Donnie Nelson once told me that he only put his reputation on the chopping block for a player three times.
Except he didn’t say “reputation.”
The first time was for a goofy-looking German kid whose skinny frame made his dorky hair look even more geeky.
We all know how that turned out.
The other times were for a Canadian point guard and a teenage sensation from Slovenia.
Rest assured that Nelson left the Mavericks on Wednesday with his reputation and everything else perfectly intact.
If you talk about the people who have defined the Mavericks’ organization, Nelson isn’t at the top of the list. He’s not Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash or Luka Dončić.
But beyond those icons, Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle, Nelson’s place in Mavericks history is as important as anybody else. He joined the franchise in 1998 as an assistant coach and became general manager in 2005. The franchise made its only two trips to the NBA finals and won its only championship (2011) under Nelson’s stewardship.
Nelson and the Mavericks parted ways “mutually” on Wednesday, 10 days after the Mavericks’ playoff run ended in a first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games.
A search for his successor began immediately.
Nelson’s global connections in the basketball community helped uncover Nowitzki before the rest of the world caught on to his greatness. He was on the Dončić trail well before the then-14-year-old became a bigger-than-life sensation in Spain. He persuaded ownership (and his father) to trade for Nash, then an unproven commodity, in 1998, just months after joining the Mavericks.
But there were other successes – and a few failures along the way – that made Nelson such an important piece of the Mavericks’ fabric.
He found players like Dorian Finney-Smith, Jae Crowder, J.J. Barea and Jalen Brunson – all of whom were either undrafted or taken in the second round and became big-time players.
He also had a tip for Cuban on Giannis Antetokounmpo, but a lack of reliable video about the 6-10 Greek Freak scared off the Mavericks in that draft.
Yes, along the way, there were Pavel Podkolzin and Antoine Rigadeau. But if you don’t swing and miss now and then, you probably aren’t trying hard enough. Or hitting many home runs.
And Nelson knew the blueprint for hitting hard when it came to uncovering talent.
“It’s all about relationships,” Nelson once told me. “It’s being able to drop into a country and know people in the basketball federation so you can get around the country and have somebody who knows the language and the people you needed to meet.
“Sometimes, just getting to see the guy you are there to scout is the hardest part. And a lot of times, it’s a 7-foot guy who turns out to be 6-7.”
You couldn’t comprehend Nelson’s international scope unless you see it firsthand, which I was lucky enough to do in 2003. The NBA was having its first Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa.
We landed on the same flight and as we checked into the hotel, exhausted, Nelson said: “Dump your stuff and meet in the lobby in 15 minutes. We’re going on a tour.”
Nelson’s driver and interpreter took us on a trip to the house Nelson Mandela grew up in and to one of the local restaurants that you probably wouldn’t find using Yelp reviews.
“Wandie’s Place” is where we ate tripe and springbok, among other things, even as we were barely able to communicate with the locals.
That is Nelson’s gift – being able to establish bonds where there were none. It’s how he helped get Sarunas Marciulionis from the Soviet Union to Golden State in 1990.
Nelson’s biggest coup for the Mavericks clearly was Nowitzki. He had been part of the Nike Hoop Summit for several years when it was in Portland. Then, after he was hired in Dallas by his father, Don Nelson, little Nellie attended the 1998 Hoop Summit in San Antonio as part of the Final Four weekend.
The international team of teenagers who were draft-eligible had training camp in Dallas.
“It’s kind of serendipitous that it all came together,” Donnie Nelson said.
This was the same year when his father, who was head coach at the time, was torn between Paul Pierce and Nowitzki in the draft. Big Nellie would later say that the Mavericks “probably did a whole lot of things” they shouldn’t have to try to keep Nowitzki from visiting other teams.
“There’s no way we could do that,” Nelson said of his father’s comment. “At the time everyone was more focused on the Final Four. But the reality is, you can’t (hide a player.”
After much maneuvering and drama, the Mavericks drafted Nowitzki. And it was Nelson’s decision, in the end.
After a tough first year, the big German became a star and the Mavericks would become one of the best teams in the NBA for the following dozen seasons.
Nelson and his father even survived the change in ownership, when Cuban bought the team from Ross Perot Jr.
“We all thought we were history,” Nelson would say later.
But Cuban stood by the Nelsons and the move paid dividends down the line.
Interesting, it was the elder Nelson who had come in before Cuban bought the team and made wholesale changes to the roster to get the house in working order after a miserable stretch of seasons for the Mavericks in the 1990s.
To which, Don Nelson said: “Wherever the Mavericks are today, we owe it to Michael Finley. He was the one guy who stayed when we were a terrible team. He stayed and fought the fight.”
Interestingly, Finley is now one of the candidates to replace Nelson after serving the last four seasons as his right-hand man.
But the loss of Nelson in the organization is just that – a loss. He was an asset that will not be easily replaced. His connections with agents, other GMs and around the world made him recognizable as Dallas’ contact person for roster moves – along with Cuban, of course.
“I just want to thank Donnie for his 24 years of service to this organization,” Cuban said. “Donnie has been instrumental to our success and helped bring a championship to Dallas. His hard work, creativity and vision made him a pioneer. Donnie will always be a part of the Mavs’ family and I wish him all the best.”