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Former Warriors coach Don Nelson finally will get Iowa college degree

This news story was published on April 1, 2012.
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By Mark Emmons, San Jose Mercury News –

Former Warriors coach Don Nelson is counting down the days to a life-defining achievement — a moment that he has long awaited.

Entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame? Well, that too. He will be announced Monday as part of this year’s class of inductees.

But Nelson, the NBA’s all-time winningest coach, really is looking forward to another upcoming ceremony. He’s finally going to receive his college degree 50 years after he left the University of Iowa. It’s not one of those honorary diplomas, either. Nelson even plans to walk in the May 12th commencement ceremony wearing the traditional cap and gown to accept his bachelor’s degree in physical education.

“I’m excited about that because it’s so important to me,” Nelson said. “Got all my kids and grandkids coming. We’re going to have a party.”

This has become a banner year for Nelson. He and wife Joy are living in Maui now, and Nelson, 71, seems to have accepted that his coaching days are in the rear-view mirror.

He made a failed effort last year to get the Minnesota Timberwolves job, and said recently he views himself as retired after having last coached the Warriors in 2010. He seems happy tending to his business holdings, which include properties in Hawaii, and hanging out with good friends in Maui, including country legend Willie Nelson.

While he certainly has the resume, Nelson didn’t gain admission into the Hall of Fame until the fifth time he was nominated.

Nelson had 1,335 career victories in 31 seasons and three times was named the NBA’s coach of the year. He was a legendary innovator, often finding ways to win with smaller, outmanned rosters. He revolutionized the game with the “point-forward” concept and entertained fans with a fast-paced style that produced the Warriors’ beloved Run TMC teams featuring, Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin.

But Nelson never won an NBA championship as a coach. Also, he could be a controversial figure who created drama and feuds everywhere he went. He could sometimes act the part of a bully. That explains, at least in part, why he was made to wait.

“One year I was beat out by Dick Vitale,” Nelson said laughing.

While his Hall status wasn’t known until last week, when Nelson spilled the beans ahead of the official announcement, he quietly had been planning another big event: His graduation.

Back in 1962, Nelson was a big man on the Iowa campus. A self-described would-be hog farmer, even then Nelson had come a long way from spending his early years on his grandfather’s Illinois farm. There, he first shot basketballs into a spokeless bicyle wheel nailed to a shed in a chicken yard.

As a Hawkeye, Nelson ended his career as the school’s leading scorer and was a two-time All-American. But when he was drafted 19th by the NBA’s Chicago Zephrys, he was 10 credit hours short in Spanish of getting his degree.

“I didn’t want to take Spanish back then because I thought I would fail,” Nelson said. “So I always pushed it off. Finally it was the only thing that I didn’t have. I figured that I would always go back and get it. But by then I was doing different things.”

That included playing in the NBA. After one season with the Zephrys, he played two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers before becoming a key role player during the Boston Celtics’ glory years.

He won five titles with Boston, and made one of the franchise’s most storied shots — the foul-line jumper hit the back of the rim, bounced straight up and down through the rim — late in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals to help the Celtics beat the Lakers.

Nelson picked up six course hours during his playing days in Boston. He also took a couple of correspondence classes when his coaching career took him to Golden State. But Nelson was under the impression that he still was shy of the hour requirement. He also hadn’t done the required student-teaching.

He forgot about it until after leaving the Warriors after his second coaching stint with the team. A former Hawkeye teammate, Joel Novak, who later became a judge in Iowa, contacted school officials and they determined that Nelson actually had enough credit hours.

“And they decided that I really didn’t need to go and teach because I had taught in the NBA for 35 years,” Nelson said.

Hall of Fame voters agreed that all those years of coaching deserved to be rewarded.

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