Congratulations, Don Nelson. Now Retire.

Categories: Sports
don_nelson.jpg
Alone at the top
Last night, the Golden State Warriors dispatched Minnesota, 116-107. This year, any victory for the Warriors is cause for celebration; the team is struggling to win 30 percent of its games. But this one was special: It was victory No. 1,333 for coach Don Nelson -- the league's all-time mark.

Congratulations, coach. Now go.

It's a harsh sentiment, but an honest one. Your humble narrator waddled into the Oakland Coliseum for the first time on Dec. 29, 1985. The home side -- Sleepy Floyd at the point, Joe Barry Carroll barely caring -- astoundingly dispatched the Showtime Lakers, 137-113. I thought being a Warriors fan would be easy. Well, it isn't.

Three years later, the team would first hire Nelson, a scrappy former Boston Celtic who'd already been around the block as a coach. He was brash. He wore sneakers with suits. He wore fish ties. He was thrown out of games all the time. These were the fondest basketball memories of my life. Recounting the last 20 years of the Warriors' franchise history could induce post-traumatic stress disorder, but this much is true: For all his flaws, Don Nelson is the origin of every joyous pro basketball moment in the Bay Area since that time.

There used to be a time when Warriors fans attending a home victory in which the team scored 120 points or more were entitled to a free pizza. It's astounding how much we took a free pizza for granted back then; the team averaged 118.7 points per game in 1991-92. It seems safe to say we'll never see anything like that again; we'll never realize how fleeting that crappy pizza was. If we did, we'd have enjoyed it more.

The reason it takes most teams a game and a half to amass 120 points these days can also be gleaned via a cursory overview of Nelson's resume: His teams never advanced in the playoffs. Comparing the Warriors' Run-TMC glory days with the 1994 finale between the Knicks and Rockets (check for yourself; no team scored more than 91 points in any of the seven games) is no comparison. It'd be like contrasting Van Gogh with Thomas Kinkade. But, then again, Van Gogh died insane and filthy while Kinkade is a millionaire. You can't argue with success, even if it is banal and ugly.

Don Nelson Celtics.jpg
Don Nelson during his playing days
Unfortunately, derailing Nelson's high-flying teams was all too easy for playoff-level competitors. They just had to muscle up and play thugball. It was like pulling the wings off a butterfly.

Of course, the everlasting sorrow of the Warriors was that their one championship-level nucleus ruptured -- with the destructive force you'd associate with other sorts of splitting atoms. Think of what a team throwing Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Billy Owens, Latrell Sprewell, and Chris Webber out on the floor in 1994 could have done. Sadly, as you certainly know if you're still reading this, things went poorly and Webber demanded off the team in his second year. While this has largely gone down as a Webber or Nelson situation in which the star player left and the coach stayed, your humble narrator thinks much of the blame can be traced back to heavy handed boorishness on the part of team owner Chris Cohan. 

In any event, Nelson was soon gone, too. The ensuing decade and change was Bay Area basketball's Babylonian captivity. Sprewell choking coach P.J. Carlesimo was the worst moment among many in a dozen terrible years. It was a time almost without redeeming memories.

And then, improbably, Nelson returned in 2007 (you can read a masterful SF Weekly profile about this here). One year later, the team fought its way into the playoffs and, astoundingly, upended the top-ranked Dallas Mavericks in the first round. It was a transcendent moment for Bay Area sports.

Sadly, that's where the movie version of real life would stop. The last two years have been a train wreck. The team, when successful, missed the playoffs. Now it features a depleted roster full of young players Nelson won't play and promising nascent superstars turned brooding malcontents. Not only is the team losing 70 percent of the time, unlike even unsuccessful Nelson teams, it's not much fun to watch.

In the past two seasons, the team's management structure has imploded and Cohan, praised be, is on his way out. Nelson, pushing 70, is stuck with a roster full of young players he'd rather not play and a mess of a management situation. It's time for this franchise to start over. Nelson does not factor in.

Sports yappers will debate Nelson's place in history -- he never won The Big Game, the naysayers will bellow. If you gave him Phil Jackson or Pat Riley's rosters, however, he probably would have done just fine. And, unlike Riley, he didn't ruin the league by inducing a decade of thuggish, 75-72 games that made fans wish they were doing their taxes.

For all his flaws, Nelson is a basketball genius. It's time for him to take up that occupation permanently.
 
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