by Bo Carter
While joining the “official” 50-or-better senior ranks on Sept. 9, 1962, the Dallas Mavericks general manager and president of operations and Texas Legends co-owner Donnie Nelson has lived a literal “dream” life in basketball while being associated with “dream” teams numerous times in basketball.
Born to then budding Chicago Zephyrs rookie and future Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson and his Joy in ’62, Donnie Nelson literally spent his childhood in NBA locker rooms, at playoff venues or studying draft selections with his hoops-wise father.
It seemed to be his destiny to play, coach or serve as a general manager in the NBA, but he has accomplished much more than following in his dad’s size 15 basketball shoes.
Besides being the first GM to sign the first players from the then-Soviet Union (Sarunas Marciulionis for Golden State in 1989) and China (Wang Zhizhi for the Mavericks in 2001) to NBA contracts, Nelson’s innovations top the charts on all levels of basketball.
He hired Dallas hoops’ legend and Olympian Nancy Lieberman as the first coach in the NBA Development League in 2011-12, and she promptly guided the Texas Legends to a playoff spot (clinching postseason on the final day of the regular campaign).
The former basketball standout at Worcester (Mass.) Academy and Wheaton (Ill.) College in 1986 where he led the Thunder in scoring and to regional playoffs also used his vivid basketball imagination and hoops’ savvy to draft a relatively-unsung and gangly German player named Dirk Nowitzki and Canadian product via Santa Clara in Steve Nash in the 1998 NBA selections, and both became Most Valuable Players in the world’s most prestigious basketball league.
“I’ve been very fortunate through the years,” Nelson noted, “and to be able to watch Dirk and Steve excel in their NBA careers has been a real privilege.”
The Mavericks GM, who also has been an assistant coach on the Lithuanian National Team from 1990-2012, saw those amazing squads capture three bronze medals over a span of four Olympiads from 1992-2008 against often more-talented opposition and has served for seven years as cjief adviser for the Chinese National team. The Chinese once trained at Prestonwood Christian Academy’s facilities in Plano under Nelson’s canny eye as fans attempted to get a glimpse of these standouts prior to the 2008 Olympics.
But the 26-year veteran of the hardcourts has not let basketball run his life 7/24.
In 2002 he helped organize the Assist Youth Foundation to aid underserved families and youth throughout the Greater DFW Metroplex. Renovated basketball facilities at churches and facilities for youngsters in areas such as South and North Oak Cliff, East Dallas and the Fair Park areas have enjoyed new court surfaces, goals, nets, and opportunities to play in regional YMCA and other tournaments under this nationally-regarded program.
He also has worked with the NBA’s African Top 100 campaign – a global program to help disseminate top players from African and surrounding continents and to assist them in blending into the NBA and different cultures. As founder of the popular Global Games in the Dallas area, he has helped youngsters compete against top international hoopsters for almost 10 years. The Mavericks administrator also has been active in the NBA D-League owners’ consortium and in drafting and rules’ changes for the circuit, which started in 2005-06.
But the fan- and media-popular Nelson is best remembered for working alongside Dallas owner Mark Cuban to resurrect a Mavs’ program, which was essentially dormant with 149 wins over seven seasons from 1992-99 for just over 21 victories annually, into a NBA powerhouse with 11 consecutive 50-win seasons (club record) from 2000-11 and 12 consecutive postseason berths, including the team’s first NBA title in 2011.
“It has been a lifelong dream to win the NBA championship,” Nelson noted. “This franchise has come so far over the last 13-14 years, and it has been extremely gratifying to be a part of it.”