OAKLAND, Calif. — Don Nelson never knew just how much he would love retirement. In the Maui plantation town of Paia, he is far from the pressures of the fast-paced NBA lifestyle in which he thrived for more than three decades to become the game’s all-time winningest coach.
These days, he’s Nellie, the entrepreneur. From his new shaved ice stand, to coffee plants and koa trees, to all his rental properties and a wedding venue in the works right off the beach, the 72-year-old Nelson is about as far removed from his old basketball life as he could be.
Except for the fact he is a Hall of Famer at last, set to be enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 7 in Springfield, Mass. After years of being left off the list, Nelson was surprised it finally happened considering he never won that coveted NBA championship during 31 years on the bench with the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks.
It never bothered him much. He’s in a relaxed, Hawaii state of mind.
Nelson also farms flowers — he gives them away because “there’s not much money in flowers” — and will make olive oil from his olive trees. He’s even dabbling in dog food.
“It’s treating me well. I’m a lucky man,” he said of island life.
“I found out that there’s life after basketball, which is very exciting. I really haven’t missed it that much, but I’ve been very busy, so that’s probably part of the reason.”
“I invested my fortune on Maui,” he added with a smile. “Those are the fun things I’m doing.”
He plays poker at least three times a week with his close-knit group of friends and has become a decent golfer. Those are the guys he called when he got word he was headed to the Hall.
“I always kind of felt I was undeserving of getting there,” he said.
“I still feel unworthy, really. Somebody voted for me, I guess. ... I didn’t have a feeling of what it would be. It’s really nice.”
It’s a pinnacle of everybody’s career.”
Nellie always did things his way, and it hardly mattered who objected to his coaching techniques. He ranks No. 1 on the NBA wins list because of it. From his all-guard, up-tempo “Nellie Ball” lineups to his feuds with fiery Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and even publicly calling for struggling Warriors center Andris Biedrins to shoot underhanded, “granny style” free throws, Nelson had a distinct way of coaching that made him one of the greatest of all time.
“I’ve had one of those very special lives, really, I’ve been in the NBA since I was 22,” he said. “So it’s almost 50 years of my life I’ve been in the NBA. ... You have a lot of ups and downs in coaching, especially, but I can’t remember any bad times at this point. I mean, they’re all good. A lot of tears when you lose, a lot of down times, but I can’t remember any of them. They’re all positive now. Even the bad times were good. One of those storybook lives, really.”
Nelson said he didn’t intend to define himself by playing small ball — “If I’d have had good big players, I’d have played big ball.”
As he looks back over all the players he coached, those days with Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash are among the best.
But Nelson learned more about himself while coaching Sarunas Marciulionis during the guard’s early days with the Warriors in the late 1980s and early 90s. It got to the point Nelson noticed his behavior on film and asked himself “Who is that maniac on the sidelines? It was me.”
He changed his ways in a hurry. It wasn’t so hard after he watched what he was doing to the young men whose lives he took pride in shaping on the court each day.
“I was verbally abusive to my players on the floor too much,” he said. “I tried to change that and be more like Lenny Wilkens.”
He had a lot more fun after that. And won a lot, too.
“How did I last so long? I got hired,” Nelson said.
During his first job with the Bucks, Nelson had a chance to become the head coach in Boston but turned down the late Red Auerbach because of his loyalty to Milwaukee owner Jim Fitzgerald.
“Part of it was my own doing,” Nelson said. “As a career move, that would have been ... because they won how many championships after that? So I stayed and coached and whatever my life was after that, but it was (devoid) of championships. The other part, I really enjoyed taking over bad teams and making good ones out of them. That was building something that wasn’t very attractive and making it attractive.”
New Warriors owner Joe Lacob parted ways with Nelson right before training camp ahead of the 2010-11 season, opting to pay Nelson $6 million to take his NBA-best 1,335 victories out of the gym and to the white sand beaches of his Hawaiian home. So much for Nellie spending another year with the organization volunteering his time.
“I would have. I got fired,” he said. “Instead of me giving them a year, they gave me one.”
Nelson led the Warriors to their last two playoff appearances — in 1994, then a surprising run to the second round in 2007 during his second stint with the franchise.
Guiding that ’07 “We Believe” team, as it became known, with Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson leading the charge, is among Nelson’s career highlights — even if the team didn’t stay together long afterward.
“It’s up there. I don’t know how I can rank things,” he said. “That’s one of the highlights, for sure.”
Nelson now subscribes to the NBA package and still watches the Warriors, Timberwolves and Mavericks with interest. Just no longer with a coach’s eye.
Life has changed for Nelson, big time.
“Totally different. That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “The local people really couldn’t care less who you are. They don’t seek autographs or anything like that, tourists occasionally.”
And, this time, he isn’t planning any kind of coaching comeback. He means it.
“I’d say I’m retired,” Nelson said. “I’m done, I’m cooked. It’s over.”