Don Nelson emerged from the Golden State Warriors locker room
all disheveled from a wild celebration after finally overtaking
Lenny Wilkens as the NBA’s winningest coach.
His gray hair was soaked to the scalp not with Dom Perignon, but
a concoction of fizzy soft drinks after a 116-107 victory over the
Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night gave Nelson win No. 1,333
for his career.
“We didn’t have any champagne bottles, so we took some Sprite
and some Mountain Dew and some water and sprayed it all over him,”
said Anthony Tolliver, who scored a career-high 34 points.
How appropriate, because the road to this record has been
anything but smooth and easy for one of the league’s true
“It’s just such a neat feeling,” Nelson said. “This is
probably why we end up coaching, for moments like this.”
In 31 seasons on the bench, Nelson is 1,333-1,061 in a career
that has made stops in Milwaukee, Golden State (twice), New York
and Dallas. He won five titles as a player, has been named coach of
the year three times, but has never made an NBA Finals as a
Through it all, Nelson has always done it his way. He’s clashed
with players, management and ownership at various stops along the
way and is the only coach with at least 1,000 career victories who
has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Nelson has built a reputation as a “mad scientist,”
experimenting with lineups and offensive sets to cater to teams
that were not always the biggest, strongest or most talented. In
his first stint with Golden State in the late 1980s, he employed
the famous “Run T-M-C” lineup of guards Tim Hardaway, Mitch
Richmond and Chris Mullin to make the Warriors one of the more
entertaining teams in the league.
And now “Nelly Ball” has its own special place in history.
“This is a tremendous honor for a great coach and we are all
thankful for the memories that he has provided us over the years,”
Warriors president Robert Rowell said in a statement. “Don’s
creativity and innovative style have proven effective for over
30-plus years in the NBA, including this season, when the team has
consistently played hard and has been extremely competitive despite
a short-handed roster the entire year.”
This has been a long season for the Warriors (24-54), who have
been ravaged by injuries and are a lock to finish with their fewest
wins since 2001-02. But in some ways, this was the perfect team to
take Nelson to the top of the record books.
The Warriors played their sixth straight game without Monta
Ellis (flu) and also were again without Anthony Randolph (ankle)
and Kelenna Azubuike (knee). Center Andris Biedrins (sports hernia)
and forward Brandan Wright (shoulder) have missed big chunks of
time this season too.
The Warriors have called up five players from the Development
League this season, which is tied with the 2007-08 Spurs for the
most in one season. Tolliver and Chris Hunter – who both played big
roles in the record-setting win – are former D-Leaguers and C.J.
Watson and Azubuike also have played there in past seasons.
“I told the team that I loved them dearly, that they were very
special to me,” Nelson said. “But sometimes they don’t play like
I want them to.”
Stephen Curry had 27 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds and a
career-high seven steals, but the Warriors let a 27-point lead
dwindle to four with 43.6 seconds left. Anthony Morrow closed the
game out at the free throw line, and the players mobbed their
69-year-old coach when the final buzzer sounded.
“For us to get the record is a big accomplishment for us,”
Curry said. “We call it our championship game.”
It was extra special for Nelson to do it in Minnesota. He has a
daughter who lives in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka and had
20 family and friends at the game, including his wife. He also said
Wilkens has been in contact with him recently as Nelson has neared
“Lenny’s been an idol of mine for a long time,” he said.
Among active coaches, Utah’s Jerry Sloan (1,188) and the Lakers’
Phil Jackson (1,095) are closest to Nelson on the list.
“There’s plenty of guys close to that if they want to coach a
couple of years,” Nelson said. “There’s coaches out there that
win 50 at a time, 60 at a time. Not like me, winning 20 at a time,
it’s a little harder.”
Nelson got his first head coaching job with Milwaukee in 1976
when he replaced Larry Costello 19 games into the season.
“I didn’t even have an assistant,” he said. “That’s how long
ago that was.”
In an industry where service time is measured in months, not
years, the achievement was not lost on Timberwolves coach Kurt
“The success he’s had, the longevity he’s had, it’s tough to be
a coach in this league and to stick around as long as he has,”
Rambis said. “To have the success that he’s had, the numerous
situations he’s been in. He’s done a great job.”
Curry, who was passed over by the Timberwolves in favor of Jonny
Flynn and Ricky Rubio in June’s draft, was sensational. He made 12
of 22 shots and ran the team like a veteran, finding Tolliver and
Hunter for easy baskets in the paint all game long.
With leading scorer Al Jefferson out because of personal
reasons, the Timberwolves didn’t have near enough offense to keep
“He hasn’t had a championship yet, so this is kind of like his
championship,” Tolliver said. “We wanted to make it as special as
NOTES: Kevin Love had 17 points and 18 rebounds for the
Timberwolves and Flynn finished with 19 points, eight assists and
six turnovers. … Hunter scored 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting. …
Love had his team-leading 35th double-double of the season. … The
Timberwolves also played without rookie Wayne Ellington, who missed
the game with strep throat.