Paul Kilduff shoots from the hip with legendary basketball coach Don Nelson.
There’s no question that Golden State Warriors head coach Don Nelson is a survivor. He’s beaten prostate cancer, vanquished moody Warrior forward Chris Webber and haggled with his previous employer, Mark Cuban, the overbearing owner of the Dallas Mavericks, in a contract dispute. But could he handle a one-on-one grilling from me?
Nelson is back after a 12-year hiatus that saw him coach the New York Knicks for one season and then single-handedly turn the moribund Mavericks franchise into an NBA title contender. Now in his first season back with the Warriors, Nellie’s return is seen by many as a sign that the team will finally make a playoff appearance—something it hasn’t done since he left.
Whether or not the Golden State Warriors (which is better than Sunshine State Warriors, but not anywhere near as appropriate as the Oakland Warriors designation the team was supposedly going to take up after winning the NBA championship in 1975) actually make the playoffs this season, Nelson’s innovative lineups that take advantage of mismatches at least make the team relevant again.
Even though I’m not on the Warriors’ media radar screen, setting up an interview with the three-time NBA coach of the year turned out to be surprisingly easy. “Will 15 minutes be enough?” the team’s public relations executive, Raymond Ridder, asked me. To really probe the depths of Nellie’s soul I was thinking I’d need at least twice that amount of face time, but I’ll take what I can get. I mean, who do I think I am, Terry Gross? “Well, it’d better not be 45 minutes,” cautioned Ridder.
On the day of the interview, I’m buzzed inside the Warriors training facility atop the downtown Oakland Marriott and motioned toward some chairs nearby with a TV blaring ESPN highlights. As I settle into the leather and chrome swivel recliner, the only other patron of this hospitality immediately gets up and moves to the hallway. Didn’t know I was radioactive. Turns out he’s one of the team’s several beat reporters who get to immerse themselves in every excruciating detail of the Warriors’ ongoing mediocrity on a daily basis. No wonder he has an attitude.
After about an hour of thumb-twiddling, a Warrior flack appears, sporting a beard and a bit of a paunch. He points to me and asks, “Berkeley Times?” Soon I join the other “known” media at the balcony overlooking the practice facility where the current crop of Warriors demonstrates that making millions is a whole lot different from making baskets.
When practice ends, the PR guys herd the media horde downstairs onto the hardwood. On the way down, Geoff Lepper, who covers the team for the Media News chain of papers including the Oakland Tribune, actually acknowledges my presence. When I tell him my mission, he reassures me that Nellie could be very forthcoming and might even break out the cigars. Things are looking up.
After being numbed up by the beat writers, it is finally my turn to have at the coach. As I approach, I remember the promise I’d made to myself not to utter “Whoa, Nellie” in response to one of his answers.
The coach is told by one of the media wranglers that I’m doing a profile of him for some Berkeley magazine and he takes his eyes off the players to do a quick scouting report on me: Middle-aged, bald white guy. Nice windbreaker. Probably can’t hit the turnaround jumper anymore, but will take the charge.
Even though he’s under no obligation to make nice, Nelson is gracious and friendly under the circumstances and turns on his just-folks, plain-spoken, aw-shucks charm. Still, I can tell it’s going to be bit of a struggle to draw out the gritty underbelly of Nellie in just one quarter of playing time. With his eyes at half-mast—at 66, the oldest coach in the NBA—Nelson looks tired and essence of cigar permeates the air. Wasting no time, I pull out my trusty Sony microcassette recorder and spring into action in my patented offbeat style.
Things don’t get off to the greatest start when Nellie bristles at my reference to him as a “great” coach who still hasn’t won an NBA championship. Could that be the real reason he came back to coach after a year of playing poker with Willie Nelson in Maui? “Well, first of all, don’t say I’m a great coach,” says Nelson. “I’m a good coach. And let’s just leave it at that.”
But what about coming back to save your boy (former Warriors star and current general manager) Chris Mullin’s bacon—wasn’t the Sacramento Kings job also in the mix? “I like that team a lot, but they had no interest in me. My job now is to turn this franchise around.”
So far, I don’t exactly have Pulitzer material, but I’ve got plenty of tape and the battery is still good. I’m convinced things will pick up despite the fact that Nellie is far more concerned with watching his players, most of whom are still out on the floor putting up bricks, than fielding inane questions. He barely makes eye contact.
OK, Nellie, you’ve returned to give the Warriors their mojo back. Fine. But is real success even possible? What about the long-held suspicion that the franchise is cursed? It’s an assumption that goes back to when the front office traded away Wilt Chamberlain after moving from Philly to San Francisco in the 1960s. Since then, Warrior worriers have seen Rick Barry’s meltdown in the playoffs after the team won the title in the ’70s; Nelson’s personality clash with young star Chris Webber that led to Webber’s trade and the start of the team’s losing streak; and Latrell Sprewell’s choking of then-coach P.J. Carlisimo in practice (apparently Spre didn’t like P.J. telling him to put some mustard on his passes).
“In Milwaukee they said the same thing when they lost Kareem. And I go to Dallas and they hadn’t made the playoffs for 10 years, so they were saying the same things there and it’s just not true,” says Nelson. “Every franchise is trying to do the same thing. They’re all trying to get good players and win and control their budget and have an exciting product and go first-class.”
Finally, I’ve got his attention. Nellie is probably thinking to himself, “Who is this dude from the Berkeley Times and why is he asking me about all this crap?”
Nellie’s falling-out with Cuban, the epitome of pro-sports owner-as-grandstanding-imbecile, is another hot-button topic. How does it feel now to work for the exact opposite of Cuban?—i.e., for Warriors’ owner Chris Cohan, a man who understandably shuns the spotlight, given the team’s run of losing seasons. At the NBA All Star game held in Oakland a few years back, Cohan was booed.
“I would prefer whoever it is [who owns the team] to let their basketball people make basketball decisions,” says Nelson, who adds that he and Cuban had a “great” relationship for most of the years he was in Dallas. “Just the last few, it deteriorated.” As for Cuban, Nelson agreed, “Yeah, he can be a distraction when he was in the huddles and saying things occasionally, but most of the time not really. You just have to get used to him being around all the time and being in your locker room. He didn’t step into what we were trying to do [but] eventually he did and so I left.”
Clad in his Warriors polo, pleated khakis and high-tech trainers, Nelson’s corporate-casual practice look is what you would expect. But during his first stint with the Warriors, he brought the look courtside at games as well. With his trademark goofy fish ties and sneakers (the NBA eventually ordered him into dress shoes), Nelson was the counterpoint to his then-rival from the Southland, the perfectly coifed, designer-labeled Pat Riley. Now Nellie seems to be down with the dress-for-success look of his peers, but he claims his wife still thinks the look needs work.
“I just never have dressed as well as probably most coaches. It wasn’t a priority to me. But now I’m thinking about getting me some Armani sport coats and suits. And pretty soon you may be seeing me in Armani, buddy,” he says with a chuckle.
With that, Nellie nods his head and smiles—a sign that the interrogation is over. I call off the dogs. He disappears into the inner sanctum of Warriordom, followed by a phalanx of team personnel, and I head out into the downtown Oakland afternoon sun.
As I put Nelson in my rearview mirror, I realize that he really is just a regular guy with a healthy perspective on his place in the cosmos. His humble take on his image—sort of the basketball equivalent of former 49ers coach Bill “the genius” Walsh—during our brief chat rattles in my brain as I evaluate our encounter.
“If you really believe your press clippings, you’re not long for this business,” says Nelson. “You can’t self-evaluate between you and your agent. That just never works. Or between my mother and me. She always thought I was the greatest and if you start believing her, you know you’re in trouble.”
Come to think of it, my mom has always held me in high regard. Better start working on that turnaround jumper.
Paul Kilduff is a regular contributor to The Monthly and, as evidenced by the Chris Mullin bobblehead that graces his nightstand, remains a committed Warriors stalwart.