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Ball Don't Lie

As a young coach, Don Nelson believed in players earning their paychecks

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Don Nelson on the bench. A portrait of the Hall-of-Famer as a young man. (Vernon Biever, WireImage)

My esteemed colleague Eric Freeman told you last Thursday that Don Nelson, the winningest coach in NBA history and one of the game's most colorful characters over the past several decades, had been named one of the members of the 2012 class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In his post, Eric hailed Nelson as a true basketball innovator, a mad scientist endlessly rethinking and experimenting with players' traditional definitions and role assignments, who made significant contributions to how offenses work today.

All of that is true, which is why, despite never winning a championship as a head coach, Nelson's enshrinement in Springfield is well-deserved. But as Boston Globe NBA griot Bob Ryan wrote Tuesday in a column saluting the legendary coach (and five-time NBA champion as a player with the Boston Celtics), Nellie's approach wasn't always so high-minded.

Ryan recounts a story that Nelson told him from the 1976-77 season, when Nelson took over the Milwaukee Bucks midyear to begin his NBA head coaching career. While the 36-year-old Nelson had 14 years of NBA experience and a "good feel for the game," the newly minted Hall of Famer told Ryan that it "took [him] a while to figure out what you were supposed to do at the end of the game."

When the first crisis came, Nellie had an inspiration. Down 1 late at home, he huddled the team, and the dialogue went something like this.

"Who makes the most money here?"

"What did you say?"

"Which one of you guys makes the most money?"

Brian Winters piped up. "I guess it's me."

"Then you're taking the last shot."

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Had Nelson asked whose beard was most lustrous, Brian Winters would also have wound up taking the shot. (Getty …

Ryan doesn't let us know whether Winters — a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1974 who became a Buck in the deal that sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Hollywood — hit the game-winner, but either way, the decision-making is pretty great. "You get paid the most; you deal with it."

If Winters hits the shot, then great — "We went to a guy we trust to take and make big shots, a two-time All-Star, and he came through for us." And if he misses? "Well, we rely on to make big plays for us on the offensive end — he's a 20-point scorer in this league, after all — and it just wasn't in the cards tonight." You win both ways, and the guy who makes the most money has to deal with the questions, which is fair, because, y'know, that's what the money is for.

It's not quite tossing out conventional concepts of positionality, popularizing the point forward or showing the world that 7-foot German jump shooters can be world-wrecking offensive forces, but I'm sure there are plenty of coaches who think "put responsibility on the players, since they get paid way more than we do" was a pretty innovative philosophical development. It also shows that, even as a first-year boss, Nellie was a shrewd operator. But you already knew that, because you looked at the turtleneck and pants he was wearing in the picture at the top of this post.

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