Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Nelson's Redemption

When I first heard of the imminent return of Chris Webber to the Warriors, I was stunned. In 19 years of covering sports in the Bay Area, the absolute devastation of the Warriors following the trading of Webber to the Washington Wizards in 1994 symbolizes a franchise collapse that, so far, not even Al Davis has been able to duplicate with the Raiders.

Webber, as any longtime Warriors fan can recall, was a breath of fresh when he helped lead the Warriors to 50 wins, while capturing NBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors in the '93-94 season. He was electrifying on the court, he had a winning smile and personality off the court, and it seemed that he'd be the team's franchise player for many years to come.

Unfortunately, what most Warriors fans have conveniently forgotten is the fact that it was Don Nelson, far more than Webber, who was essentially responsible for the deteriorating relationship, and eventual divorce between the two. Webber, of course, has been blamed for what happened, for having the temerity to show up Nelson, who had effectively conned the local beatwriters and columnists (with the notable exception of the Merc's Rick Bucher), into believing that he could do no wrong.

In reality, though, it was Nelson who refused to meet Webber halfway, to work through their differences, for the better of the team. It was Nelson who ignored the candid advice of some of his most trusted associates, including Al Attles and Ed Gregory, that he needed to sit down with Webber and talk things out, that Webber was an intelligent and articulate young man who could be reasoned with, and that it was critical to do so for the future of the franchise. And it was Nelson who turned his back on all of them, because his ego was simply to big to see the larger picture.

All Webber really wanted was to be treated with respect, particularly in public, where Nelson was legendary for his screaming tirades against rookies and other young and impressionable players, i.e., Sarunas Marciulionis, Tyrone Hill, Chris Gatling, etc. Webber was the first player of his generation to openly stand up to Nelson, to say, in essence, that it wasn't necessary to act like Bobby Knight, in order to drive home a point. But Nelson wouldn't listen.

The news now that Nelson and Webber are reuniting after 14 years is heartwarming. How much Webber can help the Warriors remains to be seen. His knees bear no resemblence to the ones he had when he was the Rookie-of-the-Year, nor when he was at the peak of his game with the Sacramento Kings during a spectacular six-season run that ended in 2004. So he can't be expected to run with the Warriors' up-tempo offense. But he's a very smart player, an excellent outside shooter, and one of the best passing big men of his generation. Moreover, if he can help make life inside the key difficult for the Western Conference's leading big men, i.e., Tim Duncan, Carlos Boozer, Marcus Camby, Dirk Nowitski, etc., Nelson will be ecstatic.

Ironically, if Chris Cohan hadn't pulled his successful power play at the time, to take over the franchise from Dan Finnane and Jim Fitzgerald, it's highly likely that Nelson's plan to get rid of Webber would have failed, because Nelson would have been told point-blank to work out his personal differences with Webber for the benefit of the team. Instead, Cohan caved in to Nelson's whims, and the Warriors fell into the depths of disaster for the next 12 seasons.

But give Nelson credit now. He has spoken openly in recent days of how he has mellowed over the years (as all of us can see), and how he wishes he had handled the relationship with Webber differently. Perhaps part of his motivation in reaching out to Webber is to get rid of his own guilt, for recklessly tearing apart what might have been. If so, it's never too late for redemption. Whatever the motivation is, as Nelson said, they're both old men now--Nelson's an old coach, at 67, and Webber's an old player, at 34. And what they have in common is the desire for that elusive NBA championship. Here's hoping this turns into a highly successful move for both of them.


Anonymous said...

I'm excited to get Webber back. I think trading him and then firing Nelly was the biggest mistake (in a long long of mistakes) that the franchise ever made. I also believe that hiring Nelly last year was one of their best decisions. I say, let him do what he thinks is best, he's certainly earned that right. I think a big body like Webber's may be the answer to Boozer. I think we should bring back Spree as well, and if Boozer gets out of line (everyone knows he's a dirty player), Spree will know how to deal with him. I'd also like to see Mullin come out and hit some clutch threes. Go Warriors!!!

Anonymous said...

Nice article. As someone who didn't know the background, this was very informative. Do you think Nelson apologized to Webber when they met?

Steve Bitker said...

My guess is that Nelson didn't apologize, but probably said something along the lines of, "Hey, let's start all over again, and make this relationship work." And Webber probably agreed.

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