The Manhattan Project

About 14 years ago, Vincent Mallozi wrote about Don Nelson’s new “project”–coaching the New York Knicks. With his final year in Golden State ending in disaster, the Knicks became Don’s landing spot. In the Q&A below, Nellie talked about mixing up the Knicks Pat Riley mentality and his own up-tempo style. The experiment started off well, at 18-6, but soon the wheels fell off. The offense shifted from Ewing as the focal point, and before you knew it, Ewing and Co. ran Nellie out of town. Worked out well for Nellie, where he took over the reigns of an up-and-coming Mavs squad with Nash, Finley and Nowitzki. Now it’s all come full circle. He’s been back with the Warriors for the past three seasons and again, publicly squabbling with his most talented players. Now that he’s been ill of late, some want him to call it quits. If he does resign, he’ll go down as one of the most winning coaches in NBA history, without ever winning a championship as a coach.–Matt Lawyue

Don Nelson, SLAM 8 Feature.

by Vincent M. Mallozi


That’s all you really need to know about Don Arvid Nelson, the brand-new coach of the tired old Knicks. “Anytime you need me, don’t hesitate to just pick up the phone and call,” says Nelson, who recently signed a three-year, $6 million contract to work the only seat in Madison Square Garden better than Spike Lee’s. “You’ll see me in the saloons just hanging out with the guys after the games. Just stop by, I really like that kind of stuff.”

Just pick up the phone and call him? Stop by at the saloon? Hey Don, you’re talking like a down-to-earth basketball coach who jogs in Nikes instead of Guccis. Dude, you’re not just in charge of a bunch of spoiled, sweaty millionaires in tank top and shorts. You’ve inherited Pat Riley’s top-secret, government operation code word: CHAMPIONSHIP.

“I’m not going to try and be Pat Riley, I’m just trying to be who I am,” says the 55-year-old Nelson, who racked up 817 victories but zero championship rings after 18 coaching seasons for Milwaukee and Golden State. “I’m a good coach. I may not be as good a coach as Pat Riley because I consider him to be maybe the best. He and Lenny Wilkens are right up there, one and two, and I’m somewhere down in the next level of coaches. But I’ll do a good job for you and I’ll work hard for you. I won’t dress in Armani suits, but I’ll be looking good. I won’t be looking Italian, I’ll be looking American.” Oh, say, can’t you see by the Don’s early light-heartedness? This is a man that the Knicks desperately need. He may not have Riley’s wardrobe-four-championship rings-or the gel guru’s overall slickness, but he is one of the best communicators in the game. And if he’s willing to knock down a few cold ones with the pack of media rats who’ll be scurrying all over his clipboard, then he should have no trouble putting up with Anthony Mason’s barber, let alone all of those frustrated Knickerbocker fans.

Just call Nellie, and he’ll tell ya all about it.

SLAM: How does it feel to be coming across the country to handle such a big chore?

Don Nelson: It’s just about the most exciting thing that my wife and I have ever done. We’re really enthusiastic about coming. It’s a big challenge, and I just can’t wait. You only go around once in life. Along with the big challenge, we’re trying to have a lot of fun, and it’s so much fun going to New York. I think we’re going to have a ball there.

SLAM: You’ve signed a very generous contract. Would you say that the Knicks are expecting you to work instant magic?

DN: You can look at it any way you want. I look at it like I’ve been hired to do a good job. I’ve won five championships as a player (with Boston) but never won a championship as a coach, and I think the Knicks can win one now. It would be really exciting if I can go there and do that. I can fulfill my dreams, and I can fulfill their dreams. Nobody on that roster has won a championship, so we’re all in the same boat.

SLAM: At Golden State, great players like Chris Webber and Billy Owens came and went. What was the idea with that revolving door of great talent? Did that hurt your chances of ever winning a title there?

DN: I don’t think we could have ever won a title with the team that we had because we had a lot of talent, but everybody played the same position. When we traded Mitch Richmond, it was to get bigger with Billy Owens, because we had Sarunas Marciulionis and Richmond playing the same spot. Then we had Sarunas and went along and drafted Latrell Sprewell, and Sprewell was better, so we moved Sarunas. Then we drafted Chris Webber, but he and Billy Owens both played the 4-position, and Billy wanted to be a 3, but I already had Chris Mullin there. Then we decided we needed a center more than anything, so we traded Billy to get Rony Seikaly, and we figured that having Webber, Seikaly and Mullin across the front line was pretty good. It looked like a real good deal, but then Mullin went down with an injury, Webber was traded and everything just kind of got screwed up.

Don Nelson, SLAM 8 Feature. SLAM: Speaking of injuries, it has always seemed that you guys were dealing with injury situations at Golden State. You seemed to be the one team in the NBA that everyone, including your opposition, felt sorry for.

DN: When you coach a long time, you’re going to get everything. In my Milwaukee years, we never really had all those injuries. We kept our team intact, and everyone played 70-plus to 80-plus games per year. All of a sudden it changed when I got to Golden State; we just got a barrage of injuries. There was nothing you could do about it because it was nobody’s fault. It happened and it was unfortunate, but that’s the way it was, and we did the best we could.

SLAM: If you hadn’t had all of those injuries, could the Warriors have won a championship?

DN: No, because our team wasn’t structured properly. We didn’t have the right players in the right spots. We had a very young and talented team, but they were all small people. You need some horses.

SLAM: After a long and nasty public dispute with Chris Webber, he was finally traded to the Bullets. That feud stained your image as the ultimate player’s coach. What have you learned from the whole incident?

DN: I look back at that as my fault. I’ll take full responsibility for not doing a good job with Chris Webber. I should have spent more time with him and communicated in the summer with him. I didn’t know there was this major problem, and there was. I should have anticipated that better, and so I’ll take responsibility and just leave it at that.

SLAM: Golden State selected Penny Hardaway in the 1993 NBA draft but swapped his draft rights to Orlando for Webber. In retrospect, do you regret not hanging onto Penny?

DN: That’s a good question. I think that when you look back at what happened in the Chris Webber situation-and we all have hindsight now-that would have been very interesting. But I would have had Penny Hardaway, Sprewell and Tim Hardaway and been overloaded at the point guard position. In retrospect, when you looked at our team going in that year, we really needed Chris Webber, he was the perfect guy for our team. I would look back and say I’d do the same thing again. I just wish that Chris Mullin had been there.

SLAM: With temperamental Anthony Mason, do you have another Chris Webber on your hands?

DN: I love Mason’s skills. He’s going to love playing for me, and he’s going to love the creative things I can do with players. As far as his personality goes, I don’t know him personally or how he acts. We’ll have to deal with those things when they come up. I like him, and he’s going to like playing for me.

SLAM: You said you were going to get the Knicks to run. Considering their age, and the fact that they’re not used to running as a nucleus, isn’t that a lot harder than it sounds?

DN: If they prove to me they can’t run, then I won’t ask them to. I’m not going to ask a player or a team to do something they can’t do, bu they’re going to have to prove to me they can’t do it, because running is easy for players. You don’t have to be fast to be a good runner. There are a lot of techniques to it. Defending, jumping and banging people take up all the energy. Running is easy. You put some NBA players on the treadmill, and they’ll wear it out.

SLAM: At Golden State, you never really had a true center. Could the Warriors have won a championship with Patrick Ewing in the pivot?

DN: That’s another good question, because we always asked ourselves the same thing. That’s one of the reasons we went out and got Seikaly. I’m not comparing them, but yeah, if we had a Patrick Ewing or a quality center like that, I think we could have won a title. If I had a starting team of Ewing, Owens, Webber, Hardaway and Mullin, I think we could have won a title.

SLAM: With Ewing in his early 30s does he still have enough left in his tank to lead the Knicks to a championship?

DN: Yes, that’s one of the reasons I took the job. Sometimes when you’re 32, you can’t do things you were capable of doing when you were 22, but you can still get the job done. Personally, I need to win a championship, I think Ewing and the Knicks can still win it all.

SLAM: Pat Riley basically ignored young players like Charlie Ward, Doug Christie and Monty Williams. Will you try to work them into the lineup?

DN: I’m not sure those aren’t good players. When I look back at my draft notes from Golden State, we were big Charlie Ward and big Monty Williams fans. I think both of those guys can play. The two of them, plus Christie, will have to prove to me that they can’t play.

Don Nelson, SLAM 8 Feature. SLAM: Upon being named coach of the Knicks, you were immediately endorsed by Ewing and a few other Knicks. Did that make you feel good?

DN: It made me feel good because outside of John Starks, who I once coached, I didn’t know any of them personally.

SLAM: Speaking of Starks, who you coached when he was just a young pup with the Warriors, did you think he would blossom into an NBA all-star?

DN: He’s gone a lot father than I ever thought he would. When I had him, I got Sarunas and Hardaway in the draft, so there really was never any room for him. He needed two or three years of grooming, so I told him he should go to the CBA and work on his game. I never dreamed he would be a $3 million player in this league.

SLAM: What would you be doing right now if you didn’t get the Knicks job?

DN: I’d be doing the same thing I’m going to be doing in a few minutes. I’d be out playing golf.

SLAM: Charles Smith has always been labeled as too soft-do you agree?

DN: I don’t know him that well. He’s an intelligent player. I wouldn’t say he’s soft. I know he hasn’t been as consistent as they would have liked in New York. But I’ll have to wait until I coach him to really give you more details on him.

SLAM: You and Chris Mullin are awfully close. Do you think you can pull a few strings and get Chris back in his hometown to play for the Knicks?

DN: Are you trying to get me fined a million dollars?