Hall of Fame coach Nelson returns to receive UI degree
Tuesday, May 15, 2012

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.