A Few Questions from Tracy Rowlett

Tracy Rowlett goes one-on-one with Don Nelson.

Dallas Mavericks head coach Don Nelson speaks his mind, isn’t afraid to get into a player’s face, and has a reputation of being able to intimidate officials. Nelson has done it all–almost. He won back-to-back NBA titles as a player with the Boston Celtics and has been named Coach of the Year three times. But he has never coached a team to that oh-so-elusive championship. I talked with him about his future with the Mavs, life with Mark Cuban, and those late-night card games with Willie Nelson.

Rowlett: Do you think the Mavericks will win an NBA title before you retire?
Nelson:
That’s going to be pretty hard to do. I’m 64, and I’m only going to do one more season after this one. So I don’t know if we’ll get it, but it’s always something to strive for. But this is a strong franchise, and I think it will have a winning tradition long after I leave. It’s in good hands with Mark Cuban, and his priorities are strong. So we’re going to do the things necessary to keep it a strong franchise. I want us to be the best that we can be, and I’m pretty content with that.

Rowlett: Is winning an NBA title less important to you than it was, say, ten years ago?
Nelson:
I don’t want to say that my job is not important, because it is. It means a lot to me to do a good job. But it’s not life and death. It would be nice to win a championship, but it’s not something that is so important to me that I lose perspective on my life.

Rowlett: How would you describe your relationship with Mark Cuban? Last year he called you a drama queen when you were pressed about your future with the team.
Nelson:
Well, we’re not close. But I think there’s respect there. We get along fine. You know, he chooses to run his business the way he wants to run it, and that’s what he should do. Although my title is that of coach and general manager, I’m more coach, and I’m not as involved in the business decisions. I leave that up to Mark and my son, Donnie, and that’s probably a good thing.

Rowlett: You have strong opinions about what needs to be done with the Mavericks, but Donnie is club president. Do you ever get frustrated and try to correct him?
Nelson:
Oh, no. I have tremendous respect for the tough job that he has to do. I may try to give him input and we don’t always agree on everything, but I try to stay out of his way. I love him and think he’s doing a good job with the trades and that sort of thing.

Rowlett: Looking back at one trade–the decision to let Steve Nash go–should the franchise have come up with more money? Was it a mistake to let him get away?
Nelson:
Well, I don’t want to get into my opinions on decisions that the franchise has made. I’ll keep those to myself. That was Mark’s decision, and he is the guy you need to talk to about that.

WHOA, NELLIE: The third-winningest coach in NBA history says that taking home the title isn’t “life and death.”

Rowlett: Still, you are one of the most open people I know to be in such a high profile job. Is that by personality or design?
Nelson:
Personality. That’s just the way I conduct my life.

Rowlett: Both you and your wife have battled cancer. Did that change you or the way you live your life?
Nelson:
Not really. I hope I’m the same guy today that I was before I was diagnosed. My wife’s cancer scared me way more than mine. Of course, when you first hear the C-word, it gets your attention, whether it’s you or somebody you love. You get a lot of negative feelings when you hear you have cancer. But they’ve overcome a lot of cancer these days. And it is often not as devastating today as it was ten or even five years ago. So, you can survive cancer, and that is very good to know. You can live a long, long life after you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. But when it’s somebody you love, it’s different than if it’s yourself.

Rowlett: Both of you are cancer free today? 
Nelson:
That’s correct. I go in for blood tests. But my wife had a much more aggressive type of cancer, and she has to go in religiously. They got it early, but it can return.

Rowlett: And cancer hasn’t altered your life at all?
Nelson:
Well, if I’d been younger, I think it would have. But I’d already gone through this stuff where my job was more important than anything when I was younger. And I prioritized and got all those issues in order as I got older. So I didn’t need to do that after I got cancer because I’d already changed.

Rowlett: But you still have a good time. We hear stories that you and Willie Nelson like to drink, smoke and play cards in Maui.
Nelson:
(Laughing) Well, he smokes something different than I do. I used to smoke cigars, but I don’t smoke the same stuff he does. I don’t smoke at all anymore. We do like to drink and play cards, and he likes to smoke.

Rowlett: And the two of you are close friends?
Nelson: Well, we are friends. I don’t know how close. But I do appreciate the relationship.

Rowlett: What do you look for in a friend?
Nelson: I think somebody you can trust and rely on. You know, you don’t get a chance to get real close to a lot of people, although you may know a few thousand people in your lifetime. Out of that you may come up with a handful or two who are real friends. And you have a different relationship with those guys and it is built on trust.

Rowlett: Do you look for any of those same qualities when you evaluate players?
Nelson:
Well, character is important, but I don’t try to look for friendship. I look instead for the qualities that will make him a great player and a good team member. For instance, I like aggressive players, and there’s a fine line between aggressive and selfish. You can be a selfish player and still fit into a team concept because those guys are often self-motivated. They want to do well and get numbers. And, within reason, you can work with those players as long as they understand the team concept. The guy you look for really is an all around guy who cares most about one thing: winning.

Rowlett: So it’s pretty obvious you aren’t much for a slower game–the old Hank Iba style?
Nelson:
(Laughing) No, I’m not much of a Hank Iba fan. I think the beauty of the game is in full-court basketball where you let the athletes play to their maximum. The beauty of great athletes is that they can run, they can jump, they can shoot, and are beautifully coordinated. I like more of a free-flowing kind of game at both ends of the court. 
 
Rowlett: Do you have a favorite all-time player or a favorite coach?
Nelson:
It’s hard to pass up Sidney Moncrief as my favorite all-time player. He wasn’t the greatest athlete. But he was the guy who got the most out of his skills and played at an all-star level for many years at both ends of the floor.  He was as good a player as I’ve ever had. As for coaches, Lenny Wilkens is my idol. I’ve tried to be more like Lenny as I’ve gotten older. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job of mellowing both as a coach and as a person because I’ve tried to emulate him over the years.

Rowlett: What about a favorite all-time team?
Nelson:
Well, my Boston Celtics teams are my favorite teams of all-time, the ones I was on. And now, when I’m in Boston, I’ll see two or three of those guys, and we’ll get together and go out. And I see [John] Havlicek on the road some.   If they’re in a city that I’m in, they’ll come see me.

Rowlett: What about life away from basketball?
Nelson:
I enjoy spending time with my friends, and we spend as much time as possible on Maui, and I have some real estate interests there, too, as well as looking after some other investments I’ve made over the years. After basketball, I plan to spend about half my time in Maui, and the other half in Dallas. We really love it here, too, and love the people.

Photo: Rowlett: Tom Hussey

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