ONE: In his new book, Rick Pitino writes about his early basketball memories, which include making his players at Providence and other stops do morning warm ups, midday practice, and a three hour practice every night. To hear Rick tell it in his tremendously self-serving book, this is a romantic time, when you could really TEACH PLAYERS the game for, like, 13 hours a day, a time before the nosy-ass NCAA started telling coaches how to run their programs. It reads as a fairly insufferable frame of mind to an even marginally normal person. In reading about it, you yearn for a coach who cares less, who uses the game to find something more ineffable and beautiful than the trophies you get when you win. You thirst, in short, for King Don Nelson, the greatest basketball coach who ever lived.
TWO: This weekend, The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inducted their 2018 Hall of Fame class. Twenty-year Women’s Pro Tina Thompson, Philadelphia 76ers Guard Maurice Cheeks, tragic forward Grant Hill, beefy point guard Jason Kidd, and obsessive sharpshooting legend Ray Allen, among others, were brought into the fold.
The best speech of the evening, from a pure public speaking perspective, came from Steve Nash, who delivered some inspiring words for the youth, said nice things to both his current AND former wives, went through his career dude by dude, and did a fucking tremendous job not thanking anyone he played with on the Lakers. But in addition to his well crafted speech, Nash also gave us a gift that will live through the ages.
For those not familiar with their rituals, players entering the Naismith Hall of Fame are “Welcomed” by someone already in the hall. This person sits behind them at the ceremony, walks up with them onto the stage, and stands by gracefully, giving the induction a sense of continuity with the past. Honestly, it’s a good idea. Inductees pick someone for literally every imaginable reason—Kidd picked Gary Payton, who was his mentor when he was young, Allen picked Reggie Miller, his immediate stylistic predecessor. But Steve Nash, goddess bless him, picked the greatest inductor imaginable.
Don Nelson, not seen on these shores for a hot second after he retired, moved to Hawaii, and founded a pot farm that primarily grows an O.G./Hindu Kush hybrid he calls “Nellie Kush.” Don looked fucking amazing, top to bottom, sporting a lighter frame, having lived a whole new life away from the world of never-ending pre-game spreads. His grey hair was draped across his mighty shoulders, and he was sporting some silvery dust on the ol’ chin and cheeks. Nelson now has a tan that, honestly, I didn’t know a human body was capable of even producing, it’s so rich and beautiful. It’s like a tan that a redwood would have, somehow. He totally eschewed a tie— reasonable, they always seemed a little out of place below his big red face— in favor of a CLASSIC all black getup that sat somewhere between Johnny Cash and outright cult leader.
And, to top it all off: he had an unusually large gold chain draped around his neck. It is, without a doubt, the greatest NBA Style moment since Kareem sported The Jacket.
THREE: While the anxiety-ridden perfectionism of Rick Pitino or Bobby Knight or Jim Boeheim caused them to live and die from play to play—obsessing over conditioning and image and hard work and all that horse shit everyone venerates in the abstract, but actually fucking hates in their own lives—Don just seemed like he rolled out of bed, took a look at his personnel, decided to try the most extreme shit possible, and put it into practice. He coached extremely good Milwaukee Bucks teams. He set Run TMC loose in Oakland in the 90’s, a time when basketball was mostly played in the half court. He coached Dream Team II, the ACTUAL greatest squad ever assembled.
The Nash/Nowitzki/Finley Dallas Mavericks were his charges, the heralds of the era of modernist, pace and space basketball thundering into the world. Then Don got fired for being too fucking cool, went BACK to the Warriors, took a team full of what can only realistically be described as “Fucking Miscreants” to the No. 8 seed, then they BEAT HIS OLD TEAM RIGHT THERE ON THE SPOT IN SIX GAMES, personally casting Avery Johnson from the world of viable NBA Head coaches and literally sending Dirk to the woods to lick his wounds.
FOUR: In the course of this whirlwind, Nellie became the winningest NBA Coach of all time, but that’s so tertiary to his importance that I nearly forgot to mention it. Because what Don gave NBA coaching that every dorky college coach in the world never could was a fucking rebel’s spirit, and an understanding that basketball, while it fucking rules, is not the end all and be all of life, that recruiting is fucking stupid, that working day and night to make the thing perfect is a fool’s errand, that trusting your player to make decent decisions and trusting the broad scope of your vision to guide them into something awesome (or, occasionally, terrible), was way better than bleeding and dying moment by moment.
And this ethic didn’t end with him. Gregg Popovich, who was his assistant, carries himself with the same win or lose, we’re still gettin’ dinner mentality. Phil Jackson is amazing at not giving a shit, or projecting that he doesn’t, at least. Nelson himself claims he got this carefree play fast/die hard attitude from Red Auerbach, who might be the greatest NBA Coach who ever lived. It’s an attitude towards life and sports that is, like, smart, and what a fucking normal person would do. It's the adult shit that produces actual wins when you’re coaching other adults who know how to handle themselves.
The best play of Don Nelson’s playing career is some truly unbelievable shit. In the last few seconds of the last game of Bill Russell’s career, Jerry West, the NBA’s all time overrated try-hard, was sitting on the precipice of notching one single Finals victory over Iron Bill and his wily crew. The Celtics are up one. John Havlicek has the ball. Keith Erickson knocks it out of his hands, and into the hands of Don Nelson and Nelson—who would someday wear an all black outfit and a gold chain to a Hall of Fame induction—grabs the ball, rises and shoots. It bounces off the back iron and drifts into the hoop, sealing the game for the Celtics and forever denying Jerry West the satisfaction of ultimate victory over his tormentor.
From this moment on, they would become the men this moment makes you. Nelson, devil may care, blowing shit up and halfway screwing it back together, changing the game through the pure force of madness that a shot that stupid going in gives you. West, doubling down on self-torment, managing his teams to the edge of existence, stressing out and doing everything in his power to convince everyone that he wasn’t a failure. Some people admire West, Pitino, all these fucking guys for that winning-is-everything bullshit. They are wrong. Nellie is the real hero we seek.