SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- In another lifetime, Don Nelson would be a drama series. Provocative and compelling, charismatic and unpredictable, he is an enduring figure who captivates an audience while splitting the screen.
They love him or they don't. They are Nellie people or Nellie detractors. He is a character or a caricature.
But then there is Lenny Wilkens, the person whose perspective matters most these days since it was his record for career coaching victories that his Golden State Warriors colleague surpassed last week.
"Listen," Wilkens said from his cell phone, his voice rising, while shopping for groceries. "I don't get into any of that (extraneous) stuff. All I know is that Nellie's a great coach and I'm happy he broke the record because he deserves it. He's a credit to this league. You don't win the number of games we did because of a fluke. It means you can coach."
"And he's a really good guy."
Tabling a conversation about that outsized persona for a moment -- and Nelson freely confesses to chronic battles with cigars and fast food -- he not only deserves kudos for breaking the record, he belongs in the Hall of Fame. On the merits.
Game tactics. Offensive ingenuity. Winning percentage. Influence on the league. Influence on the league rulebook. Guiding that nightmare of a U.S. national team (Derrick Coleman? Shawn Kemp?) to the gold medal in the 1994 World Championships.
True, his teams never won a title, but he hasn't coached title-worthy teams, either. And while the Nelson naysayers can pick at his scars and his quirks and his social skill, even those who don't care for him don't want to coach against him.
"Nellie does whatever he can to gain an edge," said Kings coach Paul Westphal, a friend and former teammate. "He's not afraid to tweak the sacred cows of the NBA, and a lot of times the more structured coaches wind up stealing from him. Even without the record, his (Hall) credentials are impeccable."
Couldn't agree more. But until Jerry Colangelo whips his Hall voters into shape, Nelson remains the only coach with 1,000 or more victories to be snubbed by the shrine in Springfield, Mass. Wilkens. Pat Riley. Jerry Sloan. Phil Jackson. Larry Brown. All have delivered acceptance speeches, as has a familiar, local Princeton legend.
"I went into the Hall because they said I developed a distinct style of play," said Kings special assistant Pete Carril, "and this is true. But so did Nellie."
One of the most intriguing elements of the Nelson Chronicles, in fact, is his ability to both dictate and adapt to changing styles and nuances. In his early years with the Milwaukee Bucks, when his squads were versatile but never as talented as the great Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers clubs, he disrupted offenses with traps and presses.
While with the Bucks, he also introduced the point forward concept and utilized Paul Pressey to initiate an offense that featured Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Junior Bridgeman and Brian Winters.
"But when you don't have good defensive players or a shot blocker," Nelson said the other day, "you find other ways to win."
With his quest for a big man forever unfulfilled, that meant offense. And more offense. And different styles of offense.
After attacking the illegal defense rules -- which he co-authored -- with a heavy dose of isolation plays during his early tenure with Golden State, Nelson largely abandoned the one-on-one style because he felt it detracted from the fluid, free-flowing nature of the game.
He instead became a proponent of "small ball," he directed the uptempo Dirk Nowitzki/Steve Nash masterpiece, and favored small lineups again in his return to Oakland.
And always, there is drama. It is said that Nelson creates distractions, often to his detriment, because he bores easily. He engaged in legal battles with owners Herb Kohl, Mark Cuban and Chris Cohan, and disagreements with Chris Webber, Stephen Jackson and Patrick Ewing, among others, were heavily publicized.
Yet consistent with Nelson's unpredictable nature, he re-signed the sore-kneed Webber for his final months and received one of his first congratulatory phone calls from Jackson.
"Everybody thinks Nellie is this big, gruff guy," said San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a close friend and former Nelson assistant, "but inside, he's a real teddy bear. He loves the camaraderie, the people in the game. He's a lifer."
Nelson, who turns 70 next month, probably has more appreciation for birthdays than most. He and his wife, Joy, are cancer survivors who were diagnosed within months of each other almost a decade ago. Close friends, in fact, continue to fret about Nelson's ongoing weight problems and acknowledge that he often appeared exhausted and demoralized this season, beaten down by the injuries and front-office upheaval that included Chris Mullin's mysterious departure.
Yet Nelson clearly has been invigorated by Stephen Curry's emergence and the surprising, belated sprint to the record. Barring an ownership change, his plan is to return for the final year of his contract. Or not. This is Nellie. One never knows.
"Watching the kids celebrating and enjoying this the way they did means everything," an emotionally drained Nelson said. "They wanted it so bad. I can't tell you how wonderful that makes me feel. The only thing I felt bad about is that it was Lenny's record, because I have so much respect for him. We go back a long, long way."
Their shared history extends beyond records and stats, and traces back to their mentor, the late Boston Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. Nelson won five NBA Championships after Auerbach plucked him off waivers. Wilkens starred at Providence and dreamed of playing for Auerbach. And it was Wilkens who snatched the NBA career coaching record 15 years ago from Auerbach, then lit a cigar in Red's honor.
Noting the unique connection among the three men the other day, Westphal, who was drafted by Auerbach out of USC, referred to Nelson as "a bridge."
"Nellie wasn't around at the beginning of this league," said Westphal, "but he was around with the people who were around. Red, the Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain era.
"He brings us a vast knowledge of what's important in this league. He's a pioneer, a maverick. Something special."