SOMETIMES BAD RELATIONSHIPS CAN RUIN A SEASON. IF YOU'RE LUCKY
Mention Chris Webber, Don Nelson and the Warriors to anyone who knows hoops and you get a grunt, followed by a slow exhale. And for good reason. If only those directly involved remember the details of the clash between the three-time Coach of the Year and the 1994 Rookie of the Year, everyone knows what it wrought: Golden State's plummet from the cusp of title contention to an 11-yearand-counting playoff drought.
"What I learned is the coach and the star have to be on the same page," says Mavs coach Avery Johnson, a former Golden State point guard. "The star doesn't have to be a yes-man, but he has to be committed to the coach's vision. Without that, it's not going to work."
Johnson's words should resonate around the league-and, no, we're not talking about the Staples Center. The Lakers may be playing with fire, but at least management has a heads-up about Phil and Kobe. The unknown coach/superstar relationships in places like Seattle are the ones that could ignite. Will Ray Allen and Bob Weiss jell? Fans hope so. It's easy to jettison a role player who's not drinking the Kool-Aid, but if a coach and his franchise player are butting heads, well, watch out. Remember the Warriors.
"I learned a house divided can't stand," says Mavs GM Donnie Nelson. "If you have chemistry issues off the floor, it's just a matter of time before they spill onto the floor." Donnie was a Golden State assistant when his father and Webber led the Warriors to a 50-32 record and a playoff berth during the 1993-94 season. While the high-scoring squad was fun-andgames on the floor, a power struggle was unfolding off.
Even before signing him, Nellie told Webber that he'd be playing center. Not surprisingly, the perimeter-oriented rookie wasn't happy. "He wanted to be Magic Johnson," recalls Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, another Nelson assistant at the time. "We wanted him to be more like Karl Malone."
CWebb didn't roll over. Right before the press conference announcing his contract signing- with the media sitting in the next room-Webber told Nelson he wouldn't sign unless he was exempt from the team's business-casual dress code. A compromise was made, but the psychological warfare didn't end. Nellie ridiculed Webber's free throw form in front of reporters during training camp. Webber then leaked that he would exercise his one-year option and not return unless something was done about Nellie. "We heard things from other guys on the team," Donnie says. "But we thought, how bad can it be?"
So bad, actually, that Webber held out until he was dealt in a sign-and-trade to Washington eight games into the 1994-95 season. So bad that Webber and Nelson still won't touch the subject, 11 years later. So bad that it forged the management philosophy of Popovich, Johnson and Chris Mullin, another member of that Warriors team. "You have to jump on top of something," says Mullin, the Warriors GM. "Don't let it fester."
Popovich's father-son rapport with Tim Duncan began with Pop flying down to the Virgin Islands to hang on TD's home turf. Significantly, they didn't talk hoops. "It helped to find out how cool he was," Duncan says.
And before Johnson took over for Nellie in the Big D, he made sure he and Dirk Nowitzki were on the same page. If they weren't, he says, "I would have had to think twice about taking the job."
Better before than after.