The first time I met Donnie Nelson, I was waiting on an interview with a player at Mavericks headquarters, my mind spaced-out inside an old team poster from the 80’s. Nelson walked by and stopped, mentioning a few things about some of the players on the poster and then he was on his way. He was kind, engaging and naturally, I became curious about him.
He grew up in Natick (MA), playing all the neighborhood sports as a child but basketball floated in his DNA from the jump. It led him on a unique journey as a player, coach, scout and now as the president and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki describes Nelson as the hardest working executive in the game, a man who lives basketball 24 hours a day.
I had a chance to speak with Donnie recently, with the majority of our discussion focused on his evolution within the game.
Are the majority of your early childhood memories basketball related?
Donnie Nelson: Yeah. My life has pretty much revolved around this little round ball.
Do you recall when you realized your dad was an important figure in basketball?
DN: I figured out who my dad was on the playground. It was a different phenomenon. When you’re in second or third grade, the subject of your dad doesn’t come up very much. You’re just locked in on having fun and being a kid. Somebody must have told somebody, because I turned from Donnie into Don Nelson‘s son. A metamorphosis. I had all these guys asking me for John Havlicek‘s autograph. I kind of found out innocently for better or worse, that my dad did something that was irregular.
What were some of the positives and negative aspects of that?
DN: On the positive side, at a young age I was watching Celtics’ practices. My dad and I had a ritual on Saturdays: he used to pick me up and I would get two chocolate donuts and two milks and sit there and watch Celtics practice with Havlicek, Dave Cowens, JoJo, Don Chaney and all those guys. At the time, you don’t know because that’s the only thing you grow up with. You don’t even process it.
Looking back, those are the euphoric, amazing times that are once in a lifetime opportunities that you don’t know how to appreciate until later on in life. On the reverse side, as soon as I fell in love with the sport my dad competed in, it’s [laughs]. Every team that you make or any time you start over someone else it’s because your dad is Don Nelson and it must be some political reason. You get the cat calls, the nepotism and all of that stuff. Those are the negative things. I’m your pretty average guy and I was just looking to grow up and compete in sports. If you don’t know how to handle that, it can really get to your head if you don’t have the right grounding. Thank goodness I had some real grounding with mom, family and a faith-based upbringing.
When did you decide that basketball would be your career?
DN: When I was in college I knew I loved the game. I spent all of my time doing it. But that’s another phenomenon that happens to some kids. You think you’re the best player in your conference or high school and pretty soon your mind starts playing games with you. Oh, I can do what that guy does in the NBA. Like, ‘I’m as good as Michael Jordan‘s backup’ [laughs]. But the reality is a completely different stratosphere. But most high school kids think they can do anything. I was no different. When you graduate from college, that’s when it hits you like a ton of bricks. I didn’t get drafted? Nobody is calling me. I have to get a job and work? That was probably when.
But you were still playing?
DN: My existence was that I played for Athletes in Action and I was also scouting for the Golden State Warriors as a part-time regional scout. I had a very weird and odd and cool existence: playing against Timmy Hardaway of UTEP and then writing a scouting report on him after the game was over. I had this dual life that was a dream for anybody. Playing basketball with Athletes in Action… Man, back then that was… We played all of our games on the road in November – when they allowed those exhibition games against the colleges. Lorenzo Romar was our point guard, Swen Nater was our center, Tracy Jackson had just been released by the Celtics and played with us. Mark Price too. We had an amazing group of guys. That was one of the coolest times of my life. We went on these road trips where it was literally 14 games in 15 nights in the month of November.
The experience had a huge influence on you?
DN: You see guys like Lorenzo, who I had followed because he was with my dad with the Milwaukee Bucks. And he was really good. And all of a sudden you play against that caliber of competition and that is the reality, the wake-up call. Man, there is no way I can ever don an NBA uniform. I could play every political card in the book and it’s not going to happen [laughs]. That’s when I really focused in on the craft of scouting.
Who did you lean on to learn about talent evaluation?
DN: It really dates back to junior high and high school. It’s choosing teams, whether it’s on a sandlot or on Saturday morning with everyone up on the chain fence, you’re always doing that in your mind. I need a point guard. Oh, he would be a good support player. Whenever you’re doing that, subconsciously you’re putting together a team. We all do it. When you’re a captain of a team, coaches always pick your brain on stuff so you start thinking like a coach. They bounce things off you like matchups. And I played for so many coaches and had gone to many camps, high schools, AAU type things. Just by being exposed like that in sport you are kind of subjected to all that cool stimulus. It’s kind of osmosis.
If you love the sport it almost takes on its own life. That certainly helped. And I just had so much basketball. Between my junior and senior year summers, I went to basketball camps every week. Worked them and got paid as a counselor. We played at night. I was addicted to the game. Loved to play and loved all facets. And then after hours you have a dad who is a coach in the NBA that played for the Celtics and you’re looking at these guys and their work ethic and teamwork. Back then, they were winning championships and I would find myself in Red Auerbach‘s office with him and his cigar and all the names in the league on the board. I’ve been just spoiled rotten when you think about. I’ve been subject to all this cool stuff.
Tell me about your transition to scouting and working for NBA teams.
DN: I kind of got thrown into it. My mom talked me into playing for Athletes in Action when I was a freshman in college. I kicked and screamed and didn’t want to do it. My mom said it would be good for me, I’d get to travel – blah blah blah. So I reluctantly went as a summer trip. First year, we went to South America. I was there for a month. We did this tour where we played in Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina. From the top of the continent all the way down. Looking back, that was one of the formative months of my entire life. I was seeing all of these different cultures and different styles of basketball, different styles of play. That one trip I reluctantly went on, the trip that good old mom talked me into, probably changed the course of my entire life. Because I went on that tour and had such a blast, I went back.
My junior and senior year, we went to the former Soviet Union and that is where I met Sarunas Marciulonis and locked horns with him, holding him to 40 points [laughs]. I’m a really a relational person. One of my real advantages is that I’m really curious about other people. I like to get to know people and different cultures – I’m kind of a social butterfly. The start of my relationship with Sarunas is what thrust me into a position with the Warriors. My relationship with Sarunas was really why we were able to acquire him. It was really through Athletes in Action. I went on four one-month long summer tours. I had been with them through college, so they had asked me to try out for the full time team. I still wanted to try at the NBA thing and that was a great stepping stone because no other NBA team had given me a call. We played the Soviet National Team in a three-game series. We played in the Forum, Arco Arena and the San Diego Sports Forum. That’s when we had all those guys like Romar and Mark Price. We beat them two out of three times. When those guys came and I had a chance to spend 10 days with the National Team, that’s really when I developed my relationship with Sarunas, Alexander Volkov – all those players. We were able to draft Sarunas and later on down the line, acquire his rights. It was relationships and friendships built through those international exchanges.
Seeing Sarunas back then must have made you wonder if there were other great talents around the globe.
DN: No question. When I went to South America, there wasn’t much there. But when I went to Lithuania and you’re playing against Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sarunas and all these players. I grew up watching the Celtics’ practices and games. I knew what an NBA player looked like. I knew what an NBA player was. When I was over there, I called the Warriors and I was like, ‘Man there are a couple players over here that we have got to jump on.’ When you’re the young wet behind the ears guy, everything you say is taken with a grain of salt. You just don’t have the experience as the other guys. When Sarunas subsequently came over and they played against us and the McDonalds Open and things like that, that’s when the Warriors staff was like, ‘Hey this kid might not be all crazy.’
How good was Sarunas back then?
DN: Oh, man. He was a bull. At 6-5, the things that he could physically do were off the charts. I will never forget his rookie year, Chris Mullin was really young. Mully can tell you this. Mully was in the weight room with Mark Grabow, who still works with the Warriors. Mully was bench pressing. Couple 45s, I forget what he was doing. Sarunas walks in and says to Mully, ‘Let me show you something.’ He takes the weight that Mully was benching on his back and rips it off the rack and straight arms it five times. Mark’s jaw dropped. Physically, he was a specimen. The thing about Sarunas is that everybody hated to guard him. It didn’t matter if it were a Warriors practice or NBA game. He just absolutely punished you. He really was a prototypical two-guard. Problem with us back them was we had Mitch Richmond, Hardaway and Mully—the old Run TMC days, so there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity there.
The other thing was the NBA game was so much different. Culturally, all those guys had to go through some major transitions. It’s not just showing up and putting your shorts on and playing basketball. There should really be a book written about those early players – Vlade, Sarunas, Petrovic. Up until those guys got drafted – I remember the meetings where scouts would be sitting around and the Europeans would come up. And the old scouts would say, ‘The last European to come through here was Georgi Glouchkov. He was the best player in all of Europe and we ran him off. He couldn’t stand the heat and went back to Europe. They can’t guard and they’re not good enough, tough enough.’ Those guys that came over first, they were put to the NBA test. If you ask the Dirks and the Gasols and the Kirilenkos, I think those guys owe a little debt of gratitude to that first force that came over because they kind of paved the bridge.
So years later it’s the 1998 draft, Paul Pierce and Dirk are on the board. Did you have to lean on your experiences with international players to pass on the sure thing in Pierce for what you believed could be possible with Dirk?
DN: Oh, yeah. Look, nobody bats 1000. We all have the ones we would like to forget. When you have Dirk’s frame, his mentality, those are the ones that are easy. Those are the players that are really hard to screw up on. Certainly there is risk. The risk with Dirk was that he was so young at the time. Believe me, we knew. We had Paul Pierce and Dirk ranked in the Top 3 of that draft, so you can imagine when it got down to No. 9 and they were both still on the board. My dad knows about rebuilding like anyone’s business. He did it in Milwaukee, did it in Golden State. He knew more than anyone in the room, that when he selected Dirk, it was going to be a painful process and there’s a pretty good chance you don’t survive it. Especially when a kid is so young. He’s from Division II middle of Germany. Marciulonis played in big-time games, had a body that was fully developed. He wasn’t afraid of anything, that guy stood up against Russian tanks.
With Dirk, it’s almost like a kid from American suburbia. Yeah, he has skill and the mindset but still, you have to be patient for two years. And you’re going to get your butt handed to you until this kid matures. That was the last thing Dallas wanted to hear. They hadn’t made the playoffs in like 10 years and we’re preaching patience. What flashed in my dad’s eyes that draft night was that Paul Pierce is a ready made, here and now product from right up the road. He was the sure fire thing. The safe money would have been on Paul, he steps right in. The smart money is on Dirk because he is 7-feet and Paul is 6-6. They are both great players but it is so incredibly hard to get size and skill in this league. People kill for it. They both are 1 and 1A in that draft. Believe me when I say we were just happy to survive with Dirk [laughs]. People put their necks on the line. Dirk first and foremost. He could have played in Europe for another two or three years. He took the majority of the risk. But there were a lot of guys in that draft room that put ‘em out on the table too.
Your organization’s relationship with Dirk is unlike anything in the league. Part of that is the result of what you guys have all been through together and your great relationship with his mentor Holger Geschwinder. Did you rely on those deep bonds when Dirk tested free agency last summer? Publicly, you said there was no doubt that Dallas would re-sign him.
DN: I put up a brave face. It wasn’t until he put his name on the dotted line that I was able to exhale. Look, we’ve been through a lot of wars together. Mark [Cuban] embraced Dirk, me and my dad in our darkest hour. We had not turned the corner when he came in. He had every reason to say we’re going to change gears, need a fresh start. My dad had told me the thing about doing it right is a lot of times you don’t get to complete the job. When we drafted Dirk, we thought maybe we survive it, maybe we don’t. Mark stepped in, sees it, gets it. I remember it like it was yesterday, man. He bought the team and Dad and I were waiting for pink slips. He walked into my dad’s office in T-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He’s like, ‘You guys are battle fatigued and I’m going to take everything to another level.’ And he did. The whole point is, when you forge relationships like that, there is trust that’s built up. Those are things that you don’t easily forget. For me, never. That’s why I’m not going anywhere until Mark gets tired of looking at me because I will never forget what he did for us that day.
So if Dwyane Wade and LeBron had targeted Dirk as who they wanted to play with in Miami, you guys could have been in trouble?
DN: You just don’t know. It’s the enemy that you can’t see. You have no idea who is over that hill. Or is it just two of us and two of them, where our chances are good? I think what we felt good about was the kind of person that Dirk was. The kind of loyalty that he had not just to the organization, but the city. Dallas is really Dirk’s home besides Wurzburg, Germany. He’s been here a long time and has adopted and embraced this community. The community has loved him. That is what you’re hopeful for. But at the end of the day, it’s a freedom of choice, that’s what makes this country great. Dirk could have gone a number of different directions, but he chose friendship and loyalty. To me those are the most important things in life.
From a business perspective alone, it’s remarkable that a superstar of Dirk’s stature is not represented by a traditional agent or massive sports agency. I never see him out there promoting anything.
DN: Dirk is a small town, home grown kid that never forgot his roots. He is with the same folks that were with him when he was nobody. And that’s what really makes it refreshing. I mean, his agent is the guy that taught him basketball. It’s really a throwback, one of the really cool stories in sport and I don’t think it’s done enough. In a day where people see themselves corporations and as icons – guys who want a sporting career but need to get their foot in the music industry or movies. Dirk is a good old fashioned guy who spends umpteen hours a day in the gym. You seldom see him on TV promoting anything. He doesn’t care about that stuff. And that’s really refreshing.
Are you confident that Dirk will be healthy enough to make it through the season?
DN: Dirk is gaining his health daily and I’m sure he will make it through the season.
What will Peja Stojakovic bring to the Mavs?
DN: Peja is a pro with lots of playoff experience – that’s always a premium. He has to be guarded at all times and that will open up penetration and post ups.
Where is Peja health wise?
DN: He’s regaining his form. He hasn’t done contact practices lately but is gaining by the day.
Surely Peja had a few suitors. Why do you think Dallas won out?
DN: He and Dirk are friends and we’ve got one of the top teams in the league. I think it was a combination of the two.