Most of today’s professional athletes reach the ends of their playing careers by their late 30s, if not well before. That leaves them with the difficult question of what to do next with their lives. Over the years, we have seen plenty of unusual career moves — from George Foreman‘s foray in the world of grills, to Curt Schilling’s ill-founded video game company.
Yet one of the most surprising career swerves comes courtesy of Don Nelson. Nelson enjoyed a lengthy NBA tenure as both a player and a coach, racking up numerous accolades in both capacities. Here we take a look back at Nelson’s time in the league, while also investigating his most surprising post-retirement endeavor.
Don Nelson’s playing career
After an elite college career at the University of Iowa, the Chicago Zephyrs selected Nelson with the 17th pick of the 1962 NBA Draft. The 6’6″ forward averaged 6.8 points and 4.5 rebounds as a rookie.
The following year, the Zephyrs moved to Washington and became the Bullets. Meanwhile, Nelson was claimed off waivers by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nelson spent two years with the Lakers, playing limited minutes, before signing with the Boston Celtics as a free agent. Boston would remain his home for the next 11 seasons. In his first season with the Celtics, Nelson averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, playing a vital sixth man role in helping the team secure a title victory over the Lakers.
Over the following years, Nelson would win four more championships with the Celtics. He played alongside such NBA legends as Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, and K.C. Jones. Nelson’s individual numbers peaked in the 1969-1970 season, when he racked up 15.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The Celtics retired Nelson’s number 19 jersey in 1978, two years after he retired.
A storied coaching career
Even if Nelson hadn’t already earned a place in the list of all-time greats as a player, he certainly would have by the end of his coaching career. Don Nelson got his first head coaching position, with the Milwaukee Bucks, in the first year after his retirement. Over the next several years, he transformed the Bucks into a fearsome championship contender.
Nelson became known for a variety of unconventional strategies. For instance, he was fond of stationing non-scoring centers near mid-court, in order to draw shot-blocking defenders out of the paint. In his 11 seasons coaching the Bucks, Nelson compiled an impressive 540-344 record, while twice taking home NBA Coach of the Year honors.
Nelson left the bucks following the 1987 season. After one season of broadcasting work, he took a head coaching position with the Golden State Warriors. Nelson once again proved adept at turning a struggling franchise around through unconventional — and surprisingly modern — techniques. He favored a run-and-gun type of offense built around three guards.
After seven years coaching the Warriors, Nelson spent a year with the New York Knicks, seven years with the Dallas Mavericks, and then another four years with the Warriors. Over his 31 seasons as a head coach, Nelson won a total of 1,335 games, which stands as the greatest win total by any NBA coach.
Don Nelson’s unexpected new hobby
Nelson retired from coaching following the 2009-2010 season. Since then, he’s been living on the Hawaiian island of Maui. There he’s taken up quite an interesting new hobby — farming marijuana. Of course, Nelson isn’t growing it commercially, but rather for his own personal enjoyment.
Nelson calls his marijuana “Nellie Kush.” In a recent video profile on HBO, Nelson discussed various aspects of his new marijuana career, from the excessive care the plants require to his friendship with fellow pot-proponent Willie Nelson. From the sounds of things, Nelson is living up his post-retirement life to the fullest.