Nelson moves to top of NBA wins list
MINNEAPOLIS – Don Nelson emerged from the Golden State Warriors locker room all disheveled from a wild celebration after finally overtaking Lenny Wilkens as the NBA’s winningest coach.
His gray hair was soaked to the scalp not with Dom Perignon, but a concoction of fizzy soft drinks after a 116-107 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night gave Nelson win No. 1,333 for his career.
“We didn’t have any champagne bottles, so we took some Sprite and some Mountain Dew and some water and sprayed it all over him,” said Anthony Tolliver, who scored a career-high 34 points.
How appropriate, because the road to this record has been anything but smooth and easy for one of the league’s true mavericks.
“It’s just such a neat feeling,” Nelson said. “This is probably why we end up coaching, for moments like this.”
In 31 seasons on the bench, Nelson is 1,333-1,061 in a career that has made stops in Milwaukee, Golden State (twice), New York and Dallas. He won five titles as a player, has been named coach of the year three times, but has never made an NBA Finals as a coach.
Through it all, Nelson has always done it his way. He’s clashed with players, management and ownership at various stops along the way and is the only coach with at least 1,000 career victories who has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Nelson has built a reputation as a “mad scientist,” experimenting with lineups and offensive sets to cater to teams that were not always the biggest, strongest or most talented. In his first stint with Golden State in the late 1980s, he employed the famous “Run T-M-C” lineup of guards Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin to make the Warriors one of the more entertaining teams in the league.
And now “Nelly Ball” has its own special place in history.
“This is a tremendous honor for a great coach and we are all thankful for the memories that he has provided us over the years,” Warriors president Robert Rowell said in a statement. “Don’s creativity and innovative style have proven effective for over 30-plus years in the NBA, including this season, when the team has consistently played hard and has been extremely competitive despite a short-handed roster the entire year.”
This has been a long season for the Warriors (24-54), who have been ravaged by injuries and are a lock to finish with their fewest wins since 2001-02. But in some ways, this was the perfect team to take Nelson to the top of the record books.
The Warriors played their sixth straight game without Monta Ellis (flu) and also were again without Anthony Randolph (ankle) and Kelenna Azubuike (knee). Center Andris Biedrins (sports hernia) and forward Brandan Wright (shoulder) have missed big chunks of time this season too.
The Warriors have called up five players from the Development League this season, which is tied with the 2007-08 Spurs for the most in one season. Tolliver and Chris Hunter – who both played big roles in the record-setting win – are former D-Leaguers and C.J. Watson and Azubuike also have played there in past seasons.
“I told the team that I loved them dearly, that they were very special to me,” Nelson said. “But sometimes they don’t play like I want them to.”
Stephen Curry had 27 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds and a career-high seven steals, but the Warriors let a 27-point lead dwindle to four with 43.6 seconds left. Anthony Morrow closed the game out at the free throw line, and the players mobbed their 69-year-old coach when the final buzzer sounded.
“For us to get the record is a big accomplishment for us,” Curry said. “We call it our championship game.”
It was extra special for Nelson to do it in Minnesota. He has a daughter who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka and had 20 family and friends at the game, including his wife. He also said Wilkens has been in contact with him recently as Nelson has neared the mark.
“Lenny’s been an idol of mine for a long time,” he said.
Among active coaches, Utah’s Jerry Sloan (1,188) and the Lakers’ Phil Jackson (1,095) are closest to Nelson on the list.
“There’s plenty of guys close to that if they want to coach a couple of years,” Nelson said. “There’s coaches out there that win 50 at a time, 60 at a time. Not like me, winning 20 at a time, it’s a little harder.”
Nelson got his first head coaching job with Milwaukee in 1976 when he replaced Larry Costello 19 games into the season.
“I didn’t even have an assistant,” he said. “That’s how long ago that was.”
In an industry where service time is measured in months, not years, the achievement was not lost on Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis.
“The success he’s had, the longevity he’s had, it’s tough to be a coach in this league and to stick around as long as he has,” Rambis said. “To have the success that he’s had, the numerous situations he’s been in. He’s done a great job.”
Curry, who was passed over by the Timberwolves in favor of Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio in June’s draft, was sensational. He made 12 of 22 shots and ran the team like a veteran, finding Tolliver and Hunter for easy baskets in the paint all game long.
With leading scorer Al Jefferson out because of personal reasons, the Timberwolves didn’t have near enough offense to keep up.
“He hasn’t had a championship yet, so this is kind of like his championship,” Tolliver said. “We wanted to make it as special as possible.”
NOTES: Kevin Love had 17 points and 18 rebounds for the Timberwolves and Flynn finished with 19 points, eight assists and six turnovers. … Hunter scored 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting. … Love had his team-leading 35th double-double of the season. … The Timberwolves also played without rookie Wayne Ellington, who missed the game with strep throat.
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