THE NBA: 1994-95 PREVIEW : Whoa, Nellie! : Perhaps the NBA's Most Innovative Coach, Warriors' Nelson Faces Change, Uncertainty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Was it Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who said, "What does not kill me makes me stronger?" or was it Jack Ramsay, the pro basketball expert on ESPN?

Don Nelson isn't sure, but what's the difference? By any standard, the coach and general manager of the Golden State Warriors has never been more powerful.

Let us count the ways:

--He's rich.

Besides his $1.3-million annual salary, the recent sale of the Warriors brought him a huge bonus--$4 million by the estimate of one source--for the share of the club he held under previous ownership.

--He has his best team, assuming he can get it on the court.

Tim Hardaway is back. Latrell Sprewell has become a star. Rony Seikaly has just come over from Miami. Nelson and Chris Webber have had a season to get used to one another, even if there's speculation Webber doesn't dig his coach and wants to know how long he'll be there before signing a new contract.

Nellie never had a young man who demanded to be spoken to in gentle tones at all times, but now he knows how sensitive today's young people can be. If there's another generation as distinct coming

after this one, Nelson isn't sure he is ready for it.

--Nelson is about to become a free agent, himself.

The Warriors have just been purchased by a 44-year-old cable TV magnate named Chris Cohan, known in underground circles as Dan Quayle because of his cherubic good looks.

Cohan just spent $100 million for the remaining 75% of this cash cow--he was previously a 25% owner--but has a problem: Nelson, who rebuilt the franchise from a grease spot on the East Bay, has an out in his contract next summer.

By next summer several teams with young stars and unproven coaches--Charlotte? Orlando?--might be looking for someone more proven. The Warriors were assembled by Nellie to play his peculiar Nellie Ball and might not be the same without him.

Prudent ownership might take him off the market at whatever price, but Cohan may hear other voices who think Nelson is a dinosaur to young players or a spendthrift general manager.

At his introductory news conference, Cohan, asked about securing Nelson, shadow boxed.

"Don and I are going to talk about that . . . right, Don?" he said.

Nelson, interested enough to have left practice in the hands of his assistants, was standing in the back of a room loaded with reporters, wearing his trademark jeans and T-shirt. Grinning, he turned his palms up and said, "All right with me."

And that's the last anyone heard of a new contract for what might have been Nelson's last exhibition season in California.

MACHIA-NELLIE AND OTHER INCARNATIONS

Who is like unto thee, oh Nellie?

Next to him, 90% in the profession are hacks who never had an idea of their own. Nelson is all originality and vision, unafraid to do it his way, or to change the way he does it, or to ask someone for help, or to listen to a suggestion whether he asked for it or not.

He is the NBA's only three-time coach of the year, despite never having been to the finals. A veritable cradle of coaches and administrators have come from his staff: Laker Coach Del Harris, Milwaukee Buck Coach Mike Dunleavy, Seattle SuperSonic Coach George Karl, University of Utah Coach Rick Majerus, Sacramento King Coach Garry St. Jean, former Portland and Clipper coach Mike Shuler, San Antonio Spur General Manager Gregg Popovich.

Secretive as his mentor, Red Auerbach, Nelson is similarly suspected of being up to something all the time--and generally is. Ideas seemingly too numerous to count spin in the Nelson noodle.

Like the great safari to Africa a few summers ago.

Hakeem Olajuwon was from Africa, wasn't he? And Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol and Yinka Dare, none of them recruited, all of them just showing up on some college's doorstep? Anyone who took the time to think about it might sense an entire continent of NBA centers waiting for a coach to steam up the river.

So Nelson enlisted Majerus, an old Bucks' assistant, and off they went.

"Do you know anything about African basketball?" Majerus says. "We didn't either. So we went over there to look. And we also each thought if there was another Olajuwon, if he was too old, he could go with Nellie. If he was young, I could get him."

The most important thing they learned about African basketball was that there wasn't much of it. Nelson and Majerus came home without an Olajuwon of any age.

This is an age-old problem for creative thinkers: A lot of your best ideas somehow just don't turn out. Nelson is still trying to prove the one about winning an NBA title with small players. He has fielded some wonderfully exciting teams, but has yet to take one into June.

Nelson once had the entire state of Wisconsin eating out of his hand. That was in the '80s, when his Bucks ran with the elite teams and he drove a tractor around the state, raising money for Nellie's Farm Fund.

But this is another place and another time. When he joined the Warriors, they had had two winning seasons--42-40 and 45-37--in nine years and were playing to an average of 10,584. He built them into a budding power that hasn't played to an empty seat in the Oakland Coliseum in five seasons but raised expectations that he has yet to deliver upon. The last two seasons were sabotaged by injury and became struggles for survival.

Nelson's sponsor with the Bucks and Warriors, Jim Fitzgerald, brought Nelson out West and gave him powers unknown for a coach since the days of Auerbach. But when Nelson, who needed some kind of big men, went down the drain with Ralph Sampson, Jim Petersen and Alton Lister, even the fatherly Fitzgerald let a previously silent partner named Dan Finnane take control of the finances.

A backstage Nelson-Finnane battle of wills resulted while people wondered why Fitzgerald would sit still for it.

Before the question was answered, Fitzgerald, who had bought the team for $18 million in 1986, sold it for $130 million.

In 17 years as a coach, Nelson has worked only one season that wasn't for Fitzgerald, whom he calls "my very best friend." That was the year after Fitzgerald sold the Bucks to Sen. Herb Kohl. Nelson bristled at Kohl's input and resigned.

Nelson appeared to struggle last season as Finnane jerked the reins. Nelson even began mentioning how apt some of his game plans had been--a marked change by a man who often refused to do interviews for features because he didn't want personal publicity. Nelson claims he knows his own worth and can handle any situation, but the record suggests he works best when he feels safest.

There's a challenge for Chris Cohan.

SON OF RED MEETS THE '90S

When Nelson began coaching, he patterned himself after Auerbach, who had seen something in Nelson when he was languishing on the bench with the Lakers, averaging 1.9 points.

Auerbach was a churl to outsiders and no day at the beach to insiders, but he cared about his people. That was the kind of program Nelson wanted and had, even if it has become harder.

"It's harder to have a family atmosphere in today's game than ever before, but it's not impossible," Nelson says. "And I think if you continually try to do that, players appreciate it.

"Maybe it's impossible in some situations, but it's not impossible here. It's harder and we can't do as good a job maybe as we did when I was in Milwaukee because of money and agents and free agency and everything else. It's harder to do it, but it's not impossible and we try to do it and probably do as good a job as anybody."

They did a great job of it until the old Hardaway-Chris Mullin-Mitch Richmond nucleus turned over.

By last season, it had become Sprewell-Webber-Mullin, with Mullin, the arch-Nellie favorite, tiptoeing around to keep from disturbing the new order.

It was said it wasn't a Nellie-type team. He had always picked his players for coachability and if he screamed at them, they understood. Now there were ruffled feelings, especially on the part of Webber. The Warriors won 50 games, but there was so much grumbling, a player--Billy Owens, the spokesman for the new breed--said that the previous season, when they went 34-48, had been easier.

"We had a lot of injuries that really caused a lot of conflicts last year but that's basketball," said Owens, who was traded to Miami on Wednesday for Seikaly. "You're going to have conflicts. You've got to get to know each other before things can smooth out.

"Last year things were all bottled up. Everybody wanted to play here and play there and a lot of things were said, but that's how a team is. I'm sure the Lakers had to get to know each other before they started to win."

Discontent bred speculation.

There were reports that Nelson was headed to San Antonio, where his old assistant, Popovich, had become general manager; to the Lakers, where Jerry West is a longtime admirer.

There will be more reports until Nelson's situation is resolved.

What happens if his players start wondering about them?

What happens if a young team with so many pieces that have to be reintegrated, that will be without Mullin for six weeks and never had Webber in the exhibition season, gets off to a slow start?

Nelson, now 54, says he wants to stay, vows he will always call the Bay Area home but looks like a man trying to figure out how best to tie a ribbon to his career, here, there, wherever.

"It's not difficult at all," Nelson says. "Whatever happens, happens.

"I'm to the point now I can do three different things in my life. I can retire, I can stay here and coach on, or if they want to make a change here, I can move on and coach somewhere else.

"It doesn't matter that much to me anymore. I want to be in a good situation. That's the first thing that's important to me, or I won't coach.

"If it is, then I love coaching and I want to continue to coach, to be part of the excitement. I think it's the most exciting business in the whole world, professional sports. I like to be part of that."

Laughing, he said, "Am I going to die early? Probably. But I tell you, there's nothing like it. When you go through it--the highs and lows, the ups and downs of it and all the rest of it . . . But one thing it is, it is exciting. And rewarding."

Get set for the most exciting, rewarding season of all. Nellie is spinning, and where he stops, nobody knows.

* NEW ARRIVAL: The Warriors acquired center Rony Seikaly from the Miami Heat in exchange for forward Billy Owens. C7

* MAGIC KINGDOM?: Orlando will see if the addition of forward Horace Grant will be enough to lead Magic to the NBA title. C7

* EASTERN CONFERENCE: C6

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