Chapter 4: A Skunk on Main Street; How Big D Got Its Mojo Back.
On or around the evening of September 26th, 2006, my wife and I were in Martha’s Vineyard, walking down Main Street in the village of Edgartown. We had just finished dinner and were heading back to our inn.
“A skunk on Main Street!”
The exclamation came from just across the way and, yep, as stated, there was a skunk dawdling across Main Street as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I traced where the scream came from and directly across the street found a mature, Waspy woman with an elegant coat and fine pearls, arm wrapped around her mister, looking aghast and horrified. She certainly was not expecting this on a cool fall night in Edgartown. She did not want to see this stinker anywhere near her street or village or island.
It was on or around December 22nd of 1997 in the Northeast suburbs of Fort Worth, TX that I let loose a similar reaction of shock and awe as the new Dallas Mavericks coach began his press conference after his first Mavs win.
In 1997, the Dallas Mavericks season, like many before, was in complete shambles. Not long after the season tipped off, Don Nelson, general manager for little less than a year, took the coaching reins from Jim Cleamons. In the previous year, Nelson had been banished from the New York Knicks after a bad stint. He came to Dallas looking to rebound.
Nelson’s failures in New York didn't deter him as he quickly cleaned house to improve the team’s attitude and chemistry.
He brought ego, optimism and ego to the table. Seriously, Nelson’s ego is about as big as, well, Nelson himself. He was the man for the job.
On or around December 22nd, Nelson had just won his first game as the new Mavs coach over his old team, the Knicks. Nelson, as all coaches must, honored his league mandated post game obligations and attended a press conference with local reporters.
He sat down at the press table, cracked open a Budweiser, and took questions.
Now, I would have been about 21 at the time. Legal drinking age, for sure. And maybe my reaction was partly due to growing up in a house of teetotalers. But I sat watching the post-game press conference aghast, as if a skunk had just walked through my upscale neighborhood somewhere off the Cape.
What is he doing? You can’t drink that there! Who does he think he is?
But Don Nelson, in his first press conference after his first win, made one thing clear.
There was a new sheriff in town.
Don Nelson was exactly what the Dallas Mavericks needed. He was no Jim Cleamons, no Quinn Buckner, no Richie Adubato. He was not a footnote in basketball history.
He was the man who invented the point forward, who dominated with small ball, who had learned under the tutelage of the great Red Auerbach.
He had been a winner in Milwaukee and in his first tour at Golden State. It would take his beer swilling, devil-may-care, system-bucking approach to lead us out of the wilderness.
And it did.
He fashioned a fast-paced, high-scoring team behind the talents of a young trio: Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. Nash was the engine, Finley the high-flying wingman and Nowitzki the match-up nightmare. These three players helped put Dallas back in the win column and back on the map.
Nellie ball, as it was called, was fun. Nellie ball was sexy. And Nellie ball had the whole of Northeast Texas feeling that we could go all the way.
Of course, to know Don Nelson is to know his flaws as well as his strengths. Sure, he was one of the few coaches in the league that could really coach offense, but he was just as well known as a coach that paid scant attention to the defensive end. His style seemed to work well in the regular season, but would fall short in the postseason.
As the years went by, and as the Mavs repeatedly came up limp in the playoffs, Nelson’s style drew in more and more detractors, and it was thought that a more defensive-minded coach was needed to take this team to the next level.
Perhaps Nelson’s greatest accomplishment was the 2003 playoffs where he took an undermanned team to the Western Conference finals against the rival Spurs. Dirk Nowitzki was lost early in the series with a knee injury and the team was on the ropes. Shawn Bradley was no match for Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen was giving Finley fits and the Spurs championship mettle was proving too much.
But Nelson worked it. He spread the court with his undersized guards. He gave the ball to a smoking-hot-shooting Nick Van Exel (never better). He maximized mismatched parts like Eddie Najera and Walt Williams. He squeezed everything out of this team and he had them knocking at the door.
In Game Six, the Mavericks were falling behind in the second half. Nelson, throwing out the kitchen sink, resorted to a modification of one of his more dubious inventions. In this game there would be no Hack-a-Shaq, but instead, Hack-a-Bowen, as he intentionally and repeatedly sent Bruce Bowen to the line in the third quarter. Bowen went on to miss and the Spurs offensive rhythm was shaken. Nelson was giving his team a chance.
Sadly, it all went down the drain when Spurs Coach Greg Popovich (a snooty wine aficionado by the way, not a grassroots beer man) dusted off veteran Steve Kerr in the fourth quarter. Kerr knocked down three after three in the final quarter to lead the Spurs to victory and on to the finals. And that was it. That was the farthest that Nelson could ever get these Mavericks.
Nelson's tenure ended two seasons later, and the Mavs finally went in a defensive direction with coach Avery Johnson.
Nellie ball in Dallas was finished. He brought us back to prominence, but he couldn’t take us all the way. No more high-flying, high-scoring games. No more Budweisers in the press conference.
On, not around, May 7, 2007 the NBA informed then Golden State coach Don Nelson that he could no longer take beer into his post-game press conferences.
And yet, Main Street in Martha’s Vineyard is still visited by the occasional skunk.
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