There have to be worse places to be than Maui. But one day recently, with a cigar in hand and cell phone at his side, Don Nelson watched the Pacific Ocean roll in and decided it was time to get back onto the merry-go-round. He answered the call from Chris Mullin, the Golden State Warriors' basketball boss, who asked his former coach to return and try to get the Warriors back to where they haven't been since Mullin was a player and Nelson was the coach.
Nellie couldn't say no.
``I really felt Mully wanted me and I really felt he needed me to come," Nelson said Friday, a fortnight after being announced as the new boss (same as the old boss?) of the NBA's most pathetic franchise. ``I have a tremendous bond with Chris Mullin. And this is a pretty special place. I had Mully calling me. I had Mitch [Richmond, a special assistant] calling me. I had Higgy [Rod Higgins, the general manager] calling me, all telling me I should come. So here I am."
In a way, you can almost say that Nelson is bailing out Mullin, for it was Mullin who made the disastrous hire of Stanford's Mike Montgomery who, despite his obvious coaching abilities at the college level, could not get it done in the NBA. (He joins a long list.) And you could say that Mullin was paying back Nellie in a way, for it was Nellie who stared down Mullin early in Mullin's career and persuaded him to get help for his drinking problem. They go back a ways.
Nelson spent last season cashing Mark Cuban's checks in Dallas and watching Avery Johnson nearly win an NBA title. He thought he might hear from Sacramento when Rick Adelman was not re-signed. The Kings hired Eric Musselman, the guy Mullin got rid of so he could bring in Montgomery.
Did Nellie think, at age 66, he was going to be spending more time on Maui than he wanted?
``You never say never, but it wasn't like I would take any job," he said. ``I knew I did not want to take over a team in the middle of the season, and I'm thinking there might be a few opportunities to do that this season. I wanted to have a team in training camp."
Unlike his previous stop, when he basically deconstructed the Mavericks (``I didn't like that roster and no one wanted to be there," he says), he foresees no need for housecleaning this time. He sees Mike Dunleavy as his point forward. He sees Troy Murphy as a center who will be difficult to guard in his system. (``That's good, because he can't guard anybody, either.") He likes a pair of 2005 draftees, Ike Diogu and Monta Ellis.
And he sees the oft-petulant Baron Davis as the big winner in all of this.
``If he stays healthy, in my system, I don't see how he can fail," Nellie said. ``He really is going to enjoy playing this way. But he also has to stay healthy."
Davis, in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, said he was looking forward to playing for Nelson, especially given Nellie's history of success with point guards.
``Look at Steve Nash," Davis said. ``Look at what he did with Tim Hardaway. He gave those guys the opportunity to be who they needed to be out on the floor. I want to play for Coach so bad because I know that once we get on the court, it's going to be wide open. What better situation can a point guard ask for? When I hit the court, I'm going to be the hardest-working dude on the court."
Health is a key issue for Davis, who has played in 90 games the last two seasons. Nelson already has let it be known to all the players that they need to report to camp weighing 5 pounds less than the lowest playing weight they could envision.
Beyond that, Nellie has not been beachcombing all these months. He knows the Warriors have to improve their free throw shooting; Golden State ranked 26th in the league last year.
``You lose a lot of close games that way," he said. ``We've got to improve that."
Mostly, it will be small ball once again with all the Nellie bells and whistles. Detractors say that style can't win in the postseason, and Nelson has never taken a team to the NBA Finals, despite having won more games than anyone in league history not named Lenny Wilkens.
Nelson and Pat Riley are the only three-time Coach of the Year winners. Nelson was voted one of the top 10 coaches of all time in 1998. He needs 143 wins to overtake Wilkens, and the Warriors gave him a three-year deal, so maybe he leaves Golden State as the all-time winningest coach. Maybe then he might be deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame.
As for Warriors Nation, they don't care about that. They'll simply settle for a playoff berth. The last one was in 1994.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.