59 games into the season.

Yet his tenure with the Knicks was an anomaly.

Nelson, 72, is one of those people who move in and never want to move out. He immersed himself within his adopted communities, signed on for extended stays in Milwaukee, Dallas and Oakland (twice).

When he became bored – and he invariably did – he devised diversions and pursued causes, and he never stopped revising his basketball philosophy.

Though regarded as a defense-oriented coach early in his career, when his Bucks teams with Marques Johnson, Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief routinely ranked among the leaders in all the relevant defensive categories, Nelson's "point forward" concept became increasingly popular, and arguably was perfected a few years later by the Bulls' Scottie Pippen. As Nelson grew older, his teams played faster, first with the Run TMC Warriors of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin, and later, with the Mavericks of Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki.

Nelson, who hates rating systems of any kind, nonetheless obliged and listed Johnson, Nowitzki and Nash as his most talented players.

A few other Nelson offerings of note: He despises the isolation game he once so effectively exploited; considers the European system of cutting, movement and passing as more appealing that the modern NBA diet of dribble-heavy, one-on-one play; regards his close friend, Gregg Popovich, as the league's premier coach; and admits that he desperately wanted the Minnesota Timberwolves job that went to Rick Adelman – "I would love to have coached Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love" – but insists his career victory total will stay at 1,335.

He also speaks frequently with Nowitzki, texts occasionally with his old sparring partner, Mark Cuban, and retains tremendous affection for the Bucks, Mavs and Warriors organizations.

During an informal lunch Tuesday with Bay Area reporters, Nelson, who dropped 30 pounds in anticipation of the ceremonies, wore a golf shirt with the Warriors logo across the front. A few months ago, Nelson said, his son Donnie – the Mavericks' president and general manager – presented him with his 2009-10 NBA Championship ring.

"I just started crying," Nelson said. "I guess I'm becoming an old softy."

These days, Nelson said, he prefers peace and friendship to combat and coaching. When he needs a competitive fix, he summons Maui neighbors Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson for nightlong poker games.

Nelson, who lives on the Hawaiian islands with his wife, Joy, and the couple's three dogs, continues to expand his financial empire. He recently bought a shaved ice stand and a coffee bar. Other plans include construction of an oceanfront restaurant and an expanded marketing campaign for his dog food brand – FreeHand – that donates $1 of every sale to animal shelters.

"We're retired, but we're always doing something," said Nelson, a cancer survivor, as is his wife. "Our health is good, so we're very lucky. We can't wait for next week. I asked Mullie (Mullin), Bob Lanier and Tom Sanders to present me. When I think back on everything, Tom and I began running basketball camps in New Hampshire when we were still playing for the Celtics. The years go by …"

With a booming, familiar laugh, he closed with this: "You just do what you can. Buy that dog food!"

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin, sports columnist

Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from UNLV and a law degree from the University of San Diego before committing full time to journalism.

Her career includes stops at the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and time spent as the backup beat writer for Dodgers and Angels, Clippers and NBA beat writer, sports columnist, along with numerous assignments covering international events and the Olympics. Ailene joined The Sacramento Bee in 1997.

Phone: 916-321-1208
Twitter: @ailene_voisin

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