Don Nelson sat alone with his thoughts in a hallway, far from the assembling crowd at Oracle Arena. The Warriors soon would take the court against the Dallas Mavericks, but Nelson had a few minutes to savor his pregame ritual of a good cigar.
He looked tired. But despite an early-season bout with pneumonia earlier this season and a balky back that went out this month, the 69-year-old coach insisted his health is good.
Much more painful is the losing.
"When you struggle through a difficult year like this, you really appreciate how hard it is to get a win in the NBA," said Nelson, who by now should have been on the verge of becoming the league's all-time winningest coach. "It's hard to go through a bad year."
Nelson didn't expect these Warriors to be a playoff team. Nor did he think the deck would be stacked so high against him — and Nelson is a man who loves his poker.
But injuries, youth and questionable personnel decisions have conspired to produce a 14-37 record. It has sapped the fun out of what should be a capstone to Nelson's remarkable NBA career.
Wednesday night's rout of the Los Angeles Clippers moved Nelson to within 10 victories of passing Lenny Wilkens for No. 1 on the all-time wins list. But at their current pace — the Warriors have a .275 winning percentage and 31 games left — Nelson might not reach the mark this season. And it's not certain he'll be back next season.
"I intend to be back because I'm under contract," Nelson said, "but I won't be coming back just for the record if I don't get it this year. Nobody has told me that they don't want me back. But we're all hired to be fired. I understand that's part of the deal. When you coach a team with a bad record for two years, you're vulnerable."
He took a puff on his cigar.
"And if I get fired and don't get the record, I would be fine with that. The team needs to do what they have to do as an organization. It's not my decision to make."
Nelson let that hang in the air with the smoke.
Things have changed
A coach not named Don Nelson might have been fired already.
It's a joyless atmosphere around the Warriors these days — a far cry from three springs ago when they hosted the NBA's wildest party with their improbable playoff run.
But the "We Believe!" T-shirts have faded. Also fading is the patience of famously loyal fans, who now are monitoring persistent reports that much-criticized owner Chris Cohan is possibly ready to sell.
This season probably was over before it began. Stephen Jackson, the team captain, got himself traded. Then came a series of injuries that have forced the Warriors to employ four Development League players, one short of an NBA record.
(The Warriors are hardly blameless in this regard; they traded for three players who already were injured: Raja Bell, Speedy Claxton and Devean George.)
Even with the innovative Nelson, there's not enough to work with here.
"When you get old and have a lot of knowledge, it's easier to coach a good team where you can use it," Nelson said. "When you coach a team like this one, you can use maybe only 10 or 15 percent of that knowledge. You can't make it too complicated because they're too young. You can't do the things with average players that you can do with really good players."
Along with the losses the last two seasons have come some attacks on Nelson's character. The Warriors' well-chronicled front-office dysfunction included the ouster of general manager Chris Mullin, Nelson's former star who brought his old coach back to Oakland. While that was happening, Nelson received a two-year, $12 million contract extension — leaving him open to accusations of Machiavellian behavior.
Nelson's reaction has been to censor himself. His once entertaining, give-and-take sessions with the media now are brief, dreary affairs.
"I didn't used to be like this, but the press has totally changed," he said. "Everybody is looking for sensationalism, big headlines and clicks on their Web sites. Everything is blown out of proportion. No matter what you say, everybody takes it as a negative. You're better off not saying as much."
He recalled making a joke before a game in New York about not starting rookie Stephen Curry because he didn't have any tattoos.
"I thought that was a funny line, but the press killed me," he added. "Nobody seems to have a sense of humor anymore."
Despite the tough season, Nelson said he likes the players and staff. He takes pride that the team has been competitive most nights. Last Monday's loss to Dallas was an example. The undermanned Warriors dominated before running out of gas late in a 127-117 loss.
"That's why I'm doing OK, even if I don't look like it," Nelson said. "I love competing, going out there and trying to beat somebody. Cards. Golf. Anything else I can compete against you at, I'll give you a run."
A grand run
Nelson's run, even if it does end with a whimper and not a bang, has a grand sweep.
He grew up on his grandfather's Illinois farm where his first "court" was a chicken yard with a spokeless bicycle wheel nailed to a shed for a basket. It wasn't until the family lost the place, and Nelson moved as a middle-schooler to Rock Island, Ill., that he fell in love with basketball. It took him to the University of Iowa and, from there, a 14-year NBA playing career that included five titles with Boston and a 31-year coaching career.
"I know how far I've come from being a hog farmer," Nelson said. "I've come a long, long way from being some country kid. I got in the fast lane, and I've stayed there a long time. I've done pretty well. So yeah, it's something to look back on. I just don't like to talk about it much."
That includes Wilkens' record of 1,332 coaching victories.
"He never brings it up," center Ronny Turiaf said. "Zero. None. Nada. Ever. Not even one time have I heard him mention it."
But Dallas owner Mark Cuban — Nelson's ex-boss and frequent antagonist — said no one should be fooled.
"That's just his shtick, saying 'Other people deserve it more than I do,' " Cuban said. "But deep down I know it means a lot to Nellie. He just won't tell you."
Cuban added that while he continues to have his differences with Nelson, "I hope he gets the record because he's truly changed the game of basketball. He deserves it."
It also could be said that Nelson, with three NBA Coach of the Year awards, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. That distinction also is in waiting. He was announced Friday as one of 19 finalists for the 2010 Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame class.
"I've never won a title, and I think that means quite a lot to a selection committee," Nelson said. "Either way, I'm at peace with it."
Finding peace with losing, though, is different. His wife, Joy, and two dogs help keep his spirits up. Spending the All-Star break at his home in Maui won't hurt, either.
"I don't mean to sound blasé or ungrateful about the record," Nelson said. "I do understand what it means to accumulate that many wins and how hard it is."
Then Nelson relit his cigar.
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.
FULL NAME: Don Arvid Nelson
BORN: May 15, 1940, in Muskegon, Mich.
NBA PLAYING CAREER: Fourteen seasons ... Averaged 10.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 1,053 games ... Drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962 (19th overall) ... Won five NBA championships (1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976) in 11 seasons with Boston Celtics.
NBA COACHING CAREER: First became head coach when promoted in November 1976 to head coach/director of player personnel for Milwaukee Bucks ... Currently in 31st season, owns a 1,323-1,044 record, second in all-time overall wins to Lenny Wilkens (1,332-1,155).