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THE NBA: 1994-95 PREVIEW : Whoa, Nellie! : Perhaps the NBA's Most Innovative Coach, Warriors' Nelson Faces Change, Uncertainty

November 03, 1994|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — Was it Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who said, "What does not kill me makes me stronger?" or was it Jack Ramsay, the pro basketball expert on ESPN?

Don Nelson isn't sure, but what's the difference? By any standard, the coach and general manager of the Golden State Warriors has never been more powerful.

Let us count the ways:

--He's rich.

Besides his $1.3-million annual salary, the recent sale of the Warriors brought him a huge bonus--$4 million by the estimate of one source--for the share of the club he held under previous ownership.

--He has his best team, assuming he can get it on the court.

Tim Hardaway is back. Latrell Sprewell has become a star. Rony Seikaly has just come over from Miami. Nelson and Chris Webber have had a season to get used to one another, even if there's speculation Webber doesn't dig his coach and wants to know how long he'll be there before signing a new contract.

Nellie never had a young man who demanded to be spoken to in gentle tones at all times, but now he knows how sensitive today's young people can be. If there's another generation as distinct coming

after this one, Nelson isn't sure he is ready for it.

--Nelson is about to become a free agent, himself.

The Warriors have just been purchased by a 44-year-old cable TV magnate named Chris Cohan, known in underground circles as Dan Quayle because of his cherubic good looks.

Cohan just spent $100 million for the remaining 75% of this cash cow--he was previously a 25% owner--but has a problem: Nelson, who rebuilt the franchise from a grease spot on the East Bay, has an out in his contract next summer.

By next summer several teams with young stars and unproven coaches--Charlotte? Orlando?--might be looking for someone more proven. The Warriors were assembled by Nellie to play his peculiar Nellie Ball and might not be the same without him.

Prudent ownership might take him off the market at whatever price, but Cohan may hear other voices who think Nelson is a dinosaur to young players or a spendthrift general manager.

At his introductory news conference, Cohan, asked about securing Nelson, shadow boxed.

"Don and I are going to talk about that . . . right, Don?" he said.

Nelson, interested enough to have left practice in the hands of his assistants, was standing in the back of a room loaded with reporters, wearing his trademark jeans and T-shirt. Grinning, he turned his palms up and said, "All right with me."

And that's the last anyone heard of a new contract for what might have been Nelson's last exhibition season in California.

MACHIA-NELLIE AND OTHER INCARNATIONS

Who is like unto thee, oh Nellie?

Next to him, 90% in the profession are hacks who never had an idea of their own. Nelson is all originality and vision, unafraid to do it his way, or to change the way he does it, or to ask someone for help, or to listen to a suggestion whether he asked for it or not.

He is the NBA's only three-time coach of the year, despite never having been to the finals. A veritable cradle of coaches and administrators have come from his staff: Laker Coach Del Harris, Milwaukee Buck Coach Mike Dunleavy, Seattle SuperSonic Coach George Karl, University of Utah Coach Rick Majerus, Sacramento King Coach Garry St. Jean, former Portland and Clipper coach Mike Shuler, San Antonio Spur General Manager Gregg Popovich.

Secretive as his mentor, Red Auerbach, Nelson is similarly suspected of being up to something all the time--and generally is. Ideas seemingly too numerous to count spin in the Nelson noodle.

Like the great safari to Africa a few summers ago.

Hakeem Olajuwon was from Africa, wasn't he? And Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol and Yinka Dare, none of them recruited, all of them just showing up on some college's doorstep? Anyone who took the time to think about it might sense an entire continent of NBA centers waiting for a coach to steam up the river.

So Nelson enlisted Majerus, an old Bucks' assistant, and off they went.

"Do you know anything about African basketball?" Majerus says. "We didn't either. So we went over there to look. And we also each thought if there was another Olajuwon, if he was too old, he could go with Nellie. If he was young, I could get him."

The most important thing they learned about African basketball was that there wasn't much of it. Nelson and Majerus came home without an Olajuwon of any age.

This is an age-old problem for creative thinkers: A lot of your best ideas somehow just don't turn out. Nelson is still trying to prove the one about winning an NBA title with small players. He has fielded some wonderfully exciting teams, but has yet to take one into June.

Nelson once had the entire state of Wisconsin eating out of his hand. That was in the '80s, when his Bucks ran with the elite teams and he drove a tractor around the state, raising money for Nellie's Farm Fund.

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