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Who's the boss?

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.

No, he's not talking about any of that. And neither is anyone else.
Nelson has gotten off easy in Dallas, a city more concerned with the madman at Valley Ranch and who'll become his next lackey boy. Nelson's Mavericks are an afterthought of an afterthought, a far distant fourth on the list of major-league franchises whose every cough and sneeze fill the sports pages. One need only look at the sea of empty green in Reunion Arena every night the Mavs are in town to realize how little anyone cares about this team--and how easy it is for Nelson to come in and steal the baby when no one's looking.

He has failed upward since coming here, blasting apart the team, running Jim Cleamons out of town, losing, as of this writing, 20 of the 22 games he's coached, and somehow reaping the reward of a nifty raise.

Ross Perot Jr. may sign the paychecks, but Don Nelson owns the Dallas Mavericks. And maybe that's not such a bad thing: This turbulent franchise needs stability, and Nelson's long-term deal guarantees that, if nothing else. Perhaps Ross genuinely believes Nelson will work his hoodoo and fashion championship gold out of this slag heap.

Or maybe he's just Nellie-whipped.
Clearly, a coaching change hasn't made this a better team. Not that Jim Cleamons was the right choice: He was arrogant to the point of foolishness, ignoring Nelson's run-and-gun wishes while he held the loaded weapon to his own head. Cleamons alienated the players and infuriated the general manager; the post-game locker room was like a mausoleum.

A change was needed, considered inevitable, even welcomed. And Nelson wasn't a bad choice: He came bearing a reputation as a sympathetic coach who made unorthodox substitutions that confused opponents, not to mention his own players. He's one of the few inspiring coaches in the league, a man who can lead his troops into hell and make them enjoy the heat. Even his players agree: They smile as the losses pile up.

"The team is surprisingly upbeat," says Michael Finley, the man Nelson's trying to turn into the team's go-to guy. "And that's good and bad. It's good because you don't want everybody moping around and feeling sorry for themselves, and it's bad in that you don't want your team to get used to losing. But Nellie's a very intelligent guy who knows the game--he's a true old-school veteran. As a player, you like to be around him."

Yet nothing much has changed under Nelson: One of his two wins was over the 2-and-wretched Denver Nuggets.

There have been moments of improvement. This young team held its own during a four-game stretch against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, and Milwaukee Bucks in late December. (Of those, Nelson says, "the Milwaukee game is the only one that got me down, because we should have won that.")

And Samaki Walker is suddenly, surprisingly, emerging as the team's most reliable low-post player. He's the one guy on the team who doesn't scare you when he gets the ball, which is a grand achievement for a group of players averaging a mere 89.5 points per game--next to last in the NBA.

But there have also been the sordid low points that bury the highlights--including the January 3 game against the L.A. Clippers, who began the game with a 16-0 run, and the January 17 debacle against the Minnesota Timberwolves, when the Mavs pissed away a 24-point lead late in the third quarter only to lose in overtime. If this team is getting better--and everyone says it is--that's only because it can't get worse.

"When I say we're improving, it's not like we're happy improving and still losing," Finley says. "We'd rather be winning and not improving, y'know what I'm saying?" Even Nelson has begun showing the strain: Against the Timberwolves, he was stalking the sidelines, barking at players and grumbling to himself as he watched his team give one away.

Perhaps no player better symbolizes all that's right and so very wrong with Nelson's Mavericks than Shawn Bradley: He leads the league in blocked shots, with more than 3.6 per game, but last week, he also fouled out against the Houston Rockets and the Hawks. More and more, he looks frustrated on the floor, picking fights when he should be going for rebounds, flailing his elbows when he ought to be controlling the ball. He's simply putting the bad in bad boy.  

Of course, none of this fazes Nelson, who's here for five more years--no matter how many games he loses. And there will be so many more.

"We need to find ways to win games," Nelson says, "not ways to lose them. Teaching how to win takes a while. I knew [coaching again] would be a hard thing, but I'm more prepared for this than I was when I was younger. I was dumb then."

He smiles wide when he says this, and why not? Right now, Don Nelson is the smartest guy in the whole damned building.


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