MAUI, Hawaii — Regrets, he’s had a few. But say this about Don Nelson, the retired basketball coach: He definitely did it his way.
On the way to 1,335 regular-season victories (a record), basketball’s mad scientist rocked pink fish ties on the sideline, quaffed Bud Lites at news conferences and helped change the way the game is played with “Nellie Ball,” a guerrilla-warfare strategy built around speedy, undersize lineups.
With the N.B.A. playoffs underway, we caught up with Mr. Nelson in his cavernous poker room, a Hall of Fame-caliber man cave where he hosts the island’s most exclusive poker game with Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson. Inside the paint, outside the box — there is only one Nellie.
Nice beard. Is it new?
It was my wife’s idea. She told me she wanted to “get some of that ugly” off my face.
So this is where those big games go down with Willie, Woody and Owen. How big are the pots?
They can get up to $2,000 to $3,000, especially when Willie is in. He never saw a card he didn’t like. He raises every time, no matter what. Every time it goes by him, it’s $50, $50, $50. I’m conservative. But Willie, man, he’s wild. Woody is wild. Owen’s pretty good. Woody’s a terrible card player.
Pretty good chess player, though.
Oh, very good. Play you fast or slow.
That’s a serious shuffleboard table you have here. Do you guys play for money?
Yeah, I’d say so. I’ve paid for that shuffleboard table at least 10 times over.
I see you’re wearing a Warriors hat. Do you like their chances this year?
I haven’t studied it enough to give you a good answer. Everybody says Houston is really good. I don’t like Houston, personally, but it’s just because of a lot of competition over the years — with Dallas, you know. I’m a Warrior guy, so I’m rooting for the Warriors, but Steph has got to be 100 percent to beat that team.
You hung it up in 2010, just before the Warriors turned into a juggernaut. Do you miss coaching?
I really don’t. I was pretty well fried by that time. I think I had one year left on my contract when they sold the team.
You missed out on the Warriors’ recent championships. Do you think you could have won a title with the Warriors in the ’90s if that squad with Chris Mullin, Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber had stayed together?
I didn’t think Webber — at that time in his life, anyway — was ready to play winning basketball, or do anything winning at that point. He was a pretty confused young guy. He was about the toughest guy I ever coached. It took him a long time.
You never got your ring as a coach, but you got five as a player for the Celtics in the ’60s and ’70s. How would you describe your game?
I could ball a little bit. I was a slow runner, so I was a perfect trailer guy. I could rebound, I could pass, I could shoot. I could do a lot of things to fit in, you know, if you need an extra guy. I was just kind of an average guy that fit in with a really great team.
Sounds like a guy who went on to become another great coach, Pat Riley.
Well, I was better than Pat [laughs]. He comes here a lot, too. I was just with him over Christmas.
How did you get hooked on Hawaii?
I used to do some stuff for the armed services with a bunch of the other Celtics and a couple of guys from other teams. We’d go visit the hospitals, then they’d give us a week of R&R in Hawaii on the way back from Vietnam. We just loved that week, and then we’d miss our flight, and end up two weeks. Then another week. I just thought it’s the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, and I’ve been all over the world.
Those hospital visits in Vietnam must have been intense.
It was very, very difficult. Oh my goodness, it was a life-changing experience. You’d walk into the wards, these guys from the front lines, some had just woken up with no legs, no arms. It was the hardest thing I’ve done. It almost made an alcoholic out of me. You’d visit those hospitals all day and go out and drink all night.
What’s your daily life here like?
I’ve been buying real estate for 20 years here, and building houses and renting them out. So that’s our business now. A lot of Warrior fans stay with us. I built this place next to me. It’s not a wedding chapel, but they have weddings there. My daughter Lee runs that. She’s an interesting story. I had that daughter out of wedlock. I knew nothing about her for 29 years.
How did you find out about her?
I was in Dallas, coaching, and my secretary brought in this letter. It said, “Dear Mr. Nelson. In 1968, you met a young girl in Washington, D.C., by the name of Debby Dial. Nine months later, I was born.” I had been on the road with the Celtics, playing the Bullets. We were doing some of that stuff when I was playing, which wasn’t the best thing to do. But I did remember that lady’s name. I thought, “Wow, this could be true.”
So we brought her into Dallas, and there was this 6-foot blond lady who looks like all my other kids, and I’m going, “She’s mine.” I helped her finish college, met the parents who raised her, because she was adopted. My wife and I have six other kids, but she’s the only one who’s moved to Maui. Isn’t that funny?
And you’ve got an agrarian venture over here in Maui, too?
I’ve got a farm, yeah, I do. We grow some pot and flowers and coffee, and I’ve got a fish farm up there.
I’ve got a medical card. I’m legal here. When any athlete gets old, every injury you have sustained seems to resurrect. It helps me deal with the pain without pain pills, and helps with that stress.
Have you been into cannabis for long?
No, I didn’t smoke until maybe three or four years ago. I never smoked when I was coaching. I just started. Willie got me smoking.
He would do it.
He would do it. I didn’t think I’d ever be a pot smoker, but hanging out with Willie and Woody and guys like that, you know, everybody smokes in those games. It just became kind of natural. Usually you’re smoking with your friends, sitting around, telling stories, you smoke a bowl. It’s not that I smoke all the time. I usually just smoke at night during poker games. Like Willie told me, it’s hard to be depressed when you’re smoking pot.
How do you like cannabis compared to alcohol?
I don’t drink anymore, because I like pot better. It’s about the same as alcohol, except you don’t have the aftereffect. There’s no hangover. I mean, I don’t drink to excess, anyway. But you know, even if you have a couple of drinks, you’re liable to have a headache in the morning.
On your farm, do you grow cannabis for dispensaries?
No, I just grow for myself. You’re allowed to grow up to 10 plants, so you have plenty to smoke. I’ve never sold. I would never do that.
How is the quality?
Oh, it’s great. Great stuff. It’s called Nellie Kush. It’s O.G. and Hindu Kush. Hindu Kush is really good. It comes from India and the guy that brought it over mixed the two of them, so we’ve got Nellie Kush now.
By: Alex Williams, NY Times