Don Nelson blazed the trail the Mavs are following to a likely championship.
Don Nelson blazed the trail the Mavs are following to a likely championship.
Steve Satterwhite

Assist, Nellie

At Nellie's Sports Bar just south of downtown Dallas, there are tons of photos adorning the walls. Former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson with Dirk Nowitzki, with Steve Nash, with Troy Aikman, with Sammy Hagar and even with Kinky Friedman.

And, coming soon, Nellie posing with the NBA championship trophy. Yep, what he started, his protégé is about to finish.

"I'm like a proud papa," Nelson says from his home in Maui, where he watched Dallas' Game 2 romp in the NBA Finals after hosting a family wedding. "I'm really enjoying this, just like another fan. I'm happy for Avery Johnson. Happy for Mark Cuban. Happy for the players. Shoot, I'm happy for me. Nobody's rooting harder than I am."


Don Nelson

With the way Nowitzki has turned into Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal has turned into Greg Kite and the Mavs have turned the Finals against the Miami Heat into a ridiculous rout, there's nothing left but to start planning the parade.

After Sunday's laugher in front of Governor Rick Perry, Dr. Phil and a heartbroken TV viewer named Michael Finley, only a couple questions remain: How can a Heat team that's lost six in a row and 12 of 14 to the Mavs possibly beat Dallas four out of five? When did Shaq become Shakira? And where do you buy ticker tape anyway?

Queen Latifah hasn't officially begun crooning, but this one's over.

Not since 1977 has a team won the Finals after trailing 0-2. The Mavericks are deeper, quicker and better, seemingly playing Harlem Globetrotters to Miami's Washington Generals. By the time the Mavs owner returns from his stint as the most famous Cuban running around Miami since Elian Gonzalez, he'll be hugging the NBA's Larry O'Brien championship trophy.

And, hopefully, giving the hardware some quality time with Nelson.

"Just sitting back and watching is enough," Nelson says. "It's very rewarding."

The national media descended upon Dallas last week and basically spewed forth the urban legend of Avery Johnson as a miracle worker who taught a deaf, dumb and blind team how to hear, speak, see and win. Don't get me wrong, Johnson has been fantastic. He's a deserving Coach of the Year, he's transformed the Mavs' culture, and his personnel juggling throughout the playoffs has been uncanny.

But let's face it, thanks to Nellie, Avery didn't build a championship-caliber team--he inherited one.

"The most important decision a general manager can make is picking the right coach," says Nellie, who stepped down from both roles on March 19, 2005. "I have a lot of pride in what Avery is doing. I wanted him to be my assistant, and then I kind of fast-fed him so he could take over quicker than normal. I needed to step away, and obviously he was ready to step in. It's worked out perfectly."

Nelson, who originally touted his son, Donnie, and then former Milwaukee Bucks star Sidney Moncrief as his successor, abruptly pitched the keys to assistant coach Johnson when he grew physically and emotionally weary from the daily NBA grind as a 65-year-old.

"As I'm getting older I'm getting more compassionate," says Nellie, still on Cuban's payroll as a consultant. "It got harder for me to keep the knife stuck in guys and keep them moving forward. Looking back, I was more into loving players than disciplining them. Obviously that needed to change."

Enter the Little General, only six years removed from winning a championship as a player with the San Antonio Spurs and not afraid to jump a player's jock. Avery almost immediately forced Nowitzki to stop exclusively settling for jumpers, took the same players Nelson repeatedly labeled "naturally poor defenders" and assembled them into a more than adequate defensive team, and basically grabbed the Mavs by the nape of the neck and plunged into the end zone after Nellie drove the first 90 yards.

"Avery came in and made us drive more to the basket on offense and installed some changes on defense," Nowitzki told the media last week in Dallas. "Most importantly, he brought us toughness."

Said Cuban, "I honestly think this is just a team that meshes with Avery's personality a little better than Nellie's."

During Nellie's reign the Mavs were soft. Now they are hard, and harder to beat. That doesn't mean Nellie's fingerprints aren't all over the Finals.

He did, after all, discover, draft and develop Dirk, likely the Finals MVP and the franchise's first Hall of Famer.

"Sure, we saw this in Dirk," says Nellie, who selected Nowitzki in 1998. "We knew he had the skills to be a big-time star that could lead a team to a championship. Now he's showing better passing, more leadership and a toughness. It's beautiful."

Along with Dirk's arrival, Nellie's also partly responsible for Shaq's sudden sayonara. Of course, Nellie would still be attacking Miami's center with the likes of Shawn Bradley or Wang Zhizhi, but his principles remain profitable.

After years of having Shaq toy with the Mavs like a big brother palming his smaller sibling's forehead to avoid the wild, harmless arm-flailing, Nelson invented a Hack-a-Shaq strategy that effectively transformed O'Neal from one of the game's best dunkers into one of its worst 15-foot shooters. Avery's Mavs employed the strategy, though with a tad more subtlety, and Shaq responded by missing 14 of 16 free throws through the first two games. And long ago Nelson decided to use Shaq's size against him, dragging him away from the basket and making him guard pick-and-rolls on the perimeter. The Mavs score off that play almost at will in the Finals.

Apparently those signature strategies, the ultimate success and perhaps a couple celebratory beers are enough for Nelson to mask any bittersweet aftertaste generated by the realization that, in the end, your old team is better off without you. After winning five titles as a player with the Boston Celtics, Nelson spent almost four decades fruitlessly chasing a spot in the NBA Finals as a coach and GM.

"Are you kidding?" Nelson says of a possible tinge of disappointment. "I'm nothing but proud, nothing but happy. It's wonderful."

Nelson's Hall of Fame résumé--highlighted by the second-most coaching victories and three Coach of the Year Awards--will still technically show a championship void. But we know, and he knows, he deserves an assist for this Mavericks' title.

"Keep the focus on the team and the players," says Nelson, who'll be back in time to watch Thursday's Game 4 from a bar stool at Nellie's. "Keep me out of it. I don't want any credit."

Maybe we can talk him into a picture with the trophy instead.


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