Donnie Nelson

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Donnie Nelson (right) in 2007.

Donn Charles "Donnie" Nelson (born September 10, 1962 in Iowa City, Iowa), the General Manager and president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks of National Basketball Association. He is the son of Don Nelson, the former head coach of the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. In a 2007 Sports Illustrated article ranking the NBA's personnel bosses from 1 to 30, Nelson was ranked No. 2.[1] Additionally, in a 2009 Yahoo! Sports article Nelson was ranked the 3rd best General Manager of the decade after producing nine 50-plus win seasons in a row and the first Finals appearance in franchise history in 2006.[2] Nelson assembled the Mavericks team that would later win the 2011 NBA Championship.

Nelson is also one of the co-owners of the Texas Legends of the NBA Developmental League, located in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Frisco.[3] The team is an affiliate of the Mavericks.

Early life[edit]

Donnie is the second out of four children of Don and Sharon Nelson, and the only son. He was born in Iowa City during his father's final year at the University of Iowa, and was raised in Natick, Massachusetts as Don played for the Boston Celtics. Growing up to proportions similar to his father, Nelson also took up basketball, playing in high school for Worcester Academy.[4] However, a broken ankle reduced his playing efficacy.[5] Don's job coaching the Milwaukee Bucks had made the family move to Brookfield, Wisconsin, and the same day Donnie graduated and was driven back home by Sharon in 1982, Don decided to leave his wife. Wishing to remain closer to his mother, Donnie gave up on playing in Iowa or Indiana, and instead went to the Division III Wheaton College in Illinois, where his older sister Julie studied.[4] Despite being an All-America player with Wheaton, he asked his father not to make any calls for a professional tryout. The summer after his freshman year, he joined the Athletes in Action team, travelling first to South America and then to Europe.[5] The experience made Nelson really interested in bringing international players to the NBA, a trademark of his subsequent career.[6] He graduated in 1986.[5]

NBA beginnings[edit]

Nelson's first works with the NBA were in his father's teams, first as a regional scout of the Milwaukee Bucks between 1984 and 1986, and then as the top assistant to Don in the Golden State Warriors from 1986 to 1994, while also being a part-time scout starting in 1987.[4] While playing in Lithuania SSR capital Vilnius, Nelson met Šarūnas Marčiulionis, with whom he struck a friendship despite the language barrier. Once Donnie told his father about Marčiulionis and his skills, the Warriors wound drafting him in the 6th round of the 1987 NBA draft.[5] After the 1988 Summer Olympics, Marciulionis invited Nelson to Lithuania, where for three months he lived in the player's apartment in Vilnius, staging a series of basketball clinics around the increasingly restive republic. Eventually Nelson would fly to Moscow to sign Marčiulionis in 1989, leading him to become the first Soviet Union player in the NBA.[7][8]

As Don Nelson resigned from Golden State in 1995, Donnie also left the organization.[9] From 1995 to 1998, Nelson was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns. He was a major influence in getting the team to pick Steve Nash, who he met while Nash played in high school, and would later befriend as Nash became the star of Santa Clara University.[10]

Dallas Mavericks[edit]

In 1998, Nelson again rejoined his father, who was coach and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks, as assistant general manager. In the 1998 NBA draft, Nelson arranged for the Mavericks to draft unknown German Dirk Nowitzki, and bring Nash, who saw limited minutes in Phoenix, through a three-team trade. Both players would win the Most Valuable Player Award.[11] Like with Marciulionis and Eastern Europe in the late 80s, Nelson would open the league to a traditionally closed market when he made the Mavericks draft the first Chinese player to ever play in the NBA, Wang Zhizhi, in 1999.[6]

Donnie Nelson has been instrumental in rebuilding a team that suffered a decade-long playoff drought into an NBA Champion. During his tenure, the Mavericks have won 66% of their games, including five 50-win seasons, two 60-wins seasons, and a franchise record 67-wins season in 2007. The 67-wins season was tied for the sixth-best regular season in NBA history. The Mavericks are also one of just six franchises to win 60 games or more three times in a five-year span. In all, the Mavericks have won 50 or more games for ten consecutive years. As a result, under Nelson, the Mavericks have also made the playoffs ten consecutive seasons, been to the Western Conference Finals three times, advanced to the NBA Finals twice, and the franchise won their first NBA Championship in 2011.

Nelson has acquired the core group of players on the current Mavs roster through trades and success in the NBA Draft. Tyson Chandler, 2008-2009 6th Man of the Year Jason Terry, future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, 4-time All-Star Shawn Marion, 2-time All-Star Caron Butler, and Brendan Haywood were acquired through key trades. Nelson was also responsible for adding 2007 MVP, 2011 NBA Finals MVP, and 10-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki along with sophomore sensation Rodrigue Beaubois through the NBA Draft. On previous teams Nelson played a significant role in trading for players such as two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash and All-Star/6th Man of the Year Antawn Jamison, as well as acquiring future All-Stars Devin Harris and Josh Howard via the NBA Draft.

Nelson also served as assistant coach in 2000, when Mark Cuban purchased the team, and was an interim coach filling in for his father on multiple occasions between 2000 and 2002.

As the Mavericks established a National Basketball Association Developmental League (D-League) in Frisco, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas, Nelson was named co-owner. The Texas Legends began play in the 2010-11 season,[3] and made history by being the first male professional team coached by a woman, Nancy Lieberman.[12]


Since 1990, Nelson has served as an assistant coach for the Lithuania national basketball team. In 1991, as Lithuania had just been re-established as an independent state, the Lithuanian Basketball Federation could not rely on public funding. Knowing of Marčiulionis' struggles, Nelson helped get sponsors for the Lithuanian team's 1992 Summer Olympics campaign, which included rock band Grateful Dead.[13] In that period, Nelson has helped the Lithuanians win three bronze medals in four Olympics, a silver medal in the 1995 EuroBasket and a gold medal in Eurobasket 2003. In appreciation for his contributions, Nelson was awarded the Medal of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas in 1995 and the Commander's Grand Crosses of the Order for Merits to Lithuania by the President of Lithuania in 2004. He also serves as Honorary Ambassador for the League of Industries.[14]

In 1994, Nelson served as a scout for USA Basketball at the World Championships in Toronto. Dream Team II went undefeated on their way to capturing a gold medal that year.

Nelson also serves as the Chief Advisor for the China national basketball team. During his two years of service, they equaled their all-time best Olympic finish (8th) in Athens and won the Gold Medal at the 2005 Asian Championships.

Personal life and activism[edit]

Nelson is married to Lotta and has two children.[3]

Among the many charity projects Nelson has been involved, he has worked with the NBA’s African Top 100 campaign, an outreach program provides educational opportunities to challenged African athletes; is the founder of the "Global Games" in Dallas, which gives area high school kids a chance to test themselves against the top Junior National teams in the world; and helped create the Assist Youth Foundation, who offers opportunities for underprivileged kids in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and across the globe.