Don Nelson spent nearly 50 years in the NBA, a very long time to be in any line of work. Yet as he makes the media rounds this week before he enters the Hall of Fame on Sept. 7, he makes it clear he wanted at least one more year in Golden State before owner Joe Lacob paid him $6 million to take his ball and go home in 2010 before training camp opened. Nellie — the NBA’s winningest coach — eventually did just that. Now, he’s having a hell of a great time at his adopted Maui home by the sounds of it, thank you very much.
In meeting with reporters in Oakland on Tuesday, Nelson described his life out of basketball. It involves shave ice, wedding receptions, agriculture, cottage rentals and poker with celebrities. It doesn’t sound much like “retirement” by a generic definition; he’s more of an entrepreneur at 72 than most undergrads at your college’s business school. Basically, he’s running his equivalent of Run TMC small ball on Maui’s business community — The San Jose Mercury News writeup also slips in a mention of a dog food venture — with several small enterprises firing off all at once. And when he’s not doing those things, he’s playing poker with Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson. That is a completely accurate paragraph.
“It’s a simple little business, but it’s attractive because when people go to Maui, they like to have shave ice,” said Nelson, who recently bought a shop in the small Hawaiian town of Paia where he lives with his wife Joy. “You shave the ice, put some juice on it and then sell it for four bucks. It’s 95 percent profit.”
He owns rental cottages and other buildings on Maui. (The shave ice shop rented space from him before he bought it.) He has broken ground on a 4,000-square foot hall for receptions after wedding ceremonies are held on his beach.
He has a 22-acre farm where he grows koa and olive trees, flowers and coffee beans, which he turns into “Nellie’s Coffee” brew.
“We put it in a contest with 19 entries and finished fourth,” Nelson said. “So we make the fourth-best coffee on Maui.”
He’s also helping a friend with a business that will manufacture products like watches and bicycles — which mostly are made overseas now — in the United States. They intend to open a plant in Detroit.
Another season of adding to his 1,335 career wins, and even faster his 1,0063 losses, would have been marginally worth it for Nelson to have spent another year coaching. He could have padded his record but for what, to hear hundreds more “no defense” complaints for the trouble? He says he has an affinity for taking on bad teams and turning them around, but the Warriors were (are, seemingly always will be) nowhere near earning him his long-sought coaching title. And it’s not as if it was purely a “one more year” scenario at the time; if the W’s had broken .500, maybe he comes back for a second or third of average basketball. Lacob’s move hasn’t exactly ushered in a new era of success with Mark Jackson as coach, but maybe it was the right move to get Nellie away from his life in basketball and another season of vainly chasing his white whale with a bad team.
He certainly seems very content with his life on the islands. Oh, the Wilson-Nelson-Nelson-Harrelson group meets up to play poker three times a week now.
What do you think of Nellie’s legacy?
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