When Garcia saw me in the concourse, he smiled, and I walked over to talk to him, thinking nothing of it. He's one of the nicer writers in the area, and we chat when I make it out to Mavs practices--usually about our lives, less about sports and hoops, generally never about my writing (mainly because it gives him, and me, headaches). That's why I knew something was afoot when he mentioned my recent column, a piece about Mavs head coach Don Nelson ("The Understudy," January 27). The column was about how I thought it strange that Nellie would elect to have shoulder surgery in the middle of the season. Considering that Nellie had been ejected quickly in several games thanks to questionable circumstances and that he'd allowed assistant Avery Johnson to coach in his stead several times this year, I thought I smelled something foul--like Nellie paving the way for Johnson to take over for him as soon as possible. When Nellie decided to take more than two weeks to recover from his surgery (during the meat of the season) thereby allowing Johnson more time to assume the head coaching duties, I was sure something queer was happening. I wrote as much:
So while everyone else is busy fawning over Johnson--I like him, but I can't figure out why the organization keeps pushing him on us--the conspiracy theorists among us (read: me and the meth addicts who compose my readers) wonder what's really going on here. That is, not to be distrustful, but it occurred to me that these "accidental" situations that keep handing the reins to Johnson might actually be unfolding "accidentally on purpose."
I wrote that at the end of January. Within hours of it hitting the street, people were busting my balls for it. Leading the crucifixion were Garcia and ESPN radio personality Dave Shore. The two of them lambasted me for the column, saying that I hadn't talked to the doctors and that Nellie needed to have the surgery right then because his shoulder had deteriorated so completely. (They didn't say, of course, why, if his shoulder was in such bad shape for such a long time, he didn't have the surgery during the off-season or during the All-Star break.) They said that Nellie always gets ejected and that I was reading too much into it. (But they had no answer for how he managed to get tossed in around 90 seconds--a record, even for Nellie.) Their vehemence made me feel as though I had, perhaps, drawn premature conclusions about the way everything with Nellie and Johnson was unfolding this season. It backed me off some, not so much because of the facts they presented (they presented few) or their instincts (mine felt stronger), but because they screamed louder. They were like slobbering mad lawyer types--hell-bent on winning a verdict for their boy Nellie. What they didn't realize, until now, was that their client was guilty and the prosecution had a serious case. That is, Nellie resigned this past weekend in a move that validated my January column by moving Avery Johnson into the head coaching slot.
"I thought it would be best to make it at this particular time, because I see a little slippage in the team, and I think the team is responding better to Avery at this point," Nellie said at his news conference. "I think Avery is ready to make the adjustment to be the headman. I think he's going to be a great coach."
Nellie went on to say that he wasn't retiring, that he'd still be a part of the organization in an advisory capacity. It was the same kind of thing Pat Riley said a few years back when he quit as head coach of the Miami Heat right before the season and left the job to his assistant, Stan Van Gundy.
What's the point? That this whole season was likely Nellie's premeditated plan. Sure, he probably would have stayed on if the Mavs were leading the West and destined for a title. But given this scenario--another middle-of-the-pack seeding, a probable loss before the NBA Finals--I think he saw things for what they were and decided to effect the only change he could. He decided to do what many great men before him have done and go out on his own terms. Maybe he couldn't, himself, hire Johnson as his replacement, but he could make the timing of his departure such that owner Mark Cuban had no other recourse but to go with Johnson. Put all the pieces together: letting A.J. coach all those games, the quick ejections, the curious timing of his surgery, the long recovery afterward and the early resignation. All of those things point to a plan, because Nellie isn't a stupid man. In fact, he's quite bright and calculating, and I think he played this one brilliantly.
For all those reasons, I'll miss Nellie. He was a fine coach--one of the best in NBA history--and a hoot to cover. He is gregarious and funny and, most of the time, a pleasure to be around. But he is also shrewd--the rare coach who has a handle on the politics and the planning that are the ancillary requirements of being an NBA front man. There just aren't too many like him, and it's a damn shame to see him go.
But, to be honest, this column isn't about that. This column is about the truth. The truth is, Nellie's resignation sent me dancing into the streets with an overwhelming sense of self-worth and joy. I get a lot of stories wrong, but this one I got right. So I sent Shore and Garcia an e-mail demanding an apology and reparations. I consider both of them buddies (truly), so it vexes me to see them so thoroughly discredited in this space. I told them so in my e-mail. The correspondence went like this:
Na na na na na.