The Defense Rests

Can the Mavs guard anyone? To find out, John Gonzalez gets offensive with a drunk Don, a focused Finley and a nutty Cuban.

The season hasn't yet started, but I think Don Nelson is drunk. Donnie Nelson might be, too; who can tell? Half the Mavs fans in this room are loaded and twisted, and the other half are well on their way. It's early, but I have no idea what time it is. Maybe 7 o'clock. I've already had a few myself.

But, yeah, I'm pretty sure the Mavericks head coach is feeling gooood. This is not the way the burly 62-year-old usually acts during post-practice interviews, and it's certainly not how he acts on the sideline. That's probably where he should be right now, on the sideline in Memphis, guiding his charges against the Grizzlies in the season opener, lumbering and gesticulating, his ample belly protruding like an overstuffed bear's. That's where he would be, too, if the NBA hadn't suspended him and Donnie, a Mavs assistant coach, for two games over a bunch of nonsense. (The two Nelsons were in a Belgrade gym with a bunch of Yugos--the people, not the cars--who were ineligible for the draft. It was a ridiculous punishment, but Mavs owner Mark Cuban hasn't made many friends in the league office, so it figures. Commissioner David Stern likely told his cronies to put the fine on Cuban's tab.)

So although assistant coach Del Harris takes command in Tennessee tonight, the Nelsons are here, in a private room at Dave and Buster's near Interstate 35 and Walnut Hill, along with a few hundred fans, a platoon of media types, a handful of team dancers and an endless supply of booze and beer. There's a small movie screen against the far wall to broadcast the game, and faint music plays in the background. For now, The Don is all the entertainment these people need. He's shaking hands and posing for pictures and kissing people...and laughing. He's been laughing this robust laugh, loud and long. The man should've run against Kirk and Cornyn. He would have won.

Dandy Don: General manager and coach Don Nelson acknowledges the adoring crowd at Dave and Buster's while doing an interview with Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams of The Ticket.
Mark Graham
Dandy Don: General manager and coach Don Nelson acknowledges the adoring crowd at Dave and Buster's while doing an interview with Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams of The Ticket.
Don and son/assistant coach Donnie sign autographs and guzzle.
Mark Graham
Don and son/assistant coach Donnie sign autographs and guzzle.

"I'm having a great time," Nellie says over his shoulder while autographing some dude's elbow. "This sure beats watching it at home. I just hope the NBA has a sense of humor about it."

Probably not, but that doesn't make it any less amusing. The Nelsons showed up wearing old-school prison uniforms--black and white striped hats and shirts--and name tags that read "Dallas Mavericks Correctional Facility." They had balls and chains attached to their legs. "Come see Coach Nelson's balls," Nellie quipped when he walked in. The crowd ate it up.

Earlier, he and Donnie did a spot on The Hardline, the afternoon drive-time sports-talk show on KTCK-AM (1310). Donnie played straight man while Nellie sprayed one-liners across the room with Gatling-gun speed. The man had jokes; the assembly roared.

"We're in the slammer," Nellie told hosts Greg Williams and Mike Rhyner, "and we're trying to make the best of it. My roommate Bubba's been good to us." Then he paused, and smiled a sly smile and said: "We're hoping for DNA testing..."

That's the way it's been going--crazy. The room has become a mini-fraternity party, an Animal House, with Nellie subbing for John Belushi. It's a side to the man that few in the press have seen. Oh, he's genial and accommodating at work, but I wouldn't say he's fun. Not like this.

The game is about to tip. The Nelsons are seated next to each other at a long table that's off to the side of the room but has a prime view of the big screen. The Don is sitting sideways on his chair with his legs spread. He looks comfortable. One hand rests on the left knee that juts out from under the table; the other secures a half-empty Bud Light bottle in a powerful grip.

A Dallas Morning News reporter leans in and asks Nellie how into the game he plans to get.

"Oh, I don't know," he says with another silly grin, "depends on how many beers I have." As the jump ball goes up, Nellie thrusts both arms into the air in the manner of a football ref and lets out a "Yeaaaaah."

This scene is strange, no doubt, but it's full of promise, too. Not for the season--who the hell knows what will happen with that?--but for tonight. More specifically, for the maintenance of my buzz.

"If the Mavs win," Nellie promises, "I'm buying everyone in the room beer."

God bless that man.

You've probably heard about the sign by now. Deep inside the American Airlines Center, on the practice court, the Mavs employed a unique motivational tool. What would Pavlov call it? Negative reinforcement? Whatever, it was true and telling.

It read: 115 layups or dunks allowed among Sacramento's 207 field goals in the Kings' 4-1 series victory in Round 2.

Ouch. Beating Dirk Nowitzki into a bloody mess with the stat book would have been more subtle.

That was the genesis for the incessant "defense" talk, unfortunately. Unless you're illiterate or have a real life, you've read the countless stories and heard the innumerable radio and TV reports that suggest this team will undergo a defensive renaissance, that the Mavs will no longer be known only as an offensive power. The team started feeding the press that tripe on media day, and kept shoveling it right on through the preseason. Naturally, a lot of them swallowed hard. And why not?

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