Golden State Warriors

Party Like It’s 1994

    Tuesday was already shaping up to be a great day for the Bay Area.  The A’s continued to pull away in the AL West, the Giants inched closer toward the NL Wild Card, the Raiders were enjoying their 4-0 preseason record, and the new Too Short album was set to hit stores.  Fun for the whole family.  And yet by 9 AM, all anyone could talk about was a 66-year-old man coming out of retirement (no, not Jeff George).  After 12 brutal years, Don Nelson has finally returned as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, singlehandedly saving the team’s most disappointing offseason in years.    All of a sudden, no one is saddened that the Warriors were denied the chance to overpay Al Harrington or Chris Wilcox.  Failing to rent Ron Artest for 8 months before his next meltdown no longer seems like a missed opportunity.  And for the first time in over a year, Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O’Neal are no longer considered to be the only men capable of turning this team around.  Somehow, the Warriors managed to find someone who just might be able to win with the players currently on the roster, a feat only a precious few coaches would even dare dream possible (the short list: Emilio Estevez, Gene Hackman, Walter Matthau, the guy who played Lou Brown in “Major League”).  And unlike any player the team could have brought in, Don Nelson isn’t likely to be steamrolled by the Warriors’ losing culture.  After all, he’s the reason that culture exists.

    For those of you who don’t remember, Don Nelson was the head coach around these parts the last time the Warriors made the playoffs.  And if you don’t remember those days, there’s really no logical reason for you to be supporting this team (who are you people , and why haven’t you sought help?).  Nellie was the coach back in the days of short shorts, blue and yellow unis, and Run TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin).  But aside from the catchy nicknames and the charismatic burger commercials, the absolute best part of Nelson’s tenure was how it felt to be a basketball fan in the Bay Area: he made it fun.  And not just fun in the way that sports are always fun when your team is winning; this was different.

    The return of Don Nelson to Oakland means the return of basketball as the good lord intended it: rally car offense, no defense, and mismatch schemes you wouldn’t experiment with in a video game.  By now, Nelson’s reputation around the league is such that you half expect to see 7-footers running the point, midgets fighting for position in the low block, bears juggling at halfcourt, and sea otters tipping in layups with their noses during his games.  The man supposedly turns games into everything short of a three-ring circus.  But right now, that circus sounds like the best ticket in town.  I can’t wait to see 12 assistant coaches on the bench, teaching the finer points of the hook shot to the twin 8’9″ yetis Nellie unearthed in the Andes while on vacation.  I want to see a head coach roaming the sideline who looks like he woke up an hour before the game, hung over and wearing the same suit for the third straight day.  And I’m definitely looking forward to watching Nelson try to turn Monta Ellis into a human bullet.  These are the intangibles the Warriors’ new coach brings to the table.

    And because of the good vibes that seem to permeate throughout any arena Don Nelson calls home, Warriors fans are willing to overlook minor deficiencies like “poor rebounding” and “defense that couldn’t hold my dead grandmother under 50 points”.  Quite frankly, we just miss the man’s style.  And we miss having players who enjoy that style as much as we do.  Because in our minds, no matter how many Mavericks or Kings popped up throughout the league, it always felt like they were stealing our style of play.  It was our fun those other teams were having.  And worst of all, one of those teams was doing it with our coach.  While Nelson’s Mavs were busy unleashing Nash & Nowitzki on the league and holding nightly 3-point shooting contests, Warriors fans were just grateful if their team managed to be entertaining in defeat.  But that’s all changed now.  If we lose now, it will be because we lost our way.  And when Nellie’s involved, “losing our way” typically means losing 4 striaght times in the first round of the playoffs, rather than losing 50 times over the course of the regular season.  And really, that’s all we’ve ever asked for.

    To announce Nelson’s hiring, the Warriors are holding a public press conference Wednesday night, which means the Pope could stop by for a visit and no one would notice.  There figures to be at least a few thousand people gathered at The Arena on Wednesday, desperate for the chance to see the man who last led the Warriors to the Promised Land, anxious to hear anything that might justify their newfound excitement.  Everyone likes to see an old gang get back together, which is really what this amounts to for the Warriors.  With so many of Nelson’s former players now working for the franchise, nearly every relevant personality from the early 90’s glory days is back in the fold.  None of them will score a point, of course, or even so much as step foot on the floor, but the basketball knowledge is still there.  This is still the same Don Nelson who dug up Hardaway, Latrell Sprewell, and Sarunas Marciulonas from the nether regions of the draft, and saw something in Dirk Nowitzki that everyone else missed.  In other words, this isn’t a Rolling Stones “we’re still alive, give us your money” stunt.  Nellie and his former protégés should be able to field a competitive team.

    In fact, the Warriors’ moves this summer make one wonder just how long Nelson has been in place.  Golden State’s second round pick was Serbian Kosta Perovic, about whom little is known.  Yahoo’s pre-draft scouting report indicates that Perovic is 7’2″, and describes his playing style in a brief sentence: “avoids contact at all costs”.  Not only do these two attributes make him eerily similar to every girl I had a crush on in high school, it also sounds like the prototypical Don Nelson player.  When it comes to tall, soft European players, Nelson and his son Donnie have the market cornered.  In the Smirnoff Ice commercial that is life, Don Nelson doesn’t just know Sergio, he is Sergio; no frighteningly hairy male over 6’3″ dares set foot on American soil without first speaking with Nellie.  It’s almost like Nelson is the basketball mafia, deciding who gets to come over the from the old country and who has to stay at home.  Rumor has it that Arvydas Sabonis wasn’t allowed to emigrate to America for over a decade because he refused to breed perfect little floor-vision babies with Nellie’s daughter (which is how Sarunas came to be a Warrior, interestingly enough).  If Zarko Cabarkapa wants to remain with this team, he may have a tough decision to make in the near future.

    However, there is one question that remains unanswered in the Return of Nellie’s Circus, and it’s a simple one: Why in the world would he come back?  When Nelson left the Warriors back in 1995, he and Chris Cohan split on slightly better terms than Nick and Jessica, but without any of the hottie-of-the-minute hookups in the aftermath to keep us interested.  Instead, Cohan sued Nelson when his former coach agreed to head the Knicks, and Nelson in turn vowed to never work for Cohan again.  Fast forward one decade, and without so much as a peep from either side (rumored or otherwise), Nelson is suddenly back in Cohan’s employ.  There’s more going on here than we may ever know about; money and time only heal so many wounds.  One has to think that much of the credit for this hiring belongs to Chris Mullin, who knew that Mike Montgomery wasn’t working and that the fans’ everlasting patience was starting to grow precariously thin.  So rather than wait around for the inevitable public blow-up between Monty and Baron Davis, Mullin instead made the franchise’s first pro-active move in over a decade, firing Montgomery 6 months ahead of schedule and bringing in an unbelievably popular replacement.

    (Just to throw this out there, since now’s as good a time as any: the man who may be most responsible for Nelson’s return to coaching actually has no ties at all to the Golden State Warriors.  Somewhere in south Florida, there’s a 61-year-old man enjoying his summer as King of the Basketball World, wind at his back and grease in his hair.  Maybe, just maybe, Don Nelson watched the NBA Finals this season and thought, “if that old man can still do it, so can I”.)

    But there is still some mystery surrounding Cohan, the man whose grudges know no bounds and whose list of enemies grows longer with every person he meets.  By re-hiring a very public enemy and agreeing to a personnel decision the fans actually support, Cohan defied every stereotype he had worked so hard to earn since first purchasing the franchise.  This move reeks of a PR ploy by ownership, a last-ditch effort to revive the season ticket sales that dipped when Baron Davis decided to switch to shooting guard without telling anyone.  And if I’m right, and Nellie’s hiring is simply a public relations parachute…..well, it won’t matter.  It’s still going to work.  The fans will come back, and ticket sales will be back on the rise.  And we’re not just talking about some of the fans, either.  Outside of trading for Jason Kidd, there is perhaps no other single move the Warriors could have made which would have united their fan base the way Nellie has.  At the end of an offseason in which the Warriors couldn’t afford to simply sit around and do nothing, they managed to complete a hail mary as the clock expired, grabbing the attention of even long-dormant fans who lost interest as soon as the team started losing back in the 90’s.  Don Nelson can help this franchise bridge the gap to reach all of the fans they’ve lost along the way, bringing hope that things might one day return to the way we remember them.  Beat that, Dr. Phil.  

    I realize all of this may sound bizarre to anyone who wasn’t around during Nelson’s tenure, considering he led the team to somewhat limited success.  But it’s all relative.  Because there haven’t been any winning Warriors teams in the past 12 years, and because the most positive memory anyone has of the past 30 years is a second-round exit in the playoffs, Don Nelson and Chris Mullin have become living legends, almost like very tall buddhas.  They are basketball treasures around these parts, and now they’re finally back together again.  Nellie returning is like your favorite uncle returning to the family, finally re-appearing after storming out years ago following a spat with your grandma’s senile new husband.  And maybe he’s the uncle who always seemed to come up short when it mattered most, and maybe he was always trying to hatch some new scheme, and sure, he may have been a drifter who always needed money.  None of that stuff really matters; he’s not perfect, and he never will be.  All you know is that he’s your favorite uncle, and that the family hasn’t been the same since he left.  But now he’s back, and only now can you begin to forget about the fight and why he left and everything else that’s happened in the past 12 years.  And that’s what this is all about: erasing the memory of everything that’s happened to this team since Don Nelson walked away.

    Sticking with the whole blast-from-the-past theme, the Warriors could do themselves a huge service this week by bringing back their old 1990’s logo and uniforms to coincide with Nellie’s return.  The Power Ranger gimmick has never worked, and I don’t remember anyone complaining about the team’s old look in the first place.  But if the Warriors really want to turn this into a reunion to remember, there is one more thing they can do.  If Don Nelson is truly going to return as the Pacino to Cohan’s Cameron Diaz, he’s going to need Willie Beamen by his side.  The petulant star who signified the beginning of the end for his coach.  The last remaining holdout.  The only man left to bring back, until the old gang’s finally all together.  Given this team’s recent history, a trade for Chris Webber can’t be too far off, and only then can we have some closure.  Only then can we finally begin to enjoy this team’s suck.  

    It’s been a long 12 years.

By sign_arenas

Ray was born and raised in the Bay Area, and has been addicted to the local sports scene since Luis Polonia was roaming left field for the A's. You can always pick him out of a crowd by looking for the guy in Warriors gear. Ray is the Oakland Sports Examiner at, and his work can be found at:

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