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Once a Hawkeye...a Hawkeye once more
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The backdrop for the highs of Don Nelson’s life is a constellation of basketball arenas crisscrossing the country and spanning the globe.
- He had an All-American playing career at the University of Iowa from 1959-62.
- He won five NBA championships as a player with the Boston Celtics, including the 1969 Finals in which he hit a series-clinching shot in the final minute of a Game 7 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
- In 1978, his number 19 was retired by the Celtics and raised to the rafters alongside so many other legends in the Boston Garden.
- In 34 years as an NBA coach, Nelson recorded 1,335 wins, including one in the spring of 2010 that made him the league’s all-time leader.
- There was also the day, 21 years ago, when, while the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he married his second wife, Joy, in the Oakland Coliseum.
- And there was the night, five years before that, while Nelson was coaching in Milwaukee, when, on his 46th birthday, he became a grandfather for the first time, and the home crowd cheered the announcement of the arrival of a baby girl.
Add one more venue to the list, one more life-changing event, one more time “Nellie” brought everyone together to celebrate.
On May 12, Nelson received his undergraduate degree in physical education during the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. In doing so, the 72-year-old (today is his birthday) fulfilled a wish of his late mother, won a bet with his late father-in-law, and inspired the thousands in attendance, including his entourage of 45 family members and close friends who turned the event into a weekend-long reunion in Iowa City.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long, long time,” Nelson says. “I wish it would’ve happened 50 years ago, but it didn’t. I think the moral to the story is that it’s never too late. As long as you keep working and keep having dreams, they can come true.”
The story of how Nelson earned his degree 50 years after leaving campus is well documented but worth revisiting. He left school eight foreign language credits and a student-teaching experience shy of graduation. When he was playing in Boston in the ’60s, he took six hours of Spanish and then got away from it. Thirty years later, while coaching the Golden State Warriors, he took another Spanish course and called back to Iowa to let the university know he had completed the requirements to satisfy his degree. But the student-teaching experience still lingered. So, he let it go again, and another 20 years passed.
Finally, last fall, once he was finished coaching for good, Nelson set the wheels in motion toward Saturday’s commencement. He got in touch with Joel Novak, a retired Des Moines judge and former Hawkeye teammate. He also called Mark Schantz, another former teammate who is a faculty member in the UI College of Law. Together the three connected the dots and convinced the administration that Nelson’s decades of coaching professional basketball satisfied the teaching requirement.
Then one day, the letter came to Nelson’s home in Maui, Hawaii, confirming his degree.
“He was so excited,” says Joy. “He said, ‘I want to graduate. I want to wear the cap and gown. I want to walk. I want to do the whole thing. My grandkids are graduating; I want to show them that I can do it, too.’”
And so it was that Nelson’s family and closest friends descended on Iowa City to help him finish the journey he started all those years ago. His son, Donnie, the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks, came from Dallas. His daughter, Julie Olsen, came from the Czech Republic. His other three children and 11 of his grandchildren also came. His older sister, Ann Hess, brought her children and grandchildren, too.
Many of them flew into Chicago and rode a party bus to Iowa City on Friday afternoon, picking up family members along the way.
“That’s just his personality,” says Nelson’s daughter, Chris Fountain. “He is a very fun-loving, in-the-moment guy. He wants to live life to the fullest. This was a chance for him to walk, but it was also an opportunity for us to get together and celebrate as a family.”
And celebrate they did, at a private dinner party Friday night and in the Hawkeyes’ locker room leading up to the commencement ceremony Saturday morning. With black-and-white footage of Nelson and the “Hustlin’ Hawkeyes” looping on big-screen TVs, Nelson was quietly jovial, posing for pictures with just about everyone who entered the room.
UI President Sally Mason visited, and director of athletics Gary Barta presented Nelson a framed number 15 jersey to commemorate his Iowa career.
“You’re setting a great example for our student athletes,” Barta said. “It’s never too late.”
Nelson posed for a picture with three of those student athletes, graduating seniors Matt Gatens, Andrew Brommer, and Bryce Cartwright. Together, the four of them are Iowa basketball’s Class of 2012.
“Guess which one didn’t graduate on time,” Nelson joked.
And then, it was time.
Nelson entered the arena and didn’t have to wait long. He stood on stage, holding Mason’s hand, as Dean Linda Maxson rattled off his career achievements. When he received his degree, the crowd of 12,000 roared, and he bowed and waved to his family and friends seated nearby. Then he returned to his seat and waited as each and every one of his “classmates” made the walk across the stage. Some of them stopped to shake his hand as they returned to their seats.
“They just wanted to meet me,” Nelson says, “and to let me know their fathers remembered watching me play.”
When it was all finished, he threw his cap in the air, a moment 50 years in the making.
“This is the cherry on top—for all he’s done,” says Donnie. “For him to come back to where it all started, you couldn’t script a better ending.”
Nelson said he was inspired to get his degree by Shaquille O’Neal, whom he coached at the FIBA World Championships in 1994. O’Neal, who left school after his sophomore year, went back to LSU to finish his undergraduate degree and last week earned a Ph.D. in leadership and education from Barry University. Asked if an advanced degree in Spanish was in his future, Nelson said, “No, no. I’m done. I already have a Ph.D.—it’s in basketball.”
That’s not far from the truth.
Nelson was an innovator at every stop of his coaching career, pioneering an up-tempo playing style that featured a “point forward,” something that forever changed the game. He was instrumental in bringing foreign players to the United States, and three times was named the NBA’s coach of the year. The only knock against him is that he never won a championship, never even reached the NBA Finals as a coach. Still, later this year, this same group of family and friends will gather again in Springfield, Mass., where Nelson will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
“What I thought was going to be a real simple year in retirement,” Nelson says, "has turned out to be one of the greatest and busiest years of my life.”
At a press conference after the ceremony Saturday, Nelson recounted some highlights of his playing career, both at Iowa and in the pros. He detailed the final seconds of a one-point loss to Ohio State during his senior year and told the story of the roundabout way he landed with the Celtics after he thought his playing career was over.
When he completed his trip down memory lane, he paused and turned to his grandchildren.
“Of course, you knew all of that, right?”
They did not. Few of them know the details of Nelson’s playing greatness, certainly not the specifics of a career that made him a Hawkeyes legend. To them, he is simply “Grampie,” a giant of a man with a rough exterior, but a soft and tender soul.
“When I think of Grampie Nellie,” says his oldest granddaughter, Kate Olsen, “I think of John Wayne and Johnny Cash.”
Olsen went on to share a childhood story. She remembers riding with her siblings in the back of Nelson’s car on a remote road on the outskirts of Dallas. Nelson was driving, his window wide open, his dog on the seat next to him. George Jones was blaring on the stereo; Nelson was singing along in his deep and raspy voice.
This went on for some time until the music stopped. Then, Grampie Nellie turned to speak.
“Kids,” he said, “regret is the worst thing in the world.”
With that, he squared himself in his seat and faced the open road ahead.