Don Nelson, wearing his lucky belt, takes a deep bend before releasing a free throw. (Dick Raphael, NBA)
In discussing how amazing Don Nelson's life on Maui sounds last week, I submitted for the approval of the Basketball Internet Midnight Society the contention that one of the best things about the run-up to the annual Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony is the avalanche of great stories that come out in all the pre-enshrinement coverage of the year's inductees.
I respectfully offer supporting evidence in the form of this fantastic note from a Q&A with Nellie published Thursday, in which ESPN.com's Marc Stein asks whether Nelson feels his 14-year career as an NBA player with the Chicago Zephyrs, Los Angeles Lakers and (most notably) Boston Celtics gets short shrift due to all he accomplished as a head coach:
Q: You were part of five championship teams in Boston as a player and no one ever talks much about that. Maybe they'll show an occasional replay of your shot against the Lakers [in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals that bounced high off the rim and in], but that's it. How much, deep down, does that bug you?
A: I was just a so-so player anyway. I was lucky enough to hang around with a great team for a long time. What I brought to the party was in a reserve role. I was just a 25-minute player.
But I'll never forget, when I was coaching my first stint with the [Golden State Warriors], we're playing in Boston and we're having a morning practice or shootaround. So I went over to Mitch [Richmond] and said: "See that No. 19 hanging up there?" I said: "Yeah, that's my number." And Mitch said: "You played, Coach?"
On the first point, one might argue that Nellie's giving himself short shrift in his self-estimation — while it's true that he averaged less than 21 minutes per game over the course of his career, he had a double-figure scoring average in nine of his 14 seasons, and even accounting for the difference in pace and the rate at which players compiled stats in the old days, averaging 18.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes of floor time for your career isn't exactly chopped liver.
On the latter, one cannot argue that Richmond's ignorance was anything other than blissful, though, or that Nelson's recollection of the goof is anything other than warm. It is amazing, though, how much the way we view someone can change, because I'd wager a guess that Richmond wasn't alone there. Nelson — a player who saw 25,000 total NBA minutes, scored nearly 12,500 points, won five rings as part of one of the great dynasties in league history and had his number retired by one of the league's two old-money institutional franchises — was all but wiped clean from the NBA's on-court memory within 15 years of his retirement, only to establish and occupy a wholly different space in the league's memory banks in years to come.
It makes sense, of course — as Nellie notes, he wasn't a star and he played alongside several, which tends to make the role player recede in the mind's eye, and few late-1980s pros raised on highlights of high flyers and the flash of the '70s ABA and early '80s NBA game would have fallen in love with Nelson's game. Still, though, it's the kind of thing that makes you wonder how people will think of guys like Robert Horry or Steve Kerr in the years to come — in 20 years, will players have any idea that those dudes shared the floor with guys like Hakeem, Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, Kobe and Duncan? Maybe, but maybe not. Thank God for YouTube, huh?
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