By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's a question he's thought about often, ever since he began playing basketball as a young man in Lincolnton, North Carolina--"down South," he says of his birthplace--and Columbus, Ohio, where he first tasted victory with the Linden-McKinley High School basketball team that captured the 1967 Class AA championship.
That was a long time ago, and the gray hairs sprouting from his face reveal that he has had a lot of time to get the answer right.
"I love how a group of individuals, if they truly believe in themselves and they use their abilities and awareness, can accomplish anything," he says, sitting in his office at the Baylor/Tom Landry Center after a team practice. His hands are clasped in front of him, almost as though he were praying.
"They have to sit down and continue to look and assess what their strengths and what their weaknesses are and then learn how to cover for each other, how to help each other. That's what society is all about. A team sport epitomizes people who can join together to accomplish a goal, and that's what I love about the game of basketball."
"Why do I love the game?" Don Nelson, the Dallas Mavericks' general manager, repeats the question as though it were an insult. Or a threat. Or just a damned stupid question.
He wears a vaguely disgusted look on his broad, sleepy face. His voice doesn't rise; it merely rumbles like Michigan thunder.
"Why do you love your wife? I mean, how do you know? You just love her. There's probably a hundred reasons."
There are indeed, he is told, each one of them easily enumerated.
"Well, I don't want to give you all my reasons. I think they're silly. I love the game. Let's leave it at that."
He pauses, grumbles something else under his breath.
Then, he spits, "I hate bullshit questions like that."
There are those around the Dallas Mavericks' front office who describe Don Nelson as a "no-bullshit kinda guy." Others call him a "larger-than-life personality," and still more refer to him simply as "a legend," almost as though it's his name: Mr. A. Legend.
They are cowed by his reputation and his history. The 57-year-old is, after all, the only man in the history of the NBA to be awarded Coach of the Year honors three times, the most recent coming in 1992 with the Golden State Warriors. They don't come any better than Don Nelson. Even he knows that.
The folks in the Mavericks' front office revere Nelson's basketball acumen. He has, after all, drafted some of the best to have played in the NBA in recent years: Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber--each of whom would go on to become All-Star players. He has also traded trash for treasures, acquiring the likes of John Starks and Bob Lanier for almost nothing and turning them into stars.
They worship his record as one of the sport's winningest players, coaches, and general managers. After all, he holds the record as the league's sixth winningest coach, posting a far-more-than-just-impressive 851 wins. When the league celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago, Nelson was voted by his peers as one of the 10 best coaches in the history of the game--a man who'd led the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors out of the basement and into the playoffs year after winning year. During his playing days with the Boston Celtics, he won five--five--NBA titles. His number, 19, was retired from the Celtics in 1978, when the team hung it from the rafters of the Boston Garden.
And they adore how he seems to leave his myth out in his black Mercedes when he walks into his office every morning. Standing on the court with his team, even next to the 7-foot-6 human beanstalk that is Shawn Bradley, Nelson looms over them all. At 6-foot-6, he's a powerful-looking man, the sort of character who says more with an enormous, fleshy handshake and a frown than most people do by screaming for hours. Yet when he comes to work, he's often wearing blue jeans and work boots. His is a casual sort of power.
If nothing else, the Mavericks' employees love the fact that their lowly franchise--one that has lost far more games than it has won for as long as anyone can remember--can boast that it now employs A Legend of the Game, a man unafraid to rip this team apart at the floorboards and rebuild it in his own image. If losing is a disease this team can't shake, they hope winning is as contagious.
But, right now, that brilliant basketball legend is simply an angry man. Fifteen minutes into a rather amiable interview about the future of the Dallas Mavericks, Nelson suddenly decides he doesn't like where the questions are going. Though the subject has not been broached, though it was never even intended as a line of questioning, he senses it coming. He's been asked it too many times since coming to Dallas in February, read it too many times in local sports pages and national magazines, heard it whispered ever since he came out of retirement in Hawaii and landed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.