There is no doubt Don Nelson is one of the greatest basketball minds of all time. He looked at the game a different way — he liked guards more than big men, liked offense more than defense, and liked guys who could play a lot more than guys who couldn’t. And he liked veterans more than young players. A lot more.
When Nelson was at his best, he was damn good, and I got to see him at his peak: He brought together a bunch of talented misfits late in the 2006-07 season and helped create one of the most magical seasons of my lifetime.
When it comes to “electric atmospheres,” two come to mind: Hersheypark arena for a high school playoff game in the 1970s and Oracle Arena during “We Believe” in the Spring of 2007. That’s when the Warriors won 16 of their last 21 regular-season games to qualify for the postseason, then dismantled a 67-win Dallas Mavericks team in six games.
Nelson was a different kind of basketball genius. He was a piece of work, and when it comes to stories, there are countless ones about Nellie. One of the funniest ones I remember came midway through the 2007-08 season. It was a January game in Milwaukee, and the Warriors would wind up winning by 20 points.
Nelson was notorious for being hard on young players and this particular season was no different. The Warriors had two young big men, neither of whom played much or ever made any imprint in the NBA: Patrick O’Bryant and Kosta Perovic.
O’ Bryant was 21-years-old and in his second season; he had played in 16 games his rookie year and was struggling in Year 2. Perovic was 22-years-old, and in his first season in the NBA. He was Croatian, and the Warriors found him playing in a league in Spain. Both were 7-footers, but Perovic a little taller. Though we were in January, and more than halfway through the season, Nelson had never put Perovic into a game.
When I tell you Nelson could be tough on young players, I should have been more specific. He was hard on young players; he could be brutal on young big men. And he had two of them who he didn’t have a lot of use for.
So, we’re in Milwaukee and the Warriors find themselves in a situation where Nelson needed size for whatever reason, and had to look to the end of his bench. Disgustedly, he turns to Larry Riley, who would later be responsible for drafting Stephen Curry, his lead assistant. Nelson often used Riley as a conduit to inform a player he was going into the game.
Nelson said to Riley: “We gotta put the big stiff in.” Riley agreed.
Nelson looked back out onto the court, and Riley got up and pointed to O’Bryant, telling him to get into the game. As O’Bryant begins to peel his warmups off and make his way to the scorer’s table, Nelson notices him. Nelson looks perplexed, and Riley sees it in Nelson’s face.
Nelson says: “No, not him. The white one.”
“Oh,” Riley replied. Kosta Perovic made his NBA debut that night and had four points and two rebounds in seven minutes. He played seven career NBA games.
Hey Matt – This is can’t be your best Nellie Story, right? C’mon man, you gotta have some great Don Nelson insights, and perhaps not necessarily flattering ones. Follow up?