Warriors' Nelson deserves cheers

January 30, 1995|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

Root for Don Nelson. Root for him as you did for Raymond Burr and those peasants in the first "Godzilla" movie. Root for him not to fall to the monsters of greed, immaturity and selfishness supposedly threatening the tranquillity we have known as the Fan-tastic game, the NBA.

They come with frightening names like Isaiah Rider, Derrick Coleman and Chris Webber, and the notion is that their behavior is pushing the NBA periously close to the basketball apocalypse.

I'm not a believer in leaguewide doom, and neither is Nelson.

"I believe there is a player or two on every team difficult to handle," says Nelson. "But there still are an awful lot of wonderful young players in the NBA playing the game for the right reasons, and I happen to have a bunch of them on my team."

Of course, he also thought one of them was Webber, who forced the Warriors to trade him a year after they virtually mortgaged their future to make him the No. 1 pick in the 1993 draft. The escapade sent Nelson into a mental and physical spiral that has many close to him saying he'll leave coaching.

The monsters got Chuck Daly and Dan Issel. Don't let them get Nellie.

"I know if those star players of today don't have a change in their character, we're going to turn our fans off," warns Nelson. "People are tired of watching spoiled people who are not interested in doing their job being the main focal point.

"The NBA has been spoiled with the Michael [Jordan], Magic [Johnson], Larry [Bird] era. For the stand we made here, we're being applauded. Everyone says, 'Way to go,' but we're at the bottom of the standings and nobody's feeling sorry for us."

Including the Bulls, who crushed the Warriors here yesterday, 116-94.

That stand was with Webber, whom Nelson believed was the key piece to their championship puzzle.

"We had Mully [Chris Mullin] and Timmy [Hardaway]," says Nelson about his two Dream Team players. "Latrell Sprewell was an up-and-coming star, so we figured it was worth overextending to get the No. 1 player in the draft. Then we made the deal for [Rony] Seikaly, and on paper it looked like we were there."

But Webber crumbled up the paper and threw it in the garbage. He refused to re-sign with Golden State because of Nelson, leaving Nelson not only devastated but mystified. He can't even bear to speak Webber's name anymore, calling him "the player." Says Nelson: "It turns out there wasn't anything that could change this other than the maturity of the player."

Nelson won't respond to Webber's accusations that Nelson refused to call him and that when they were together at a camp last summer, Nelson wouldn't talk to him. Says Nelson: "You can never win an argument with a player." But friends of Nelson say he was thrilled when returning from that camp, saying he and Webber had worked for hours on Webber's shooting.

"I thought we were looking at a 10-year run with a good young team," says Nelson. "Then the tragedy hit. We went from heaven to hell."

Nobody went down further than Nelson, a player with five championship rings, a coach with an unprecedented three Coach of the Year awards, a man who has participated in more NBA games than anyone, ever.

"It really crushed me," says Nelson, not your general sentimental slob. He can be dictatorial, but he has also taken care of his players, in effect saving Mullin's life when Mullin was fighting to admit his alcoholism.

"I didn't know it, but I was also sick at the time," says Nelson, who went into the hospital to be treated for pneumonia. And exhaustion, depression? The rumors started immediately: Nelson would leave the Warriors, he'd quit coaching. The kids had won.

"I'll do whatever the Warriors want," says Nelson. "If they want me to coach, be GM . . . I'm under contract. But there's a buyout in my contract after this season, and if they'd prefer to exercise that, that will be fine, too."

But basketball would be worse off.

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