Riding Shotgun With Mavs GM Donnie Nelson
The whirlwind summer of the Dallas Mavericks has been under-documented, I might argue, because the labor dispute has created a fog of the gorgeous picture and a muzzle on the lovely sound. But there has been beauty-pageant judging and moneyed-sponsorship touring and first-pitch throwing and camera-mug appearing everywhere from ESPN to CNN.
And then there is the unassuming Nelson, certainly a co-architect of 11X50-to-title but perpetually happy one step beyond the klieg light.
"I assume,'' I tell him, "you get that from your mother.''
Donnie's two best-known bosses are, of course, his father, the legendary basketball man Don Nelson, and Mark Cuban, the high-profile owner of the Mavs. Donnie is a similarly larger-than-life personality. (His greatest accomplishment, I think, topping a lengthy list: Avoiding becoming the human tug-of-war rope between the two powerhouses.) But he makes his impact in ways that don't require cameras. He does it with handshakes, hugs and hustle.
"I used to tell the guys down in San Antonio, with all their championships, ‘All I want is one!'' Donnie says as he carefully puts the car in gear. "I guess I lied. I want more.''
Nelson is prohibited from making contact with any Mavs players, of course, the penny-wise offshoot of the NBA labor dispute. But he's quite likely the most connected man in basketball – and maybe beyond that. Many seek his counsel. His business interests are extensive. He hasn't an enemy. So he's got plenty of people to talk to and plenty to do.
"I've got to occupy myself somehow,'' he jokes when I mention a 24-period last weekend during which he attended a Roughriders baseball game, took in an event at the Mesquite Rodeo, hitched a ride on country singer Danny Griego's 18-wheeler tour bus, met with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, sipped a beer at Gilley's, orchestrated plans for a tryout camp for the D-League Legends team he owns, oversaw a Firemen-vs.-Policemen charity basketball game, packed for a scouting trip to Europe and waited to hear from Texas Legends coaching candidate Bruce Pearl.
(That happened a few hours later: Pearl announced Tuesday he is staying in Tennessee to work as an exec with H.T. Hackney, a grocery company. "Donnie Nelson was unbelievably gracious and provided a terrific opportunity,'' Pearl tells ESPN today. "I really thought that was what I was going to do. But I couldn't leave my children. … He's a father and he understood.'')
Yes, Donnie Nelson is a father and he's mixing in time to do that, too. In fact, he just made an executive decision regarding his son, D.J., who is technically the owner of this shiny black race car … even though the 17-year-old has yet to actually drive the beast.
"I made a deal with D.J.,'' Donnie says as he guides the auto down a suburban street. "I told him he could buy a car, and we agreed to a budget. We agreed it had to be used, it had to be American-made, stuff like that. So he really goes to work on it. He gets on Craigslist, finds the car, shows me a photo – but just a head-on photo, and it was kind of blurry.
"So I arrange for a one-way trip to the Ozarks to go get the car. Now, I'm not really a car guy. It doesn't occur to me what we have here until I'm actually on my way back to Dallas. And man, this car doesn't know now to not go 80. You think you're going 20 miles-per-hour and you're going 80.
"And you think I'm going to put a 16-, 17-year-old boy behind the wheel of this monster?'' So, if D.J.'s year in high school goes well, he'll get his car. For now, the kid is driving Dad's pickup truck. And Donnie is in control of "the suicide machine.''
And in a basketball summer that seems like it's plodding along at 20 mph, somehow Donnie Nelson is nevertheless going 80.