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The Nelsons: Love and basketball
The Nelson family has jumped through hoops to be together
By BRAD TOWNSEND
Dallas Morning News
Little moments, Donnie Nelson calls them. Snapshots. Such are his
intermittent, but cherished, childhood and teenage recollections of his
Then came that jolting summer day in 1982 – the day 19-year-old Donnie
graduated from a Boston prep school and his mother, Sharon, drove him
back to the family's home in Brookfield, Wis.
Don met them at the door. He asked Sharon to come in, leaving Donnie
outside, suitcase in hand. Don led Sharon into the bedroom and, with
three words, shattered the family's world.
"Well, I'm leaving."No one would guess it, seeing the Nelsons now.
Especially Don and Donnie, side by side, coaching the Dallas Mavericks
to the NBA's best record.
Turns out, they have been part of two monumental turnarounds: the
Mavericks' and the Nelsons'.
The Nelsons' is a four-decade story of love, perseverance, heartbreak,
gradual mending and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Lawrence Jenkins / DMN
Dallas Mavericks head coach Don Nelson and assistant coach Donnie
Nelson have enjoyed a father and son reunion.
It is about a father who toiled long hours as a player, then as a coach.
A family that came to learn that Dad had "a double life," as oldest
daughter Julie calls it. And the son who at 19 became the man of the
family – and for five years rarely spoke to his father.
"It's a loss, a loss to your family," Donnie says. "You look internally
and you think, 'Geez, was it something I did?' Then you go through all
the stages of bitterness.
"I wasn't ready during those first five years to listen. In a lot of
ways, I felt dumped on."
Yet here they are now, Don, 62, and Donnie, 40, savoring professional
and personal closeness most fathers and sons can only dream of having.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban promoted Donnie to president of basketball
operations in July, and Jan. 2 marked Donnie's fifth year as one of
Dad's bench assistants.
Now the family's reconciliation has come full circle. When the Nelsons
gathered in Dallas for Christmas, Don and his wife, Joy, welcomed into
their home Sharon Nelson, the wife Don left in 1982.
A couple of Thanksgivings ago, Sharon invited Don and Joy to Wisconsin.
"Actually, I like Joy," Sharon says. "I had aunts and uncles thinking,
'Is this woman crazy?' But I always have to look at it as, 'This is the
kids' dad.' "
Basketball helped tear father and family apart but also played a role in
reuniting them, especially Don and Donnie.
"I know this story is going to be of some interest to those who are
going through divorces and have gone through them," Don says.
"Your kids, it just takes a period of time, and I'm talking years, in
which they can kind of recognize, get into relationships and marriages,
have a better understanding as they mature.
"So hang in there, dads, and continue to show your love to your kids,
and it'll eventually come around again. But it's not an easy period for
Time provides perspective. Hindsight offers clarity – not to be confused
with excuses, Don says – about his journey into fatherhood.
He grew up in humble surroundings on a farm near Sherrard, population
800, in northwest Illinois.
He didn't have the greatest relationship with his father, Arvid.
And when Don's first child, Julie, was born on Jan. 2, 1961, he
practically was a kid himself, a 20-year-old University of Iowa junior.
Sharon had Donnie in September 1962, and daughter Chris arrived a year
and four days later. Don and Sharon's next and last child, Katie, was a
comparative latecomer, born in 1967.
While his family and responsibilities swelled, Don had two All-America
seasons at Iowa. He was selected in the third round of the 1962 NBA
draft by the Chicago Zephyrs, who after that season sold his contract to
the Los Angeles Lakers, who waived him two seasons later.
Prospects? Coming off a season of averaging 2.4 points and 1.9 rebounds?
Tom Fox / DMN
Coach Don Nelson and son Donnie, an assistant coach and Mavericks executive, conferred in Don's office at American Airlines Center before an exhibition game in October.
He was 25. The only other jobs he'd ever had were manual labor: roofing,
building swimming pools, working the night shift at International
Unlike Sharon's Swedish immigrant family, the Strombecks, the Nelsons
had not prospered. Don knew poor: He attended a one-room, six-grade,
seven-student school – barefoot.
When the family lost the farm, the clan moved up to the Moline/Rock
Island area, where Arvid became a laborer for various farm-implement
companies, then at the Rock Island Arsenal. Arvid, who wanted to be a
doctor but was forced into farming by his father, did not see basketball
in Don's future.
"When Don graduated from Rock Island High School, his dad thought he
could fix watches," says Sharon, who met Don, two years her junior, in
church when she was about 16. "Can't you see Big Don sitting there with
those little glasses, fixing watches?"
Arvid and Agnes Nelson had two daughters and a son. According to Sharon,
Don couldn't please his father, who constantly lectured him, but in
Agnes' eyes, "the sun rose and set on Don."
When Red Auerbach, coach of the seven-years-reigning league champion
Boston Celtics, phoned Don during the summer of 1965 and offered a
one-year, $11,000 contract – $4,000 less than what he made as a rookie –
Don gulped and said thank you.
The player who wasn't all that fast and couldn't jump particularly high
spent 11 seasons as if the Celtics were his family's life raft.
But the current was swift, the water choppy, and Don paddled so
furiously that only sporadically did he turn to check on the kids.
"I never felt bad because that's just the way it had to be," Don says.
"I was driven by not being poor, and to have something, and to do that I
had to work all the time, do everything extra I could do as a player
because I was just average.
"That's why I have so much respect for my first wife. Man, what a job
she did of raising those kids and giving them values. She deserves 90
percent of all the credit."
Mom the driving force
With a 6-6 father and 5-8 mother, it was only natural that Donnie would
sprout to 6-4, Chris to 6-1, Katie to 6 feet, Julie to 5-11.
All were good athletes, especially Donnie and Chris. But it was Mom who
drove them to practices and games, Mom who usually applauded or
comforted them when they came off the field or court.
Both parents, the kids recall, gave them choices, encouraged them to try
extracurricular activities like drama and choir, exposed them to
Donnie didn't start playing organized basketball until fourth grade.
That was largely because the kids who lived near the Nelsons'
three-bedroom rambler in Natick, Mass., were into baseball, hockey and
"In no way, shape or form was I pushed into basketball," says Donnie,
leaning back in his American Airlines Center office chair. "I think if I
ever was, I probably wouldn't be sitting here. That's just the way I
Auerbach stepped down as Celtics coach in 1966 but remained general
manager, meaning it was still Red's way or the highway when it came to
contracts. Large raises and multiyear deals were out of the question,
even after the Celtics won titles in 1968 and '69, and Don hit a crucial
shot late in Game 7 of the '69 title series against the Lakers, the ball
bouncing high off the back of the rim and through the hoop.
File 1972 / Boston Globe
Because he wasn't a standout athlete, Don Nelson felt that he had
to work harder and ingratiate himself.
Yet Auerbach asked players to sell tickets, give Rotary Club speeches,
accompany him on summer barnstorming tours and help run his out-of-town
Don picked up an extra $50 here, $100 there, which buttressed the
family's middle-class lifestyle and meant Sharon didn't have to work.
"My memories of him were of him sleeping a lot," Donnie says. "He had no
leverage. He felt he had to ingratiate himself to the franchise.
"But he would also go out of his way to spend time with us. These are
like little moments now because he was gone a lot."
For Julie, now 42 and living in the Czech Republic with her husband and
five children, the little moments included playing hide-and-go-seek in
the dark, having a dad who seemed more demonstrative and affectionate
than most fathers.
Chris remembers the heart to hearts, the lessons she applies now as a
39-year-old mother of two and sixth-grade teacher in Chicago.
"I've written my dad letters so that he knew that even though he was
gone, he had an important impact," she says. "It was my dad who taught
me that you shouldn't be afraid of failure."
For Katie, now 36 and living near Minneapolis, Dad was a big teddy bear
who loved it when she used him as a human jungle gym and took naps on
his chest. It was Dad who taught her to read, and she laughs about the
time he tried to flood the back yard so the kids could ice skate.
And he had those silly voices, the same ones he uses now with her two
"There's just something really lovable and endearing about him. He
becomes a kid around kids."
Celtics and doughnuts
Katie felt especially close to Donnie, with whom she had shared a room
in the Natick house. To her he seemed wise beyond his years.
"When I had a problem with Dad being gone, Donnie would help me," Katie
says. "I always felt like I could go to him and he would have the
Did the only son miss having more of a relationship with his dad? His
sisters say it never showed. By junior high, Donnie was popular at
school, a multiple-sport athlete with no shortage of friends or things
And of course there were the little moments. Accompanying Dad in the old
green Buick, an Auerbach hand-me-down, listening to that same canned
three-joke speech he'd give to civic clubs.
On Saturday mornings, they'd pick up two chocolate doughnuts and two
cartons of milk for Donnie, who'd sit in the corner of the gym and watch
Celtics practice. One time, Donnie recalls with a chuckle, coach Tommy
Heinsohn stopped practice and fined his dad – a baby-sitting charge.
Sometimes, Dad would knock on Donnie's classroom door, pull him out and
take him fishing in New Hampshire with teammates John Havlicek and Steve
File 1966 / Boston Globe
Willie Naulls and Don Nelson arrive home in Boston after a team
"That's how we lived our lives," Donnie says. "It was nomadic in a lot
"Really, in a lot of ways I pitied him because he was trying to provide
under tremendous stress. I never once felt sorry for me. I never once
thought, 'Gee whiz, I'm bitter because my father can't spend time with
It was the only life the Nelsons knew. But Sharon says she was naïve
about what was happening in her marriage.
"I wasn't connecting things," she says. Perhaps she was too busy with
the kids. Most of all, she wanted to make sure their lives were grounded
in faith – in hindsight, probably the first hint of drift between family
"When you think of the wonderful Celtic dynasty, I mean, I know the
families," Sharon says. "I know the things that went on underneath.
There's a price to pay."
Says Don: "I tried to make myself be a good father, but I was gone a
lot. And being on the road a lot, of course, I got into some trouble
areas, too. That was kind of the NBA scene at the time."
Sell, ref or coach?
Don Nelson retired as a player in 1976, having made a career-high
$70,000 that season. He had a paid-off house and $10,000 in the bank.
He was 36, with four teenagers. His longtime friend and attorney, Alan
Rothman, recalls how worried Don was about college costs. He recommended
that Don hold a family summit.
Donnie remembers sitting in a Made Right restaurant in Moline, Don
saying he had three choices: sell cars, be an NBA referee, or accept an
assistant's job under Milwaukee coach Larry Costello.
Donnie liked the idea of Don selling cars because he knew that Dad would
be home more. But the family knew where Don's heart was. They voted 5-0
for the Milwaukee job, which paid $25,000.
The Bucks unexpectedly started 3-15 that season and fired Costello. Team
owner Jim Fitzgerald, on the third try, persuaded Don to take over.
Don, the scrappy, self-made, overachieving player, who had expected to
grow into coaching, now suddenly had to learn everything on the fly.
"This is what I remember of my dad during those years, all the way
through being a senior in high school: always being in the office
downtown," Donnie says. "Or when I'd come in late at night, the TV would
be on, he'd have just watched a tape and fallen asleep.
"Events that I had, he probably hit a couple a year, and it wasn't
because he didn't care. It was because he was so consumed with the
prospect of getting flushed out into the real world again."
Don built the Bucks into a perennial contender, winning seven straight
division titles from 1980 to 1986.
Julie went to nearby Wheaton College. Donnie, faster and more athletic
than his dad had been, finished high school, went to Boston's Worchester
Catholic prep and had visions of playing at Iowa or Indiana.
But that summer day in '82 changed everything.
"We drove up that driveway," Sharon says. "Don said he wanted to see me
in the bedroom, and I said, 'Sure.'
"He said, 'Well, I'm leaving.' He was always leaving, so I was asking
him how many days, because I was going to pack his bag for him."
Sharon didn't know, but Don had already broken the news to Katie, who
had just finished ninth grade.
Don says he probably should have left earlier but wanted to wait until
the kids got older.
"Then it got to the point where I couldn't wait any longer. I had to
make a move because I thought both my wife and I were very unhappy in
"She's a wonderful lady. She's just different than me, totally
Sharon says she figured Don was having a midlife crisis, so she stalled
on the divorce. It would be seven years before it was final.
On the way out the door that day in 1982, Don stopped to talk to Donnie,
who then walked inside with his suitcase, hugged his mother and sat with
her in the living room.
"Mom, we're tight," he reminded her.
'Distanced' from Dad
Donnie knew what he had to do – something he swore would never happen.
He followed Julie to Wheaton, a Division III school, to be close to home.
He calls it the best four years of his life, although he says his
relationship with Don during that time was "distanced."
Courtesy of Nelson family
Donnie Nelson had some big shoes to fill, growing up as the son of a veteran NBA player and coach.
He jumped center, played point guard, led Wheaton in scoring. The summer
after his freshman year, at Sharon's urging, he joined Athletes in
Action, a Christian basketball team that spent more than a month playing
games throughout South America.
Games were indoors, outdoors, sometimes in the rain. The players took
midnight rides in the Andes Mountains. Donnie loved it so much that he
toured with Athletes in Action for four summers.
The last trip was to the Soviet Union, where Donnie struck a friendship
with Soviet star Sarunas Marciulionis. In 1989, Donnie would persuade
him to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Thus, Donnie notes, his
reputation as the NBA's best culler of international talent can be
traced to his mother.
Katie proudly recalls the night Athletes in Action played before a Bucks
preseason game in Milwaukee. During halftime of the Bucks game, Donnie
gave a Christian testimonial.
"There were guys who were drunk and yelling stuff," Katie says. "And
Donnie stuck with it."
Donnie became both the family rock and sounding board during his
parents' separation, particularly for his mother and Katie, who enrolled
at Wheaton during Donnie's senior year.
"That's kind of when everything started coming out, this anger toward my
father," Katie says. "Donnie said, 'Kate, you've got to talk to him.' "
Donnie arranged a meeting between Katie and Don, which helped. But as
the divorce proceedings began, Katie's continued struggles led her to
see a counselor.
She sat down with her father again – this time on Christmas Day.
"Have I blown it?" he asked.
"Pretty much, Dad," she said.
He suggested calling her counselor.
"Daddy, we can't call him on Christmas."
But Don called, and the next day they met with the counselor for six
"Dad had felt like he could not share anything, that this was between he
and my mom," Katie says. "When he shared his part of the story, it just
totally opened my eyes. It broke through."
Don calls it "one of the most vivid things of my adult life."
There was more mending to do. Don says Julie was the last to forgive him.
"Has it been a happy ending? Yes, because of my mom," Julie says. "I
mean, he's got his mother's heart, very tender and affectionate. But my
mom was the glue, very Christ-centered, morally upright.
"If that was absent, I don't know what deep end I would have gone off
of. But you know,love the guy."
Fortunately, father and son, by twist of fate, got a head start
reconciling. Fitzgerald, who had sold the Bucks and bought the Warriors,
hired Donnie as a part-time scout in 1987.
The following year, Fitzgerald hired Don as head coach and general
"It gave me an opportunity to get to know him at a different level and
really gain a ton of respect for him away from the household," Donnie
says. "To see how he approached business with passion, integrity and
honesty – all the things we grew up learning at the kitchen table."
'Dear Mr. Nelson ...'
It arrived out of nowhere in the Mavericks' office mail in October 1997,
seemingly just another fan letter that began, "Dear Mr. Nelson."
Moments later, Don Nelson was crying.
The letter was from 29-year-old Lee McBride.
She was writing to tell Don Nelson that he was her father.
Lee wrote that she had met her birth mother only a year earlier. Her
birth mother told Lee about a brief relationship with Don in 1968. He
never knew about Lee, who was placed for adoption.
Courtesy of Nelson family
In his third year in the NBA, Don and Sharon Nelson lived in California with their children (from left) Julie, Chris and Donnie.
"Of all the extracurricular stuff that I had done in my life – which was
extensive, I'm not bragging about that – I did remember this young
lady's name because it was one that you'd remember," Nelson says.
"She was a young stewardess. We had spent a weekend together."
Don showed the letter to Joy, whom he had married in June 1991. With Don
on one extension and Joy on another, they phoned Lee.
"I really thought, 'OK, this guy is going to have an attorney write me a
letter saying, 'Do not ever contact him again,' " Lee says.
"I was completely unprepared for being in my apartment and the phone
ringing and this guy saying, 'This is Don ... your father.' I was on the
phone crying for 10 minutes."
Lee, now a 34-year-old college student and restaurant employee in Fort
Myers, Fla., says she waited a year after learning his identity to
contact Nelson because she wanted to make sure he was no longer married
to the woman who was his wife in 1968. She also wanted to prepare
herself in case he rejected her.
Instead, the opposite happened. Don told his kids that they had a
half-sister. He flew her to Dallas and flew her half-siblings in to meet
her. A blood test confirmed that he was her father.
She was nervous about how her half-siblings would feel about her. But
she said the first time she saw Donnie, the first words out of his mouth
were, "Hey, Sis."
"It's just been wonderful ever since," Lee says. "His family is just so
terrific. There's not a day goes by that I don't realize how blessed I
am, not a day."
In 1999, Don flew the half-siblings, including Julie from Prague, to
South Carolina for Lee's wedding. She has visited Dallas about a
half-dozen times, including Christmas two years ago.
"She's a wonderful person," Katie says. "We're very similar. And we
definitely look like sisters."
Don credits Joy with making the situation easier, despite their own
adversity. Don has overcome prostate cancer, Joy breast cancer.
"She's one of the most remarkable women I've ever met," he says. "A
woman who dedicates herself to me, family and making the world a better
place to live."
It was Donnie who phoned Sharon to break the news about Lee.
"Mom, I want you to be sitting down because you're used to bricks
falling on top of you and here comes another one."
Sharon says she harbors no ill feelings toward her ex-husband, or Lee,
or the NBA and its lifestyle.
"The most important thing to me is when I talk about the game of life, I
talk about putting God first," she says. "In the beginning and in the
end, it's going to be God.
"In between, there's going to be a lot of things come and go. We've been
blessed in many ways. We've had knocks. We've had hard times. But you
put everything in perspective and balance; we've been really fortunate."
The wins of the father ...
When Sharon and her daughters watch Mavericks games on TV, it's still a
thrill when the camera pans the sideline and captures father and son,
side by side.
They are glad Don and Donnie have a chance to make up for some lost
time. Their relationship is a reminder of where the family has been and
how far it's come, through Dad's 40 NBA seasons, 1,053 games as a player
and 1,901 as a coach, and counting.
Before Donnie came to Dallas five years ago, he was a rising star on the
Phoenix Suns staff. He was on track to become the Suns' head coach had
he not decided to rejoin his father.
"I think they have a great relationship," Julie says. "But sometimes I
wonder how much of Donnie's motivation to excel is partially a desire to
feel the pleasure and the respect of his father."
Rest assured, father says, the son has both. The opportunity to work
alongside him is a big reason the old man wants to remain on the
sideline beyond this season, although Cuban is noncommittal.
Don also sees the way Donnie is with his wife, Lotta, 10-year-old
daughter Christie and 8-year-old son D.J.
"He's a lot better than I ever was," Don says. "Plus he's making more
money than I ever did.
"That's the beauty of me working so hard," he says. "Their approach to
being poor was never there because we were never poor. Money isn't a
priority for them, where it's always been first for me."
Forgive him if he seems less concerned about how many little memories he
may have missed than how many he plans to have with his 11 grandchildren
and his kids.
All five of them.
"It's turning out great," he says. "I'm a lucky guy."
• • •
You can e-mail Brad Townsend at firstname.lastname@example.org.