Don Nelson remembered. Milwaukee forgotten
It takes a lot to make an entire major metropolitan area vanish, to rub out a professional sports franchise, to act as if more than a dozen years spent in one spot never happened.
Sports Illustrated did just that this week, in seven concised pages.
"Nellie In Paradise: A Love Story, With Cards" by Chris Ballard is an otherwise fascinating read about Don Nelson, the NBA Hall of Fame player, the Association's all-time leader in coaching victories. He now lives in Hawaii, playing poker with a recurring group of cronies that includes but isn't limited to Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson.
He yuks it up with locals, seldom drinks beer anymore (WHA?!?) and loves the island life. He wants no part of coaching again but still does watch games and took time to break bad on a few players he tried to coach along the way including former Buck Monta Ellis.
There's talk throughout about his life on the NBA sidelines, his stops in New York, Dallas, and Golden State. Nellie and his innovations get a thorough airing out including his creation of the "point-forward" position and oft-employed tactic of putting his big man out of the paint on offense so as to keep the defense's pivot man away from the rim.
Nelson's laid-back personality and approachability are highlighted, the fact that he seems to be very much the same man now as the one the NBA knew as a Celtics star and a coach to any number of contending, title-worthy teams. The fact Nelson won rings (plural) as a player but not as a side-court general is also pointed out.
What isn't mentioned at all is...Milwaukee.
There is a small picture--black and white--of Nelson in a 70's style suit, just the way Bucks fans remember him when he prowled the Arena floor.
What they might not recognize is the fact his sport coat is on--what they'll remember is the time hem used it to make a point, hurling it at referees who he felt had done his team wrong. Nelson's explosions remain the stuff of local legend, as much as his frequent post-game forays to the NBA's "Liquid Locker Room", Major Goolsby's.
It was there that Nelson would hold farming fundraisers featuring "Barkley" the hollowed out pig, where those who felt so moved could insert their dollars for folks having a hard time making a living off the land. I remember doing live remotes with the coach as he was about to start a tractor drive across the state, helping people he'd never met who did a job he so greatly admired. The laughter and stories would flow, a man just as comfortable guffawing at himself as he did about others. He came to our studio after his falling out with owner Herb Kohl, airing his frustrations and upset about having to leave a job he wanted in a town he loved.
The town loved him, too. It was hard not to, what with the squads he assembled and the successes he achieved including seven 50+ win seasons, all of which ended in playoff heartbreak, usually against either the Sixers or the Celtics. Nelson's Bucks always seemed one brick short of a load, but there was no doubt they were overstocked in character and heart.
Nellie left, the arena went dark and NBA hoop lost its consistent luster around here. Sure, there were other playoff runs with Del Harris and George Karl, but pro hoop was no longer "Nellie-ball" in Milwaukee. Postseason play came as certain as the spring when Nelson was here, his 12 seasons at the helm a mural of edge-of-your-seat drama and emotions best worn on the sleeve (with a fish tie the preferred neckwear).
A life as full as Don Nelson's is hard to summarize in just seven pages (eight, if you count the cover which is a painting that hangs in Nelson's Hawaiian man cave). So many highlights, so many stories, endless big name athletes, a raft of accomplishments. It had to be hard to squeeze in every stop along the way, all the people who shaped and shared a life so full and seemingly content.
It just would've been nice to include a little somethin' somethin' about the town Don Nelson owned for a dozen or so NBA seasons, a city he relished and one that loved him back. It's hard to make all that vanish, but Sports Illustrated did this week. It lives on, though, in the hearts and minds of the Bucks fans who lived it and for one who was lucky enough to share a tiny piece of it at a great man's side.