Nellie/Cuban Talk With Mike Fisher of Dallasbasketball.com
Warriorsworld.net hooked up with Dallas sports personality Mike Fisher to discuss the saga of Don Nelson and Mark Cuban
WW.NET: When Cuban Bought the Team in 2000, he kept Don Nelson on as coach, why did he choose to keep Nelson at that time?
Nellie (and Donnie and the rest of that inner circle) were quite certain they were going to get canned; that's the standard operating procedure, right, is that a new owner comes in and cleans house? As I recall, they were in Denver and the Nelsons and others went out for a beer or five and they considered it their Last Supper.
Cuban showed some wisdom here, though, retaining Nellie not only because he is an accredited program-builder but also because — as the Bay Area knows — he gives an organization and its fans a jolt of electricity. If you're going to be bad-to-mediocre, but you want to have fun and sell tickets through the tough times well, there's always Nellie to put on that clown nose!
WW.NET: Having Nellie, gave the team and Cuban instant credibility, when Cuban bought the team, what was the local reaction? How was he perceived initially?
It's a cool story, really, and fans attached themselves to it. During his 20's, he was a cheap-seat Mavs fan. A "Reunion Rowdy.'' Later, of course, he made his fortune, but the reception was terrific because he was a "local boy (via Pittsburgh) made good.'' He certainly had a connection with passionate fans, and still does, because he is one. Even today, he concerns himself with whether the AAC nachos taste right, he concerns himself with sight lines from Second 320, that sort of thing. He has become a lightning-rod figure for some, of course. But I like the fact that he's as much of a sports fan and a sportsman as he is a businessman. And unlike what's going on in Golden State right now — where from year to year I, as a casual follower of the Warriors, never quite know who is in charge — Mavs fans certainly know where the buck stops.
Don't you agree that ownership upheaval is at the root of the Warriors' long-standing problem?
WW.NET: Of course it is, when your team fails to make the playoffs 14 out of 15 years and only 2 winning seasons total during that time, the focus has to be put on ownership and management. They've gone through coach after coach, all resulting in the same fate- more losses than wins. Cohan and his right hand man Robert Rowell, are the ones getting the heat more than ever because everything else has been tried and not worked, it's time for these two to leave and bring in fresh faces who can run a organization the right way.
What would you consider some of Nellie's strengths and weaknesses as a coach? How was it to cover Nellie on a daily basis?
Nellie's great strengths include his ability to take a team from zero to 30, maybe, as opposed to zero to 60. He was an underdog as an NBA player, followed a twisty path to become a coach who quite obviously deserves to be in the Hall of Fame and he still tries to play that underdog card. Problem is, it wears a bit thin. Are you really an underdog when you are making a skillion dollars a year? Are you really an underdog when almost every time you leave a franchise, you end up with a piece of ownership? Are you really an underdog when you own half of Hawaii?
The "We couldn't beat the Pismo Beach Panthers' schtick is fun and funny but by the time you are in the Western Conference Finals with a team featuring two future MVPs, maybe it's not the best fit.
My personal memories of dealing with Nellie are many, and I cherish them. I've known him for 20 years; I happened to work at the Marin I-J when he was with Golden State last time around, and I was ecstatic when he came here. The first time he went looking for a country-western bar in Dallas, I was with him. For years after that, he'd do his paid weekly radio show in the morning …and then pop onto my radio show a few hours later to do an 'Unofficial Don Nelson Show' for which he didn't ask for compensation. We'd talk about basketball, of course, just as we did in person. But on the phone on the radio, he'd talk about what he had for dinner, his relationship with his dad, his urine bag, whatever.
He's complex, obviously. Like all of us, I guess. ..
WW.NET: Where did the Cuban/Nellie start souring? Is there something specific that triggered it? Where does Donnie fall into all of this?
The Nellie-Cuban conflict is, for starters, the result of the owner deciding that he needed to turn up the heat a little bit. So rather than providing Nellie an automatic re-upping of his contract (in 2003, I think), he opted to make Nellie work for it. I think Cuban sensed then that Nellie was starting to have one eye on the golf course, was starting to make 'burn-out' noises, was starting to spend a lot of time looking forward to his summers in Hawaii and dangling that carrot on that stick worked — if I've got my chronology right, Nellie coached his ass off that year, the staff worked its ass off, the Mavs got to the WCF and they all got their financial rewards.
But Nellie didn't like it.
And in that WCF, when Cuban (and the doctors) disagreed with Nellie about whether Dirk should play on a sore knee … and Nellie won the argument but lost the series … well, the die was cast. Two powerhouses started locking horns on a regular basis.
Where Donnie stands on all this is a story I haven't written yet. My sense is that he's been able to put aside his personal relationship with his father in order to do his job — not unlike Nellie and many other NBA types (and many other sportswriters!) have been able to put their families aside in order to do their jobs.
My immediate concern as it relates to Nellie/Donnie-Cuban: When your Warriors are ready to dump one of those wing players. … Who is calling whom? (And please don't try to send us back Devean George, OK?)
WW.NET: Where did Nellie stand on the decision to bring back Steve Nash? To bring in Dampier?
The Nowitzki decision, Nellie told Cuban he would have to fire him if he wanted Dirk to play because he wasn't goin to risk his future, where did Nowitzki fall in all of this? Was he ready and able to play? Describe Nellie and Dirk's relationship.
Nellie was so against losing Steve Nash – at any cost – that he spent the ensuing season pouting about it. Not good. Indeed, one of the Nellie-Cuban problems was that Don would get a wild hair about “needing’’ a certain player who “would put us over the top,’’ and time and time again, Cuban would then spare no expense to pursue that guy. Well, they never got “over the top.’’ And Cuban got tired of chasing every Raef LaFrentz Plan that Nellie sketched out on bar napkins. At one point, I recall, Cuban said no to Nellie’s desire to acquire “put-us-over-the-top’’ Brian Grant. That was an in-house conflict. There would be others. I NEVER heard Nellie say back then that he was anti-Damp. I did see where he said in the court testimony that Damp is “doggy’’ but that remark seems self-serving to me.
Cuban believes it was also self-serving of Nellie to not play Dirk in that WCF. Cuban thinks it was a result of Nellie’s “underdog’’ mindset – that, in a way, Nellie didn’t want to put the pressure on himself to actually have to win, so he built himself an excuse by keeping Dirk in bubblewrap. That’s an especially damning assertion, I’ll say that.
And Dirk’s feelings? Probably akin to the feelings of a kid with divorcing parents.
How do the Warriors players feel about Nellie now? Capt. Jack seems to have warmed to him. What does Monta think of him? And what is the fan attitude toward him?
WW.NET: Warriors' players publicly all say the right things but Nellie definitely has his group of players he loves to ride and get after which naturally pisses people off- take for example Al Harrington, Nellie got on him so much that he requested to be traded and that wish was fulfilled, they bring in Jamal Crawford who Nellie couldn't stop talking about initially then as the season winds down he tells Crawford to either opt-out or he's going to get traded-which he did to the Hawks.
Stack Jack and Nellie have a great relationship which from Jack's Perspective is a no brainer as Nellie gives him complete freedom out on the court to do as he wants, what player wouldn't love playing for a coach like that.
Monta and Nellie have a more complex relationship in that there were rumors a few years back about Nellie wanting to move Monta for Acie Law, Nellie's comments about Monta having to become a pg in order to be a star, Monta's moped accident didn't help matters as he set the team and organization back because of that situation. Nellie and Larry Riley both went to visit Monta this off-season to kind of clear the air, hash out some things which by all accounts they did, so we'll have to wait and see how it turns out this season.
Fan attitude regarding Nellie was at a low last season with his early season handling of Anthony Randolph but it warmed as the season progressed. The growing sentiment is that ills of the franchise fall on the Ownership group of the Warriors and Robert Rowell as they bear the grunt of the frustrations from fans. Nellie is the one with the proven track record of success in the organization and at times it may not seem like it, he's the only one with a clue about how to do things.
How did Cuban feel about Nellie allocating coaching responsibilities onto Avery during the season?
When Nellie left, what was the sentiment in Dallas amongst the fans, media and Cuban?
Nellie deserves the good will he build up with fans; he was a key part of the turnaround … a franchise that Sports Illustrated a few years earlier called “The Worst Franchise In Sports’’ (or something like that) is now a perennial contender (9X50, as we say around these parts) … that legacy should remain intact.
Did he “allocate’’ the reins to Avery, or did he drop the reins on the floor and head off to the golf course? That will always be debated. My policy is always this: Players come and go. Coaches come and go. Whoever it is that stays behind … whoever is left holding the bag – and left holding the broom used to clean things up – I respect that guy. Nellie worked here for a few years; Cuban LIVES it. So my hope would be that fans have good will for both the “temporary’’ contributors and the permanent ones
WW.NET: Which brings us to the 07 playoffs, what was the vibe in Dallas about facing the Warriors? What was the mood in Dallas after they had lost?
Oh, I think the Mavs — as 67-game winners and a top seed vs. a bottom seed — had reasons to be extremely confident. What I cannot figure out for sure … this is how bizarre the whole deal still is … were the Mavs "overconfident''? or "under confident''? Did they play with cocky lethargy (at least early on) or were they truly intimidated by the atmosphere, the physical play, the presence of Nellie?
I theorized at the time that Avery's decision to dump Damp and change the year's game plan — a 67-win game plan! — In midstream was a confidence killer. But who knows?
There are Mavs people who admit the organization still reels a bit from it all, especially coming on the heels of the previous reel-maker against Miami in the Finals.
Here's what we know for sure (and Cuban knew it, too): When Don Nelson is inspired, he can still coach his ass off. And if it's true that he made a $1 mil bonus by beating Dallas in Round 1? Well, nothing inspires my old friend Nellie like a million bucks!
Mike Fisher Bio
Mike Fisher – “The Fish’’ – has for the last 20 years been one of Texas’ most impactful sports personalities while working as the host of his own radio talk show, as a newspaper beat writer and columnist, as the author of two regional best-selling books on the Dallas Cowboys and as the editor and publisher of DallasBasketball.com/DB.com Boards, which now boasts more than 30,000 visitors daily.
Fish has won numerous awards as a sportswriter, has been named “Dallas/Fort Worth Radio Personality of the Year,’’ and has been a contributor to ABC’s “20/20,’’ Sports Illustrated, NBC’s “Dateline,’’ Deadspin, Fox, USA Today and ESPN, where he is presently an on-air personality.