Don Nelson's stints as head coach of the Warriors were like those nights when a group of friends decide to shotgun a case of Four Loko then club-hop through the city.
burritos, reliving the ups and down of the night with every bite, one
guy says what they were all thinking: "Good times."
There's a solid argument that Nelson's legacy in Oakland -- beginning in 1988 and ending in 1995, and returning from 2006 to 2010 -- shouldn't even be up for debate. The Warriors have made the playoffs six times in the last 35 years; Nellie headed five of those teams (George Karl took the '86-'87 squad to the second round). He brought innovative and exciting basketball to town. He gave us We Believe and Run-TMC. He helped Chris Mullin defeat alcoholism and become a perennial all-star. He maximized Baron Davis' potential. He orchestrated one of the greatest playoff upsets in sports history.
But even with all that on his resume he was run out of town -- twice. Toward the end of each tenure he seemed to stifle any chance of turning the playoff surges into longterm success.
During the team's first four years under Nelson, the Warriors made the playoffs three times, storming through the league with a high-octane, three-guard style. Then after a down year, Golden State lucked out with the top pick in the draft lottery and selected Chris Webber, one of the most highly touted prospects in recent memory. And he would be joining a team that was already a playoff contender.
But soon the Warriors took a terrible turn.
Nelson rode his new star so hard that Webber, who won Rookie of the Year and led the team to 50 wins, demanded a trade after his first season. Nelson, as the New York Times' Mike Wise wrote in 1995, "was suddenly being characterized as a tyrant, a man so convinced that he was right and that this 21-year-old kid was wrong he was willing to barter a potential franchise player to another team for someone far less talented in return." The following season, with the team 14-31, Nelson resigned halfway through.
The Webber trade spurred a lost decade. The team missed the playoffs for the next 12 years. Then Nelson returned and We Believe happened and that was awesome. In 2007 and 2008 Nellie probably never had to pay for a beer in the Bay Area.
The management blew that team up soon after, to focus on the longterm and build around Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins, and a host of promising lottery picks, like Brandan Wright, Anthony Randolph, and Marco Belinelli. But over the next two years, Nelson appeared hesitant to give the young guys consistent playing time -- starting them and benching them for spurts.
In February 2010, We Believe Warriors alumnus Al Harrington, a New York Knick by this point, told San Jose Mercury News sportswriter Tim Kawakami, "I talk to B-Wright every once in a while. I just tell him to keep his head, try to stay positive and try to weather this Nellie Storm. Because he's been known to, you know, ruin guys' careers."
And then there was the time in November 2009 Nelson killed Stephen Jackson's trade value-- what was left of it, at least -- when he called into KNBR from an Indianapolis bar and said, "It's harder than hell to trade that guy. He's got his history; he's got a longterm contract. We're trying."
From the stands during those final two years, it often seemed like Nelson was on cruise control, mortgaging the team's future to scrape up hollow victories in the present as he neared the record for most wins by an NBA head coach. To many, he became a caricature.
The off-season after he broke the record, in 2010, he resigned. Wright, Belinelli, and Randolph no longer play for the Warriors. Neither does Monta. Same goes for Biedrins, more or less.
For the second time, he left the organization in a bigger mess than when he took it over. But for the second time he left excitement, energy, gratuitous high-fiving, and extraordinary moments in his wake.
Raoul Duke might say that now, almost five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in North Beach and look east, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see Baron Davis posterizing Andre Kirilenko.