What Might Have Been

by August 10, 2007

The following story appears in SLAM 111. Before the Golden State Warriors made themselves the early story of the ’07 Playoffs, there were years of frustration that began with the promise of 1994. This is the story of what went wrong.
By Steve Kettmann

Call what the Golden State Warriors did to the Dallas Mavericks in May the greatest upset in NBA Playoff history, or just think of it like a hit buddy movie, writ large on the hardwood, with a band of talented misfits coming together when it mattered to turn the Bay Area into a giant hoops-themed party. Whatever you call it, it was clear that at the center of the supernova of joy and angst surging out from Oracle Arena stood the Alchemist in Chief, the oracle of Oracle, the veteran coach who got his players believing they really could do the unthinkable and knock off the Playoff’s top seed. Don Nelson saw it coming the whole way and played his hand to the hilt, out-coaching Avery Johnson and reviving a Warriors franchise that had been wasting away in Lottery land.

The thing is, the Warriors may never have even needed rescuing in the first place were it not for the same Don Nelson, who left town under a cloud in ’95 after one of the more decisive and costly battles of will in NBA history.

To understand what the series win meant for Nelson and for Northern California basketball, you have to go back to Nellie’s first stint as Warriors coach, more than a decade earlier, when Golden State drafted Chris Webber out of Michigan with the first overall pick in the ’93 Draft, then watched in horror as the proud rookie and the old-school coach clashed and a team loaded with talent blew apart before our eyes. Looking back on the wreckage the following year, Tim Keown opined in the San Francisco Chronicle: “In a Shakespearean arena, the retreat from the public domain—where once Nelson was so welcome and revered—would signify the defeated protagonist’s lonely struggle with his private furies. And for Nelson, there were many. His team stopped playing for him, his once-absolute authority evaporating into the thin air of dissension. He stood on the sidelines, hands disgustedly locked behind his head, surveying his mobile void. He was the ruler of the unruly, the emperor with no clothes. In his mind, his back was filled with the figurative knives of a group of rich, spoiled young men. It was as much Nixonian as Shakespearean, but if the Shakespeare analogy is apt, the moral might be: Be careful what you hope for.”

Before the season, Webber had downplayed any potential for trouble with Nelson. Ric Bucher, now with ESPN but then the Warriors’ beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News beat writer, interviewed Webber before the season and asked him about Nelson’s reputation for being hard on rookies.
“Have you experienced that?” Bucher asked.

“I’ve had hard coaches all my life,” Webber said. “Steve Fisher was a tough coach, whether people believe that or not. He was very, very tough.”
Steve Fisher? As tough as Don Nelson? Webber obviously did not know what was in store for him in Oakland.

Everyone tried to make it work, at least for a while, and the team wasn’t bad that year. They lost six of their first nine, but got better as the year wore on and finished 50-32, good for third place in the Pacific Division. The Warriors’ best player was Latrell Sprewell, who led the team in points, steals and minutes, and finished second in assists behind point guard Avery Johnson (the irony is delicious, isn’t it?). Webber was second on the team in scoring (17.5 per) and led the team in rebounds (9.1), while Billy Owens and Victor Alexander rounded out the typical starting five that year.

Behind the scenes, as inescapable as the ticking of a time bomb, pressure built up between Nelson and Webber, caused both by major differences of opinion about what kind of basketball the Warriors should be playing and repeated clashes away from the court that left Webber feeling disrespected. The explosion came in Charlotte that February 9.

“It was all about who was going to control the team,” remembers Ron Bergman, who had covered the Warriors for the Mercury News prior to Bucher taking over, and still followed the team closely that year. “Webber took over the team and Nellie didn’t even realize what was going on. They were playing in Charlotte, and Webber comes down the court and he tries a behind-the-back pass on a fast break and the ball went out of bounds. Nellie just pulled up and benched him.”

Nelson was not the only one unaware of what was taking place up until then. So were most sportswriters. One prominent Warriors beat writer, a smart veteran, had seen Nelson handle strong-willed rookies before and dismissed any tension with Webber as trivial. He went on KNBR-AM, the king of sports talk in the Bay, and called reports of a Webber-Nelson clash “the biggest non-story” he’d seen in many years. Around this time, Bergman met Nelson for drinks at the local Hilton. “What are these stories about you and Webber?” Bergman remembers asking Nelson.

“Oh no, we get along just fine,” Nelson told him. “You know, his father phoned me and said I was the greatest thing ever to happen to him.”

“So Nelson was just out of it,” Bergman sums up. “He lost touch with reality there.”

Bucher, just making a name for himself, knew better. He had cultivated a relationship with Webber and communicated with him easily. More than that, he understood the League was in flux and that the old power dynamics Nelson learned from his mentor, Red Auerbach, no longer held. (As Nelson told me for this article, as a young coach, he emulated Auerbach in every way he could: “Well, I didn’t know how to coach. I had never been a coach. So I just did it the way Red did it and the way the Celtics did it. That’s how I started out.”)

Bucher reported a string of explosive scoops about Webber’s discontent and what it meant. He had the pulse of his team and the trust of the players, and he filled in all the background detail no one else had. Of the February 9 clash in Charlotte that brought the bad blood into public view, Bucher later reported: “Nelson leaped up to call a timeout and walked out onto the floor to bark at Webber, who barked right back, asking to be ‘treated like a man.’ The Warriors won with Webber on the bench the rest of the way. In the locker room afterward, two players confided that a tearful Nelson told the team, ‘If you’re trying to get me fired, you’re doing a good job of it.’”

Later, when the dreams of a Warrior ascendancy were in wreckage, and the careers of both Nelson and Webber took major hits, Nelson repeatedly took responsibility for the Webber clash, saying that as the experienced coach, he should have found a way to nip the problem in the bud. That was how Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole saw it at the time.

“Nelson could have and should have done more to make it work,” Poole recalls. “A lot of coaches realize that you have to bond with your best player, your horse, your leader, and it was pretty clear to me and most people around here that Webber wasn’t the leader immediately, but he already was gaining cache. He already had people who were respecting him and he had a little following in the locker room, so to me that meant that the coach had to make the relationship work. You have to do that. And if you don’t do it, the team has no chance. I think Nelson thought, ‘This kid is 20, 21 years old. What does he know? I’ve been around this league for 30 years.’ So I just don’t think he made an effort to sort of cross the bridge and say, ‘Look, come back with me on the other side and we’ll get this thing going.’”

This was how Keown summed it up in that previous Chronicle column: “Like others before him, Webber felt Nelson ruled through intimidation and humiliation. They clashed once publicly, that time in Charlotte, NC. Eventually, Webber asked out. He said Nelson wouldn’t talk to him and didn’t want him, so he challenged something thought inviolable: the authority of the coach. In the end, it turned into an epochal event in the history of player-coach relations.”

Fast-forward 13 years. SLAM editor-in-chief Ben Osborne and I met over coffee in the spring, talking over story ideas, and I said that one of the biggest untold stories out there was the repercussions from Nelson’s famous clash with the young Webber, one year removed from his Fab Five days at Michigan and Rookie of the Year that season. It always struck me as a great power clash in American life. Nelson skulked out of town the next year, Webber was traded from team to team, forever falling short of delivering on all the buildup. As the Sporting News summed it up in a headline this past May: “Webber burying past failures with current role—Star has burned bridges at four franchises, but thriving off bench for Detroit.”

All these years later, both had largely repaired their reputations. I caught up with Webber, an instant lynchpin on the Eastern Conference’s best regular-season team, late in the season in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden, and watched him field questions from a student reporter, still in his early teens. The kid was awestruck and fumbled a bit, but he was cool, too, and Webber flashed his famous killer smile and said, “’S’all right, you’re doing good.” He answered all the kid’s questions, giving some great answers.

If you’ve wondered about that hurt look in Webber’s eyes, one he wishes would go away but still it’s there, this was something he told the kid: “Detroit Country Day was a really great high school, but going to that school I was insecure. I was shy, and I didn’t think I belonged. I didn’t think I was really good enough.”

He wanted to tell the kid about pride. “To own something that Martin Luther King owned, or something that Frederick Douglass owned, to me is great. Just like anybody want to own a Picasso painting. To me it’s just how rich the history was. (Douglass) made it easier for me, made it easier for you to stand here. If it wasn’t for Frederick Douglass teaching himself to read, you wouldn’t take that for granted.”

Listening to him, I felt bad stepping up next and asking Webber about the Nelson thing, but that was my assignment for SLAM and I hadn’t taken the A train in from Brooklyn for nothing. “I really don’t remember that much,” Webber said at first. “It was about 14 years ago, and I don’t even like rehashing it. It was a time when a lot of people wished things wouldn’t have happened the way they did.”

The theory I’d worked out after talking to a lot of people was that the whole thing with Nelson had been about respect, specifically Webber feeling as though he had not been shown enough. “No, that’s why I don’t like rehashing it, because that’s not true at all,” Webber said emphatically, suddenly remembering things quite well. “It had nothing to do with respect. It had nothing to do with that. It had to do with just the future, where they saw the team going.”

I was surprised, and back-pedaled to a question about how Webber’s time in the League, the good and the bad, including his standoff with Nelson, has a way of teaching you. “That’s something you just don’t know how it has an impact,” he said. “If anything, it makes you keep going and makes you not stop and makes you work harder and persevere. You show your character when you’re under trial. It makes you just stay consistent. Makes you work out harder in the summer. Makes you want to prove doubters wrong. It makes you want to become better, and that’s what that did for me, not only that, Sacramento, everything.”

“Is it safe to say, though, that your first year in the League, if things are difficult, that’s tougher on you?” I asked him.

“I have great memories of my rookie year,” Webber countered. “I was Rookie of the Year. I got to play with Chris Mullin, Tim Hardway, Latrell Sprewell, Billy Owens. Victor Alexander. Keith Jennings. Those are my friends for life, and so I don’t take anything bad from my rookie year. I would never have made it to Washington, which eventually got me to Sacramento. So if I’ve learned anything, it’s that God has a plan for us and you really can’t plan this, so just go with the flow and be ready.”

I’d caught up with Nelson earlier, a couple months before the end of the regular season. This was before the Warriors had rattled off a string of big wins to land the last Playoff spot in the Western Conference. This was before Baron Davis had put together one of the better all-around series we’ve seen in years. This was before that last game against Utah, nerves rubbed beyond raw, when Nelson slid out onto center court at the end of the third quarter, just so he could be with his guys and jaw at the officials right along with them. Nelson, when I talked to him, had no idea how the season would turn out. He had no idea that with one beautiful, all-out rush, a new Warrior team would make people forget the craziness that had gone down back in ’94.

“I think we’ve both matured nicely,” Nelson said of himself and Webber. “He’s now a different person. He’s older. I just saw him in Detroit. I gave him a hug. Part of our life was spent together. A very short part, but hopefully we both learned from it.”

I asked him what he learned. “I don’t want to get into all of it,” he said, adding with a laugh, “He was just a young guy that needed to get about 10 years under his belt.”

You had to be there to understand how Nelson meant it. My own take was that he meant no slam against Webber—he was just providing an accurate glimpse of his thinking at the time.

I asked George Karl, who coached the Warriors the year before Nelson took over (with Nelson serving as his de facto boss, the GM), about the Nelson-Webber conflict, and he summed it up in terms of honesty. “The one thing I like about Nellie is that he’s very honest and blunt with his criticism,” Karl said. “He doesn’t spin. I probably am not as blunt as he is, but I’m probably in that category. My belief is that this is good for the game. The game of basketball needs honesty and needs truth and needs reality defined… But because organizations want to protect their product and their players, they don’t always say the truth. They spin. They rationalize or give crutches and excuses, and I think players have now been able to turn and use that against us now.

“I believe it sets you freer. I don’t think Nellie wants to get tied up with the NBA BS. I think he wants to coach, he wants to be in the gym, he wants to be around the team and be around basketball family. But you don’t want to get tied up by the mess of spinning and protecting… For me, I remember sitting in the beach in California after I got fired from Golden State. I had met with 10 or 15 NBA people about how to get back in the NBA and the career and a lot of it was spin. You’ve got to shut your mouth. You’ve got to be careful. I think one of the best decisions I ever made was saying to myself: I’m going to go win games. If they don’t like winning, OK.”

The Warriors’ great run of ’07—cue up the Baron and Stephen Jackson replays—blotted out all the painful history, perhaps even for good. For fans in the Bay Area, who were shut out of the Playoffs all those seasons following the Nelson-Webber train wreck, it sure felt that way. And it was striking how much Davis, Jax, Matt Barnes and their teammates all talked about their “love” for Nelson. But for the last word, I turned to Bucher, who had seen it all from the front row.
“Call it the luck or genius of Nelson, but he basically gave Bay Area fans the same thing he’d been giving them prior to Webber—an exciting, small-ball team that could topple a first-round behemoth but had no serious title aspirations—and thanks to a 12-year drought, it was sweet nectar,” Bucher said via email. “Bay Area fans were actually fed up with this 14 years ago, which is why getting Webber held so much promise—they finally had a big man who could make them a title contender.

“Is Nellie a different guy now? I honestly don’t know. The only way we could ever find out is if the Warriors drafted another CWebb this summer, and I don’t see that happening. He’s the same coach, using the same style, handling his players the same way (what is Baron Davis but a latter-day Tim Hardaway?), all of which has brought the Warriors’ full circle. Long-time Warriors’ fans seem to be happy to have something to cheer again, but they’re well aware that Nelson was as much the architect of the years of pain as this resurgence. A business partner makes some horrendous moves, forces you into bankruptcy and disappears. Years later, he shows up and helps you resurrect your business. Do you hate him for the lost years and agony or appreciate him for coming back? Probably a little of both. The other twist is that Nellie and Webb are finding redemption, after being cast aside for several years, at the very same time. Extraordinary how they’re still linked, even though they’re apart.”