By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
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By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Don Nelson sits in his Reunion Arena office, puffing away at a delicious, forbidden cigar. There's no smoking in the arena, but that doesn't stop the Dallas Mavericks coach and general manager: He simply shuts the door, opens the small humidor he keeps near his desk, cuts the end off the taboo stick, and lights up. He casually tips the ashes into a trash can behind his desk.
And no one bothers him, save the assistant who sits just outside his office and makes a face whenever the door opens and a little stale smoke sneaks out. Such are the perks for the man who would be king--the most powerful coach in Dallas Mavericks history, no matter how many games he wins or loses.
Sitting behind his desk, a bum leg propped on its shiny marble surface, Nellie radiates gruff charisma--he always seems irritated, yet he's always accessible. It's the day before the Mavs break their 15-game losing streak against the Denver Nuggets--and three days before the lowly Dallas franchise begins yet another losing streak with a loss to the Sacramento Kings--and Nelson's in a remarkably upbeat mood. It's easy to be ebullient when you know your job's not in jeopardy.
"If I'd known you were a cigar-smoker," he says to me, "I wouldn't have been such a pain in the ass the last time we talked."
Around Reunion Arena's cursed hallways, employees and especially players are awed by the 6-foot-6 Nelson. To them, he is Nellie, a man who can do no wrong--no matter how many games his awful team loses, no matter how many dreadful players he signs, no matter how many mistakes he makes as the Mavericks stumble even further into NBA notoriety.
Team owner Ross Perot Jr. seems bedazzled by the man he hired in February 1997 to take over this pitiful franchise: On December 30, a little more than three weeks after Nelson took over the coaching duties from the emasculated Jim Cleamons, Perot gave Nelson a $6 million raise--despite the fact that Nelson's team was in the middle of a 15-game losing streak and had won only a single game, three fewer than Cleamons managed this season in 15 games as coach. (Nelson was already working under a five-year, $7-million deal as general manager; he was given $9 million to coach the team for two more seasons, and his GM's contract was reconfigured when he became coach.)
Then, on January 2, Perot allowed Nelson to hire his son, Donnie, as the Mavericks' new head coach--in the year 2000, when Nellie says he will step down and re-assume the general manager duties full-time. Donnie's an affable guy, a 35-year-old pickup-driving father and husband who left a cushy five-year deal with the Phoenix Suns to sit next to Daddy on the bench before taking over the reins himself. Give the boy some credit: If Nellie gives him a decent team and Donnie screws it up, the old man will have no choice but to fire his own son.
But hiring Donnie ranks among the most ballsy moves in the history of pro sports--one head coach appointing another head coach two years down the line, and his own son to boot.
And when it happened, no one batted an eye--not the local sports media, save a few radio talk-show hosts who have since moved on to swapping Cowboys head-coaching rumors; not the few remaining Mavericks fans; and certainly not anyone around Reunion, where Nellie is a giant among men.
"I think my past speaks for itself," Nelson says, smiling, when asked how he justifies the raise and hiring of Donnie when the senior Nelson's record is one most coaches would get shitcanned for. Just ask Jim Cleamons--the 4-12 Jim Cleamons.
Nelson means this as a good thing, referring to the glory days when he turned the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks from basement-dwellers into contenders. The Bucks were division winners seven straight years (1980 to '86), while the Warriors won more than 50 games twice during Nelson's tenure there, from 1987 to '95.
He is referring to the days when he drafted such players as Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Tim Hardaway, and Mitch Richmond and watched them blossom into all-stars. He's referring to his record as the league's sixth-winningest coach.
He is not talking about the fact that the Warriors and Bucks were always eliminated from the playoffs before reaching the finals. Nor is he talking about the fact that he was run out of New York after less than a season as Knicks head coach--his last job before coming to Dallas.
Nor is he talking about the fact that he's the very man responsible for this aberration on the Reunion hardwood right now.
It was Nelson who traded Kelvin Cato, a kid with great potential, to Portland for an Australian bust named Chris Anstey. It was Nelson who predicted Robert Pack was the future of the franchise--and then became so outraged with Pack's lack of effort in late December that he benched the guard for nearly two weeks. It was Nelson who pinned his playoff hopes on Hillcrest grad Kurt Thomas, who came here from Miami in the Jamal Mashburn trade last February--and then played in a grand total of five games because of a fractured right ankle. And it was Nelson who signed a 7-foot-6 Mormon who's fast becoming the league's leading goon.