Springfield, MA – Probably no one has been more influential in Steve Nash’s basketball career than the father-son combination of Don and Donnie Nelson.
As an assistant coach with Phoenix, Donnie Nelson played a pivotal role in the Suns using the 15th overall pick of the 1996 NBA Draft to select Nash. Donnie Nelson first met Nash when the latter played in high school and they became fast friends when Nash played at college basketball Santa Clara.
Then in 1998 while he was an assistant general manager with the Dallas Mavericks, Donnie Nelson helped the Mavs engineer a three-team trade which ultimately landed Nash in Dallas. At the time, Don Nelson – Donnie Nelson’s father — was the coach and general manager of the Mavs.
That same Don Nelson was so instrumental in Nash’s life on and off the basketball court that Nash selected him to be his presenter when he’ll be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday at 6 p.m. at Symphony Hall.
“I’m real happy for Nash,” Don Nelson said. “I know it’s a big moment for him and I’m proud to be the guy that’s going to induct him into the Hall of Fame.”
Nelson coached Nash with the Mavs from 1998 through 2004. During that time, Nash evolved into one of the game’s top point guards and was selected to the 2002 and ’03 All-Star games.
When he got the call to be Nash’s Hall of Fame presenter, Don Nelson said: “I can’t tell you I was surprised, but I was honored. I’m just happy to do it and I can’t wait to see him and be there for the moment.”
In addition to Nash’s special day, Donnie Nelson can’t wait to see former Mavs point guard Jason Kidd, who also will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday.
“Nash, I met him through his Canadian coach when he was 17 years old,” said Donnie Nelson, who is now the Mavs’ general manager. “He came to a Mavs game.
“So to see both of those guys and to have a small part in each of their careers has been just a humbling and incredible experience, and I can’t wait to share it with them in Springfield.”
In his proverbial walk down memory lane, Don Nelson has fond memories of his days trying to convince Nash that he needed to shoot the ball more.
“I wanted him to be more aggressive, and he was reluctant to take open shots,” Don Nelson said. “I just had to battle with him the first couple of years I coached him to get him to be more aggressive and to look for his shot more and to take it when he’s open.
“Because he was one of the best shooters on the team, why would you pass to a contested shot with a guy who shot a poorer percentage than you did? It didn’t make common sense to me, and it took him a few years before he got it.”
And once Nash got the message his game soared to incredible heights. In addition to the two All-Star berths with the Mavs, Nash went back to the Suns and made the All-Star team six more times and was also the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2005 and ’06.
“He’s one of the most fiercest competitors I think I’ve ever coached,” Don Nelson said. “He even had a skill level before its time where point guards could in fact get up there and be a Steph Curry and go to 30 points and 10 assists instead of 12 or 13 assists and 10 points.
“Your contributions are so much greater when you can do both things and do it in a manner unselfishly, which he wasn’t always was. He was one of the most unselfish players that I ever coached, and that was our biggest difference.”
Don Nelson was there during the infancy stages of Nash’s career, when the kid who grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, was just learning the nuances of the NBA game.
“He had the ability to have a great handle on the ball as far as the dribble is concern, and to see the game,” Don Nelson said of Nash. “His vision was never at the rim. It was always about what was going on around him.
“Once he got the good combination of looking at the rim and seeing what was around him he became a great player and a perennial All-Star.”
Nash played 408 games for the Mavs – all under Don Nelson – and 744 games for the Suns. He never reached the NBA Finals as a player, but he did win back-to-back championship rings as a consultant the past two seasons with the Golden State Warriors.
And now, some 20 years after he set the wheels in motion for Nash to reach stardom, Don Nelson will be there by his side again on Friday night during one of Nash’s greatest hours. The teacher (Don Nelson) wouldn’t want t any other way.
Ironically, Nash will be entering the Hall of Fame exactly six years after Don Nelson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sept. 7, 2012. Thus, the two men will share another bond for the rest of their life.
“Nash was probably one of my greatest delights to coach because I think when there’s an identification between coach and player, it really helps that he sees the same things that you see and the same opportunities,” Don Nelson said. “And so it was truly a delight to coach a player like that.
“I enjoyed coaching a lot of players, but I don’t know if I enjoyed anybody more than Steve.”