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Don Nelson finally gets his due in the Basketball Hall of Fame

By Charles F. Gardner, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks had it going in the 1980s.

Coach Don Nelson ran a finely tuned “Green Machine” that reached the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing later in Nelson’s coaching career. Still, he compiled 1,335 victories, more than any other NBA coach, over a career that spanned 31 seasons.

And finally, after being snubbed in past years, he was selected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year.

The 72-year-old Nelson will join former Indiana Pacers great Reggie Miller and other members of the 2012 class in an enshrinement ceremony Friday night in Springfield, Mass.

Sidney Moncrief arrived in Milwaukee as a rookie for the 1979-’80 season and flourished under Nelson’s tutelage. Now a Bucks assistant coach, Moncrief remembers what worked so well for those Milwaukee teams.

“Nellie knew the type of players that would fit his system,” Moncrief said Thursday. “It was like a machine. The right players, right system and right coach.

“He had players from winning college programs and the Bucks put a lot of stock in how well did your college team perform.”

Indeed, the Bucks did have players from big-time programs. Moncrief was from Arkansas. Marques Johnson came from UCLA, Junior Bridgeman from Louisville and Terry Cummings from DePaul. Brian Winters was from South Carolina.

Kent Benson, the Bucks’ top overall pick in 1977, was from Indiana. He later was traded for Bob Lanier, a Hall of Famer who played center under Nelson for five years.

Nelson won 540 games with the Bucks and more than 250 games with three different teams — the Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks.

“I think it was about drilling your system,” Moncrief said. “It was second nature. We trusted each other on the offensive and defensive end. His strength was making us understand what we were as a team.”

Nelson was known for his unconventional ways, including using Paul Pressey as a point forward with the Bucks. He had the much smaller Chris Mullin defend centers David Robinson and Mark Eaton in the playoffs when Nelson was coaching the Warriors.

“He certainly never turned over the reins to the players,” said Moncrief, who was an assistant coach under Nelson in Dallas from 2000-’03. “But he got a lot more tolerant and a lot more creative.

“When he was coaching in Dallas, Nellie’s strength was to size up situations better than most coaches, and more quickly. He was a matchup coach; he didn’t look for positions. He was one of very few coaches who saw it that way.”

Other NBA coaches have followed Nelson’s unconventional path.

Moncrief said he quickly got involved in those matchup maneuvers during his playing days.

“The primary reason I became an all-star is he (Nelson) posted me up like a center, because of my speed and jumping ability over other guards,” Moncrief said. “I was down in the paint quite a bit and didn’t mind it at all.”

Nelson was named NBA coach of the year three times, including twice with the Bucks (in 1983 and 1985). In 1996 he was named one of the top 10 coaches in league history by an elite panel of former players, coaches and executives.

But recognition as a Hall of Famer was slow in arriving. At a news conference Thursday, Nelson thanked former Bucks owner Jim Fitzgerald, who died in June, for his tireless efforts on Nelson’s behalf.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to pay homage to a dear friend of mine, Jim Fitzgerald, who was the biggest influence in my life, period, not just basketball life,” Nelson said after being introduced by former Bucks radio announcer Eddie Doucette.

“Jim Fitzgerald got me involved with my first head coaching job with the Milwaukee Bucks. I was there 11 years and worked for Jim. Then I went out to Golden State and coached another eight years for him there. Out of my 30-some odd years of coaching, over half of them were for Jim Fitzgerald.

“He’s one guy who probably wanted me to be in the Hall of Fame more than anybody I’ve ever known. He and (former Bucks publicity director) Bill King dedicated really the last five years trying to get me here.

“Whatever they did worked, because here I am. Thank you Jim Fitzgerald, and thank you Bill King.”

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