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Golden State Rehires Don Nelson After 12 Years

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Oakland sports teams are much more sentimental than I ever imagined.

I looked at the papers this morning to find out that Jeff George, who didn’t leave the Raiders on the best of terms, had returned as a possible backup quarterback for his old team and its new old coach Art Shell. At various times, the A’s have arranged for swan songs for Jose Canseco, Reggie Jackson, and Rickey Henderson, though Rickey forgot to retire. Some time in the future, I imagine we’ll see the return of the Giambi brothers to the Green and Gold.

Now the big story is that after 12 years out of the playoffs, the Warriors have brought Don Nelson back to coach the team. I’m waiting to hear about their deals to sign Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell some time later this week.

Chris Cohan, the Warriors owner, not only fired Nelson 12 years ago, he sued him for taking another job as head coach of the Knicks. He’s now paying the 66-year-old coach $6 million a year over the next three years. Yes, you’re right. That’s three sixes in succession.

For those who don’t remember the story, Nelson has a long history of being a coach who takes teams from nothing to contention but can’t get them to the finals. He managed this in Milwaukee, Dallas, and at Golden State.

With Run-TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin), Nelson was all set to make the jump from playoff team to championship contender with the addition of Chris Webber. Webber preferred to play power forward so Nelson traded for a true center, Rony Seikaly, by giving up one of Webber’s best friends on the team Billy Owens. Webber’s complaints about Nelson’s “negative” coaching style grew more vocal and Cohan decided to keep the coach instead of the budding star in one of these “he goes or I go” situations. A few months and a sudden loss of chemistry later, both star and coach were gone. Bottom line, “he goes or I go” turned out to be Donyell Marshall. A year or two later, Latrell Sprewell was choking his coach. The Warriors have not had a winning team since.

Psychologists sometimes encourage traumatized patients to “relive” the incident and work through it again. Perhaps this is what Cohan’s up to. He’s tried eight different coaches since Nelson and the team still plays as if they’re jinxed. Nelson may be the only person on earth who has the counter-spell.

Mullin, now the general manager of the Warriors, already has assembled a group in Nelson’s image in that the roster has no center who can score, a bunch of scorers on the wings, and more than its share of player who didn’t grow up in the United States. In addition, like traditional Nelson teams, the current Warriors don’t play much defense.
They do, however, still have Michael Pietrus who came to the team as the “Michael Jordan of France.” With the emergence of Tony Parker and Boris Diaw in recent years, Pietrus is sort of like the Sam Bowie of France.

I think I do understand Nelson’s motive for coming back. At one point, it looked like Nelson senior was trying to set up his son Donn Nelson junior as his successor in Dallas. Instead, Avery Johnson emerged as the coach in waiting and, once given the job, took the Mavericks to a level that Nelson Sr. had never managed — the NBA Finals. It should be a little while before Donn Jr. has any hope of taking the job away from Johnson. In the meantime, Donn Sr. could certainly bring his son/assistant back to Golden State.

More significant, I believe that Nelson loves coaching and that this is a no lose situation. Yes, the team might lose, but if he does he can blame it on the bad karma from 12 years ago and the idiocies of Chris Cohan. If the team happens to win, Nelson will have the entire Bay Area basketball community proclaiming his wisdom and greatness. As the second winningest coach in NBA history, Nelson remains an excellent judge of talent and just might manage a winning season out of what most consider a talented but underachieving roster.

Basically, it’s Nelson’s chance to play the role of Pat Riley, though without having to get beaten by Texas Western in Glory Road or even having to win the NBA Championship. All Nelson has to do is make the playoffs in the next two years.

In the meantime, Ken Macha needs to watch his back. I’m sure the A’s must already be in talks with Tony LaRussa and Art Howe.

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