DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – It is June 23, 1998 and Don Nelson is about to pull a fast one.
On the NBA. And, yes, on a naïve, gullible reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The Dallas Mavericks suck and Nelson has been lured out of retirement in Maui by the ownership group of Ross Perot Jr. to yank the moribund franchise back into the land of the living. Nellie took over as general manager in ‘97 and promptly fired Jim Cleamons and named himself head coach two months later. The Mavs played faster and better under Nelson, but still weren’t close to sniffing the playoffs.
With the 6th pick in tomorrow’s draft, the Mavs need something. A player. A star. An icon. A big guy?
Dallas, led by Nelson and his son and general manager Donnie, were intrigued by German teenager Dirk Nowitzki. But they also liked Kansas’ Paul Pierce, and Michigan wide-body Robert “Tractor” Traylor. At the Hooters restaurant in the West End, Nellie is saturating his journalistic guest with beer and tales and hints.
“But c’mon,” I pleaded as the clock – and my newspaper deadline – raced toward midnight, “who y’all really gonna take?”
With that Nellie stood up, tossed a wadded up napkin, finished his mug and headed for the door.
“I’m not lying,” he turned and dead-panned. “That’s what we’re doing.”
Inscribed on the napkin: We’re taking the big man!
Yeah, but which one? The 7-foot German? The Kansas All-American? The Tractor?
Of course, had to be Traylor. The Mavs hadn’t had a low-post presence on the blocks since the glory days of Mark Aguirre in the ‘80s. Pierce was too safe of a choice for the daring Nellie. And, considering the team sorely needed a positive boost to sell tickets and hope, a 19-year-old unknown German certainly was too risky.
In the Star-Telegram the next the headline blared, “Mavs Likely to Take Traylor.”
Sure enough, they did. With the 6th pick. Problem: Within minutes, they traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks for Nowitzki. It was planned all along, this bait and switch. The Bucks drafted Nowitzki, fully knowing they would send him to Dallas. The newspaper was wrong. Of course, as he was more times than not in a career that this week landed him in the basketball Hall of Fame, Nelson was right.
Nowitzki is 19th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. He’s won an MVP, a Finals MVP and, last summer, a championship ring. None of which has surprised Nelson.
“No, not at all,” Nellie said last week on 105.3 The Fan. “I saw this coming. All of it. I honestly did. When I saw him play he was the talented teenager I’d ever seen. He could dunk with both hands and had unlimited range and he did it all with this effortlessness I’d never encountered before. We liked Pierce and he’s had a great career too. But I thought Dirk was a once-in-a-lifetime type player and turned out I was right.”
Great as he is and as much as he had to do with molding Nowitzki’s talents into a refined, unprecedented skill, Nelson didn’t earn the Hall sorely because of the 7-footer.
He won five championship rings as a scrapper for the Boston Celtics in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and his No. 19 hangs in the hallowed rafters in the Garden. After playing he took his quirky, innovative style to the NBA as a head coach, where he shunned conventional wisdom in everything from his substance (inventing the point-forward) to his style (wearing fish ties.). His teams – always void of the traditional back-to-the-basket center – played small ball, exploited mismatches, upped the tempo and were always among the most entertaining to watch.
A three-time NBA Coach of the Year, Nelson had 50-win teams in Milwaukee with Sidney Moncrief and Paul Pressey that couldn’t quite beat Larry Bird’s Celtics or Julius Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers. At Golden State his Run TMC featuring Tim Hardaway-Mitch Richmond-Chris Mullin produced lofty points and wins but couldn’t quite get past Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers or Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets.
“I’m proud of the stuff we did in Dallas,” Nelson said. “We laid the foundation for that team that won the Finals. But my best teams were probably in Milwaukee. We were really, really good but darnit we just kept running into legendary guys on championship.”
Nelson, who also coached the New York Knicks for a season, wound up winning a record 1,335 games but never led a team to the NBA Finals. In Dallas he resurrected the Mavs, drafting Nowitzki, trading for Steve Nash, annually winning 50+ games and pushing them to the brink of The Finals, before being stonewalled by Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs.
Nellie made history and headlines in Dallas, wearing a clown nose to a game against the Lakers after Shaquille O’Neal called his “Hack-a-Shaq” strategy a joke, having Bubba Wells foul out in three minutes while hammering poor free-throw shooter Dennis Rodman, battling prostate cancer and, in the end, getting crossways with owner Mark Cuban and handing the reins to assistant Avery Johnson in an ’06 season in which the Mavs made it to their first Finals.
“I’m done with cancer, done with coaching, I’m all good,” Nelson says. “I still root for the Mavs. I’m proud of what I did there and what Donnie’s still doing there. They’ll always be one of my teams.”
While most of the Hall’s newest honorees gathered in New Orleans in secrecy, word of Nelson’s induction leaked out a week early. How in the world could that happen?
“Well, hell,” Nellie chuckled. “Nobody told me to keep quiet so I ran out and told everybody that would listen. I’ve waited too long for this to keep quiet now.”
Typical, wonderful Nellie.
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