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Turmoil Costs Nelson Knicks’ Job

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what is becoming an annual rite for both parties, Don Nelson was fired Friday by the New York Knicks.

For Nelson, the NBA’s only three-time coach of the year, it was the second firing in 13 months, having been terminated by the Golden State Warriors last February. For the Knicks, it was the second star coach they had gone through in nine months, having seen Pat Riley resign last June.

In the Bay Area, Nelson was undone by a feud with one star player, Chris Webber. In New York, he was undone by an entire team that never bought into his open-court program after years of glory under the buttoned-down Riley.

“It became very obvious that we needed to go in another direction,” Knick President Ernie Grunfeld said. “The team was in a downward spiral. We’re not the same as we used to be.

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“You want a coach to have a passion for the game and a competitive desire for it. We’ve lost the work ethic. We lost our signature--defensive rebounding--and we have to get back to that.”

Nelson’s assistant, Jeff Van Gundy, 34, was named to succeed him. Van Gundy has never been a head coach in the NBA or college; Nelson inherited him from Riley’s staff, on which he was a junior assistant.

The Knicks began the Van Gundy era Friday with a 100-92 loss to the lowly 76ers at Philadelphia, as Jerry Stackhouse scored 29 points, including two three-point shots in the final minutes.

At 34-26, New York fell into a tie with Cleveland and Atlanta in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks are 4-10 since the All-Star break, including a lifeless performance at home Tuesday in a 105-88 loss to the Clippers, after which Patrick Ewing said, “In the past, we’ve always kicked butt and taken names. Now it’s the other way around.”

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Nelson had been at odds with Ewing, a Riley loyalist, and Anthony Mason, who often lashed out even though the new coach had promoted him to the starting lineup and made him a primary option in the offense.

Last week was dominated by Nelson’s impasse with John Starks, once the team’s No. 2 scorer and another Riley favorite.

Starks suffered a knee injury shortly after playing in his first All-Star game in 1994 and returned to play throughout a 25-game postseason, the longest in NBA history.

Nelson benched Starks on a recent West Coast swing. Starks, playing as a reserve, has complained bitterly since, calling Nelson a “nightmare,” vowing their rift “can never heal.”

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Nelson wasn’t available for comment but saw it coming.

“I’ve been kicked in the teeth . . . roughed up, and I’m still standing,” he said after Thursday’s practice. “That’s what it’s all about, right? You’ve got to get tough.

“Change has to happen to this team, and I could very well be part of that change. And that would be acceptable on my part. I’ve been around long enough now to understand those kinds of things. There has to be a lot of changes, and there will be.”

Nelson was making $2 million a year on a two-year guaranteed contract, making him second in annual compensation only to Riley at $3 million.

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“I really didn’t see this move coming at all,” Van Gundy said. “I feel badly that it didn’t work out for Don, but at the same time I’m really honored that the Knicks placed their confidence in me. Ernie came by to talk to me this morning, and I was shocked, really. And he told me it won’t be an interim label. I’ll be evaluated at the end of the season.”

Said Grunfeld: “He’s hungry, he’s extremely respected, and he’s been with this organization for seven years under some great coaches. He’s hard working, and the players respect that and can relate to that.”

From Miami, Riley expressed surprise over the dismissal of Nelson.

“He has a team that is 10 games over .500. Despite some injuries, they are right in the thick of things,” Riley said. “Nellie is a good coach. To bring him in for five months, now this, is surprising.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Starts and Finishes

A look at the regular-season coaching record of Don Nelson, listing his first and last season with each team and career record: *--*

Season Team W L Pct. 1976-77 Milwaukee 27 37 .422 1986-87 Milwaukee 50 32 .609 1988-89 Golden State 43 39 .524 1994-95 Golden State 14 31 .311 1995-96 New York 34 25 .576 Totals 851 629 .575

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