(Wire Services, San Jose Mercury News, 9/7, 9:43 p.m. PDT)
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Of all the people who were thrilled to see former Warriors coach Don Nelson get into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it took a legend who had never played for him, or with him, to offer some perspective.
Bill Walton believes everybody is focusing on the wrong things that made Nelson the NBA's all-time winningest coach.
"Everybody says he invented small ball," Walton, the former center, said Friday night at the enshrinement ceremony. "But it wasn't small ball, it was skill ball. Put the best players on the court. Get the big stiffs out of there.
"I love Don Nelson. It's so well-deserved and tragically overdue. The game of basketball is lucky to have had so many years of Don Nelson."
Nelson, who coached the Warriors for 11 seasons over two stints, got the ultimate validation of his career when he and 11 others were officially welcomed to the Hall of Fame.
Also inducted were the late Don Barksdale, who attended Berkeley High and was the first black player on the U.S. Olympic team (1948) and in the NBA All-Star game (1953), former Warriors Ralph Sampson and Jamaal Wilkes, Reggie Miller, Chet Walker, Mel Daniels, Katrina McClain, Lidia Alexeeva, Hank Nichols, Phil Knight and the All American Redheads.
Nelson's induction speech spanned his career. He paid tribute to his valued assistants -- from K.C. Jones to Del Harris to Keith Smart, son Donnie Nelson and so many others.
Then, as he said several times during the night, he added: "What a lucky guy."
It was a night that, as Miller said, took place "with basketball royalty" in the house. NBA commissioner David Stern, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and so many others were there. Nelson either played against or coached against just about all of them.
"He was a game-changer," said Chris Mullin, who played for Nelson at Golden State and was one of his presenters, along with Bob Lanier and Satch Sanders. "You can't say that about many people. He was like having another great player who was on the bench and could help you win. He was a difference-maker. One of the best of all time."
Nelson said he felt unworthy in many respects, despite winning a record 1,335 games as an NBA coach.
"The Hall of Fame is about greatness," Nelson said. "I'm a lot of things, but none of them are great."
Yet he was as creative and innovative as any coach ever.
He stuck 7-foot-6 Manute Bol on the 3-point line. He sent 6-4 Mario Elie into the game as a center to guard 7-1 David Robinson.
He invented the notion of point forward, which is now a position embraced by the most talented player on the planet, LeBron James.
One of Nelson's best friends, Harris, told one of the best stories on Nelson just before the enshrinement, going back to the genesis of his coaching career.
"He had failed as a potential referee in the NBA," Harris said, alluding to a summer spent officiating summer league games after Nelson had retired as a player. "And he became assistant coach of the Milwaukee Bucks. They sent him to a preseason game in Memphis, and he sat next to me. We had never met. He said: 'You know, Coach, this is my first game to scout, can you help me out a little?'
"So I did, and then halfway through the season, they fired the coach (Larry Costello), and Nellie became the head coach at Milwaukee. I called him and he said: 'You know, I was just getting the hang of this scouting stuff and now I'm the head coach.' "
And from now on, he will be introduced as Hall of Famer Don Nelson.