Deadspin NBA Shit List: Don Nelson, Drunk On His Own Genius (And Scotch)

A celebration of the NBA's most infuriating players, both past and present. Read other NBA Shit List entries here.

Now, I'm not saying Don Nelson is an alcoholic. But when he called up KNBR from a bar, drinking a mid-day scotch, slurring about Stephen Jackson that "it's harder than hell to trade that guy," quickly followed by "we're trying," well, he gave off the impression of a man who just by sighing could light up a breathalyzer like a pinball machine.

Don Nelson, the coach in Golden State from 1988-95 and then again from 2006-10, is celebrated by the Warriors as though this didn't happen. As though he didn't silently hang his head during timeouts. As though the Warriors didn't pay him $6 million just to go away. As though the man who drove young Chris Webber out of town is someone Golden State fans should love and revere like a father.

And we will love and revere him like a father because that's how fucked up he made us. We can't quit him. Nellie had the surly charisma of a mafia underboss, and in the hoops backwater of Oakland, we were so starved for attention that it was reckoned an honor that someone of his stature would want to fuck with us.

He had that smirking aspect to his personality that all elite coaches possess. You used to see it most clearly whenever Gregg Popovich would foul Shaq for a lark, or whenever Phil Jackson would passive-aggressively tweak a nervy opponent, smiling that wry smile. The most powerful coaches are so above the game that they condescend to it.

Don Nelson? He would drink beers in his playoff press conferences and predict losses for his underdog team. He turned his lineups into a serial comedy. Andris Biedrins and four little guys? Why not? What about no big men at all? Sure. Fuck it.

Nellie didn't care; he wanted to be small in a sport that rewards height. The strategy was not without merit, but you got the sense that this was something other than hoops pragmatism. He'd always been a restless tinkerer, going back to his days as the coach and GM of the Milwaukee Bucks. During his Dallas interregnum, he fashioned his best teams around his 7-footer's ability to shoot three pointers. The Mavericks won 57 games in 2001-2002, while finishing 25th in defensive rating—which hardly seems possible, until you recall that Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash were running the offense. Don Nelson had succeeded in rebuilding Dallas, and more importantly, he'd done it his way.

After he flamed out with Mark Cuban and came back to Oakland, Nellie seemed to take an almost adolescent glee in being weird. The result was gonzo basketball, fuck-it basketball—it was about sending up institutional norms and terrorizing the squares and maybe winning a few games along the way. In 2007, it worked spectacularly. Facing the all too logically constructed Mavericks, the chaos agent blew up everything in sight; by the end, there was nothing left of Dallas but the stick jammed up Avery Johnson's ass.

It was glorious, but the long, bitter goodbye would follow. After the Warriors nearly made the playoffs in 2008, we slowly began to learn the dark side of whimsy. Nellie's guys went 55-109 over the next two seasons. The names were increasingly unfamiliar. Baron Davis left for Los Angeles. Jason Richardson was traded for Brandan Wright, a useful player whose health and minutes suffered under Nellie. No good came of Nelson's relationship with Anthony Randolph, either. Randolph's wild style theoretically should have meshed with Nellie's, but the two strains of weird formed a toxic compound. Something had happened. Quirkiness had become an end unto itself. Nellie had wanted so much for his final Warriors teams to bear the imprint of his genius that he wound up crushing them.

Al Harrington once said of Nelson, "He's been known to ruin guys' careers." Harrington was referring to young players, but they weren't the only ones to get fitted for cement shoes. Chris Mullin was fired from his GM position and replaced by Nelson's friend Larry Riley.

Nelson consolidated power, but in retrospect this doesn't seem like cold-eyed front-office maneuvering; this was just another step in a man's ongoing slow-motion public tantrum. When Nellie pillaged the D-League while playing Mikki Moore at center, he came off like a self-saboteur. Leads were flicked away when Captain Quirk subbed out his rebounders for D-League guards. In his final two seasons, Nelson used an astounding 1,008 different lineups.

As he neared the all-time wins record, he looked more and more disheveled, evoking memories of Boris Yeltsin at his most pickled. He was an embarrassment, one that would linger long after the memories of the We Believe Warriors had turned distant. Nellie was an indictment of our fandom—a sad mass of sagging skin whose sole raison d'etre, it seemed to me, was to antagonize us with stubbornly bad, defense-free basketball.

I'm convinced the latter-day Nelson knew what he was doing. He either hated himself or hated us, and the Warriors on his watch became nothing more than a vessel for his spite. In 2007, Don Nelson caught lightning in a bottle. He spent much of his remaining time in the Bay Area drinking himself into crapulence on its contents. And we'll always forgive him because there's nothing else here to love.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes about basketball, a pretty cool sport. You can email him at ethanstra@gmail.com and follow him @SherwoodStrauss