In NBA lore, Nelson never comes up short
Mr. NBA was in town last night.
Well, he is. This was career game No. 3,380 as a player and coach for Don Nelson, and that’s No. 1 on the all-time list. He has been a part of the NBA since 1962.
We could concoct a pretty interesting list of all the “pre-this’’ and “pre-that’’ things that beginning 47 years ago would include, but one thing it might not encompass would be a more bizarre coaching circumstance than the one he finds himself in right now, when, thanks to injury (knees, wrists, shoulders, groin pulls), illness (the celebrated H1N1 business afflicting C.J. Watson), and just plain discontent (Stephen Jackson, dispatched, after much wrangling, to Charlotte), he finds himself in charge of a functioning unit that could fit safely inside a minivan.
The rules say you must dress eight players, and right now Nellie has precisely eight Golden State Warriors sufficiently healthy to participate in an NBA game. That’s eight out of 15, remember. Then again, when you’ve been coaching in this league since 1976, there usually is a precedent for just about everything, including arriving here with just eight available players. So it wasn’t a major shock when the Celtics prevailed by a 109-95 score.
“Actually, one of my favorite stories,’’ Nelson says. “One time when I was coaching in Milwaukee, we came here with just seven healthy guys, and Kevin Stacom came by the hotel to say hello. I said to him, ‘Got your sneakers?’ I signed him to a contract that afternoon and he played for us that night. Got 10 points, too. He stayed with us a couple of months and he played pretty well.’’
Let the record show that Stacom again stopped by Nellie’s hotel yesterday afternoon to pay his respects, but this time he left without a contract.
Nellie still has the baby face. But he’s 69 now, and it has been 33 years since we saw the last up-fake, the last fast-break trailer jumper, and the last shot-put free throw from No. 19. In the ensuing years, he has been a Buck, a Warrior (twice), a Knick, and a Maverick, so you wonder what he’s thinking each time he returns to the city where he spent 10-plus years, was an important part of five championship teams (who can forget The Bounce in ’69?), and was considered worthy of having his number retired.
“I can’t say I don’t have a few thoughts about the old days when I come to town,’’ he admits. “Usually someone comes by and we reminisce a little.’’
It still amazes and flatters him that his number stares down from the ceiling.
“I do think about how blessed I am,’’ he says. “I never thought enough of my game to have it warrant being a retired number. I never considered myself anything other than just a good ballplayer. But I guess there’s a couple of other schmoes up there, too. It’s a pretty important thing in a guy’s career. It’s one of the highlights of mine.’’
It would be hard to explain Nellie to a modern kid. They would have a hard time understanding how a 6-foot-6-inch guy with no discernible lift and nothing approaching speed could score more than 10,000 points, the bulk of the damage done with a 15-foot jumper, with an occasional layup, and, of course, some free throws. But he did.
Nellie was a marvel. Some nights it seemed as if he was always open. It didn’t hurt that the Celtics in his day were always a running team that featured a multilayered transition game whose final act was someone - Nelson or Dave Cowens, as a rule - entering the action as things appeared to be stalled before receiving a final pass leading to a 15- or 17-footer. What team plays like that now? The answer would be “nobody.’’
Nellie’s shooting seemed to improve as he got older. In the 1974-75 season, when he was 34 going on 35, he led the league in shooting percentage, nailing nearly 54 percent of his shots, a disproportionate amount of them midrange jumpers. The team had, in fact, no better pure shooter, and it was very much the custom of the day for the Celtics to call upon him to settle things down when trouble arose.
Say, for example, the lead had just gone from 10 to 2. Timeout, Boston, and when play resumed, the Celtics would run a “15’’ play for Nellie, who would slip behind the screen, nail the soft jumper, and the team would be off on a 12-4 run to put the game away.
Still not convinced? OK, how about a 10-for-10 playoff game against Buffalo?
Nellie was a classic old-time trickster. He was a devotee of a gummy substance known as “firm grip,’’ nicknamed “stickum,’’ which he would hide in adhesive tape wrapped around his left wrist or, following a New York Post pictorial exposé, under his shorts. With this gooey helper, he was able to embarrass young studs with the greatest up-fakes ever known to man. How he managed to shoot jumpers with this gunk on his fingers is a mystery lost to the ages.
As to how he got open so effortlessly, let’s just say he wasn’t averse to a timely shove or jersey grab. One night in Kansas City, he and fellow dinosaur Don Kojis were going at it all game, pushing, shoving, grabbing, and just generally having a rowdy old time. Someone asked legendary referee Richie Powers afterward if he had noticed what was going on. Sure, he said. Well? “Aw,’’ said Richie, “I figured they weren’t bothering anybody.’’
He’ll always be a Celtic to us, but it took a lot more nights with those other teams to put him in position to become Mr. NBA, the all-time participant. And with just 21 more wins he will have the big one. He will pass Lenny Wilkens as the NBA’s winningest coach when he gets No. 1,333. This, to him, is not, repeat not, a pleasant thought.
“First of all,’’ he says, “I’ve never had any individual goals. It’s not important to me. I’m very uncomfortable with this. Lenny is my idol and he should have the record.’’
The way things look for Nellie’s Warriors right now, Lenny will have the record for a few months, maybe more, maybe until next year.