Eight banners hang from the rafters in Fiserv Forum, honoring Milwaukee Bucks players who have had their numbers retired.
It’s time to finally have a coach join those players. It’s time for Don Nelson’s name to go on a banner in the rafters.
The new building should get a new banner.
No NBA coach has won more regular-season games than Nelson’s 1,335 victories. And the first 540 of those wins came with the Bucks.
His 540 wins as Bucks head coach easily tops the franchise list. Larry Costello recorded 410 wins as the first coach in franchise history, a tenure that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s first six NBA seasons and a championship in 1971.
George Karl is a distant third in Bucks history with 205 victories, and Del Harris is fourth with 191.
Nelson, freshly retired from a 14-year career as a player, joined Costello’s staff as an assistant coach in 1976 after retiring as a player. Just 18 games into his assistant coaching career, Nelson became head coach. The Bucks had traded Abdul-Jabbar a year earlier and were off to a 3-15 start when Costello stepped down.
Nelson, who went on to develop a strong relationship with then-owner Jim Fitzgerald, wasn’t sure he was ready for the job.
“Truthfully, I’m embarrassed with the job, as I told Jim (Fitzgerald),” Nelson said at the press conference announcing Costello’s resignation. “I expected to be an assistant for at least two years. I certainly don’t know all the answers because I’m new, too.”
Nelson lost his first three games, but started to get the hang of things. It didn’t hurt his cause that the Bucks posted the league’s worst record, earning the No. 1 overall pick. Nelson eventually took over as general manager and traded center Swen Nater to the Buffalo Braves for the No. 3 pick. Another trade netted the No. 11 pick.
Nelson selected Kent Benson, Marques Johnson and Ernie Grunfeld with those three picks, and a young and exciting Bucks team was born. They went 44-38 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs, pushing the Denver Nuggets to seven games in a thrilling series.
A great new era of Bucks basketball had arrived. Nelson is credited with innovations such as the point forward. He exploited isolation rules to win favorable matchups. He first became known as an innovator on defense, then on offense.
Beginning with the 1979-’80 season, the Bucks won seven straight division titles. They won 49 games in that season and 50 or more in the next six. Sadly, those great teams were always blocked from a playing for a title by either the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers.
Nelson acquired and coached two of the players whose Bucks numbers are retired — Sidney Moncrief (4) and Bob Lanier (16). He’s coached three others — Brian Winters (32), Junior Bridgeman (2) and Bob Dandridge (10).
Nelson’s time in Milwaukee ended in the spring of 1987 after reports of disagreements with new team owner Herb Kohl.
Nelson went on to great success with the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks. He won NBA Coach of the Year awards in 1983 and ’85 with the Bucks and again in 1992 with Golden State.
The rift with Kohl ended Nelson’s time with the Bucks, so there never was going to be a Don Nelson Night when Kohl owned the team.
The new ownership group led by Wed Edens, Mark Lasry, Jamie Dinan and Mike Fascitelli has a chance to honor the man who led a great era of Bucks basketball.
Don Nelson is already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He belongs in the rafters at Fiserv Forum.