- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame turned Don Nelson away again Monday.
Tuesday, though, could turn out to be one of the greatest days of his coaching life.
One win away from becoming the NBA's all-time winningest coach, with a game forthcoming Tuesday night against the eminently beatable Washington Wizards, Nelson has canceled the Golden State Warriors' morning shootaround.
Reason being: Nelson has managed, through some of wife Joy's connections, to arrange a pregame private tour of the White House for the 23-win Warriors.
That's surely what many of his peers around the league will be saying when the story circulates.
Hailed over the years for his revolutionary offensive brain and dubbed a "matchup master" this week by Nellie Ball graduate Dirk Nowitzki, Nelson has likewise racked up an array of detractors with all those wins in a career spanning parts of five decades, thanks to his various battles through the years with players, owners and the establishment ... and the fact that you have to go back to the fish-tie era in Milwaukee for his last good defensive teams.
Needing just a road win over the Wizards to surpass Lenny Wilkens' 1,332 career regular-season victories, after a one-point win Sunday at Toronto that had the Warriors' young players dancing a celebratory jig on the floor with their 69-year-old boss, Nelson reflected on his colorful (and controversial) career and his place in coaching history in a phone conversation with ESPN.com:
What has this season been like?
"I've never had a year like this one with so many injuries and signing all these guys out of the D-League. It's one of the few things I hadn't been through yet. In 31 years, I've been through about everything twice, but this is new and it's actually been a pleasant experience in spite of the fact that we've struggled.
"I've really enjoyed the year in a lot of ways. We've had to scrap for every win we've got, but it hasn't been this terrible thing. It's not a doggie team at all. They play hard every night. And we found three D-League players [Anthony Tolliver, Reggie Williams and Chris Hunter] who can play in the league and I think be in a rotation. That in and of itself is remarkable."
One win away from breaking Lenny Wilkens' record for victories ... I know you've been saying you don't want to talk about the record but you're so close now.
"It really means more to my friends than it does to me. A lot of people close to me would like to see me have it. I know the team has been talking about it and my players want to get it for me and that makes me feel good. But it means more to me to just do a good job and do the best I can with what I have. My life is in order.
"At this point all it really means is that I've been able to coach for a long time, with a lot of success along the way, but that's really all that record says. It's just a matter of time anyway before someone else gets it. Phil Jackson can have it any time he wants if he wants to put in the years. It's not going to take him that long."
There's something else that record would say, though: Only five other coaches (Wilkens, Pat Riley, Jerry Sloan, Jackson and Larry Brown) have 1,000 wins in the NBA and all five of them are in the Hall of Fame.
MOST CAREER COACHING WINS IN NBA
* All in Hall of Fame
"There was a time that the Hall of Fame was very important to me. Like with all that kind of stuff, as you get older, it's not as important. If I never make it, I would understand. I never thought I was a Hall of Fame guy. I don't think I'm a great coach. I'm a good coach.
"When I first had the chance to go in, I was kind of excited, but now that I've been skipped a few times, it's not that important to me anymore. My life is going to go on. The way I look at the Hall of Fame, it's for greatness and that ain't me."
But if you have the career wins record, how can they keep you out of the Hall of Fame?
"If I don't get it at whatever the number was when the season started [1,309], but then I did get in because I got to 1,333, shame on them. A few games shouldn't make a difference. If that's the thing that gets you to the Hall of Fame, shame on them."
I'm sure you've heard the talk about you being the wrong coach for a rebuilding team at your age or that some people around the league think you're still coaching only for the money. How do you respond to those things?
"I don't listen to talk shows. I haven't listened to them for 10 years. I don't see a lot of the stuff that's out there, but ... it depends on who writes it. I've been hurt by [criticism], no question. [Some reporters] have been on my case about the age thing, or they think that I don't care any more, just things that aren't true. But it depends on who writes it more than anything. If I respect the writer, it bothers me. If I don't, I just let it run off my back.
"I think the only thing that really bothers me is that some writers in the Bay Area think I had something to do with Chris Mullin's demise. And that's just totally untrue. I backed Chris all the way to the last day. When they finally were going to let him go, I begged them not to. I loved working with that guy. He's truly one of my good friends and that bothers me more than anything."
This second stint with the Warriors started on such a high [with a first-round upset of the 67-win Dallas Mavericks]. Doesn't that make the team's current predicament harder?
"You gotta just coach the team you have. I wish that 'up' period would have lasted longer. And maybe it could have if we kept that team together. But some of those things are out of your control. I wouldn't take that time back for anything."
Your previous two stops [Dallas and New York] didn't end so well, so how important to you is it to leave the game on a positive note?
"There's only one stop where I can't say that I had a great experience and that was New York. It was hard to enjoy that team because it was kind of a selfish team -- an older team. I only stayed about half a year and got fired, so it was hard to enjoy that experience. But every other place I've been, I've had really great experiences."
Looking back do you regret taking the Knicks job now?
"No. It's not a regret because we loved living in New York City so much. Joy and I just had a wonderful time. But as far as coaching the team, it just wasn't the right fit. Obviously."
So what would be your do-overs if you could have them?
"There were two opportunities I probably should have made happen. One was when we beat the Celtics in the playoffs in Milwaukee [in 1983]. They were going to make a coaching change. I think Bill Fitch was their coach at the time. After the last game, Red [Auerbach] walked by and asked me, 'Would you ever consider coaching the Boston Celtics?'
"I said, 'Red, it would be a dream come true. But the guy's been so good to me here, I really couldn't leave [Bucks owner] Jim Fitzgerald.' But looking back as a career move, that's probably something I should have done at that point. They had a really good championship-caliber team and that would have solved all the problems if I would have done that. K.C. Jones got that job and did a really good job and they won a few championships. Looking back, I was a loyal guy because Jim Fitzgerald was so good to me, so I don't really regret not going. But as a career move I probably should have.
"And then the second one was when I was in Golden State and I was having all the [Chris] Webber problems and Gregg Popovich was the GM in San Antonio and wanted to make a change. He called me up and said, 'Can you get out of your contract and come here and be my coach?'
"It was a great idea, because the way we were looking at it, one of us [Webber or Nelson] had to go and if I leave they can keep Webber and get a good coach and everything would be great. So I begged Fitz [Jim Fitzgerald had since bought the Warriors] to let me out of my contract, but he refused, so he and I got into a big argument.
"But he was going to sell the team and I had to be part of the sale because I guess [new owner] Chris Cohan wanted me in place. I've often thought, if Pop would have been the GM and I would have been the coach, that would have been a happy, happy time for me. But I ended up staying and we probably ended up making a bad decision on Webber [by trading him to Washington]."
Does having five championship rings as a player soften the blow of having never won one as a coach? Or does it actually make it more disappointing?
"Actually you have to separate the two. Coaching has to stand on its own. It's just totally different. The only thing that makes [not having won an NBA title as a coach] easier is that I've only had the best team one time in my coaching career. That was the gold-medal team [at the 1994 World Championships in Toronto after the original Dream Team won gold at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona].
"That is a championship. That's the only one. They hadn't won a gold medal in the world games in about 20 years, but we had the best team. We won the gold medal, we went 8-0 and that's as close as I've ever been. That's different than the NBA, but that is a championship. And I think very highly of that time.
"When I've had the better team, I think I only failed one time [in a playoff series]. ... Other than that, I think we've won every time we were supposed to and a lot of times when we weren't. But that happens to careers and to coaches where you're never able to be a Phil Jackson and have the best team. Usually when there's a championship team, those teams win more than one. They stay together for a long time and have a lot of success. It's just not that easy to win a title. There's not a lot left over for the rest of us.
"I have to accept that and move on. I wish I had an opportunity to coach a championship team, but I've never had that opportunity. I've never even been to the Finals, but I'm very happy [with my coaching career]. We've had a lot of good teams. We've had success in the playoffs. I've been in it a long time, I've fought the fight and done the best I could do. I've been able to build teams. I've been fortunate enough to turn things around quickly in most places and that doesn't happen every day, either.
Your critics would say that you secretly preferred to be in that underdog role.
"It gives you guys something to write about."
I've also read some nice tributes recently -- one of them from Magic Johnson -- about your role as an innovator. How much does that mean to you when people credit you for changing the game offensively?
"Some people like to paint me as a positive influence on the game. Some people like to paint me the other way. To me, I just did things that made sense to me to try to put the opposition in a bind.
"I just never understood why a point guard couldn't post somebody up and why a 7-footer couldn't dribble and why a 6-8 guy couldn't run your team and make the passes. I wondered why nobody tried those kinds of things. So when I had those kinds of players, I put them in those situations.
Did you secretly like it when people called you a mad scientist?
"It was kind of true, I guess. I did look at the game differently. It was unconventional to some people, but a lot of it worked, [we] won a lot of games. I've only had one team that was already set [and] was already a good team and I screwed that team up and that was New York. Most of the times I've been hired, that team had won 20 games. Where I've been successful is building good teams. I think if you're going to write my M.O., it's going to be that I've taken bad teams and made good ones out of them."
How much longer do you want to coach?
"One more year."
But you've said that before and kept going.
"I turn 70 this year in May. I think to retire when I'm 71 ... I think that's long enough."
How uncertain is the future for you knowing the team just got put up for sale? The assumption is that a new owner might not bring you back next season.
"It's no uncertainty as far as I'm concerned. I have one year left on my contract [at $6 million]. If they want me to stay, fine. If they don't, they can make a change. They can make a change any time they want. I understand that. I've been hired and fired before. I understand how that works."
You told me once that, at your age, it's probably easier to coach a veteran team. But you see this as one last team you can turn around?
"I always thought that I've been a good coach for a long time and I continue to be a good coach. That ain't gonna change.
"It's not easy to lose no matter what age you are, but I have a better understanding [at this age] of what we're doing and what this year's about. And I think everyone does in the organization.
"There's nothing wrong with having a bad year or two as long as you capitalize on it. If you get the right player in the draft. We got the right player [Stephen Curry] in the draft last year and we have to do it again.
"This team has to turn itself around, but I think it has a nucleus to be pretty good if we get everyone healthy and have another good draft. We've gone through a bad year, but if we draft wisely I think we can start turning it [next season]."
Don Nelson reflected on his colorful (and controversial) career and his place in coaching history with ESPN.com.