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This wasn't supposed to happen. Don Nelson wasn't supposed to be at the podium talking about the Western Conference Finals and looking at ease. He was supposed to be yelling or sobbing or venting somehow--wearing a white jacket and sitting in a padded room.
Let's go back to the season's halfway point. Heading into the All-Star break, the Kings had dispatched the Mavs for what felt like the 100th time. Dallas had the league's best record, but who among us expected much more than another cursory pass at the playoffs? The pressure then was massive and absorbed almost exclusively by Nelson. For a while, I thought his head would swell up and explode, scattering little bits of his brain everywhere and killing his team's hope for a title run.
"You know, you people are talking world championship here, and all we're trying to do is get through the season," he said, uncharacteristically frustrated.
Then there was the matter of his coaching status. The man will be paid handsomely by the organization for another eight years, but that will be for services rendered as general manager--his coaching contract expires after this season. Whether he'll continue as sideline director was an issue owner Mark Cuban said he'd address only after the playoffs. For Nelson, it must have been like mainlining anxiety.
The odds on Nellie negotiating all that drama and dispatching the Kings in a seven-game series were long and ugly; only degenerates and drunks would have bet on him. And most of them would have shied away.
But there he was over the weekend, defying all logic. His Mavs had just beaten the Kings. His jacket and tie were off, and the top button of his shirt was undone. He looked comfortable, a man enjoying the triumph as much for himself as the rest of the town.
"Things weren't always smooth this year," Nelson admitted. "The reason why this is so special was because it was hard."
True enough. To usher his squad into the penultimate series and guide the Mavs to their first Western Conference Finals since 1988 took an inordinate effort. Playing two Game 7s, in consecutive series, is enough to make you go screaming into the night. That he's able to talk in complete and sane sentences is a wonder. Then, that's been the story of his career.
Though he's won more than 1,000 games, his reputation is less lustrous than you might expect. For some reason, he's never been as revered as he should be. Ask for a list of the game's great coaches and you'll get the standard names: Pat Riley, Larry Brown, Phil Jackson. Now and again you get some others. Now and again they mention Nellie. He's always been somewhat of a national afterthought, a guy who coached teams that were good, not great. Some of that has to do with the fact he's yet to win a championship. But Brown has never won one, either, and that hardly invalidates his coaching acumen.
He is frequently overlooked, but Nelson remains one of the league's best. Who would you rather have here? Recently fired Hornets coach Paul Silas? Maybe, though that would be more of a change for change's sake. Former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy? He's a curious little elf but has little to offer beyond his comedic value. (If anyone knows of a funnier moment in sports than when Van Gundy clung to Zo Mourning's leg during that fight between New York and Miami, please send word immediately; I'm sorely in need of a good chuckle.)
When you look at the wins and losses, the career achievement and what he's done this season, it's hard to find a better fit for the Mavs than Don Nelson. Not only is he a sound basketball strategist, he's also the gregarious sort, a fine representative of Mavs basketball. More important, his personality meshes with Cuban's and the club's. This is a strange lot, particularly the owner, and the fact that neither Cuban nor any of the unproductive post players are walking around with black eyes or bruised bellies is a testament to Nelson's restraint.
And yet his future remains uncertain.
"Nothing has changed," Cuban offers via e-mail when asked if having beaten the Kings makes it more likely that Nellie will be retained as head coach. You'd think Cuban would want to reassure Nelson, take his mind off things so his focus is squarely on the Spurs. You'd think wrong.
It's just one more load for Nellie to lug around on his broad shoulders. There were the usual regular-season issues this year: the injuries; the lack of any real contribution from his interior players; how to get a team full of offensive standouts to play defense; how to keep Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki fresh for the postseason; how to once again meet or exceed the expectation of 50 wins and on and on. It hurts my fingers just writing all that. Poor Nellie--when you play in the West, the headaches are brutal and the extra-strength pain pills are never enough.
Now, in between wondering if he'll be re-signed, it's the Spurs that act as the splinter in his mind. Even after Game 1, San Antonio is the favorite in many minds, without a doubt. But there can be plenty of doubt in the Mavs' abilities, and by extension, Nellie's, too.
"Some people are always questioning them," Sacramento coach Rick Adelman said shortly before taking his ball and going home. "But you play against them or coach against them, and you have to give them credit. I just think that people have disregarded this team. It boggles my mind. How do you doubt a team that won 60 games?"
That's a fine question, though not easily answered. This club's toughness has been brought up often and justly. There's something about a team of pretty boys that just keeps you from believing they can survive the playoffs. If this were a GQ shoot, or a contest to see who could make the girls coo, it would be another story.
But all that is peripheral. Will they vanquish the Spurs? Who knows; in terms of Nelson's situation, it shouldn't matter. Advance or not, the Mavs have already accomplished something grand, and that has as much to do with Nellie as it does Nick Van Exel--who's played about as well as anyone could have ever imagined--or any other player.
Maybe this will put it into perspective. As I made my way out of the American Airlines Center following Game 7 against the Kings, I was forced to wait for the elevator. The crowd was thick but emboldened. One man, a paying customer for years, or so he said, put it best: "How many years of disappointment and disgrace?" he asked. A huge smile was on his face. His breath smelled like fun: cheap booze and stale cigarettes. "Fifteen years we've waited...finally."
Four teams are left now. Four of 30. One of them is coached by Don Nelson. One of them should still be coached by him next season.
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