This international wave the NBA surfs — the one that led it to send the Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs to Mexico City last week for a game never played — wasn’t a ripple when Donnie Nelson’s mom sent him to South America to play for Athletes in Action when he was a college freshman.
“She twisted my arm and forced me to do it because she thought it’d open my eyes to the world,” he said.
Some 30 years later, a mother’s decision has shaped in so many ways the Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operation’s life and done its part to transform the NBA landscape as well.
“I fought it and fought it and then I went down there,” he said, “and loved it so much, I did it every year.”
The son of former Celtics player and NBA head coach Don Nelson traveled with the Christian sports ministry group those first two years to South America, where he sometimes played games in the rain and rode midnight buses through the Andes mountains. He toured Europe for two more years, including a Soviet Union trip his final year when he faced a Lithuanian player named Sarunas Marciulionis years before communism collapsed there.
“I came back home and told my dad, ‘Hey, there’s a guy behind the Iron Curtain who’s pretty darn good,’ ” he said. “And that’s what started the whole thing for me.”
That whole thing was being at the forefront — and in the middle — of a globalization that has transformed the sport. In 1989, he helped persuade Marciulionis to sign with the Golden State team his dad coached. Eastern Europeans Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and others also came to the NBA about the same time the Berlin Wall fell.
“I grew up shagging balls for the old Celtics, so I knew what an NBA player looked, breathed and smelled like,” Nelson said. “So I would come back and say, ‘Hey, Dad, there’s a Larry Bird over there, only this guy is 7-4.’ When you’re over there and actually locking horns with them, you realize these guys belong.”
That 7-4 Larry Bird to whom Nelson referred was former Soviet and EuroLeague superstar Arvydas Sabonis. He was drafted by Portland in 1986 but didn’t arrive in the NBA until nearly a decade later after foot injuries had robbed him of his mobility.
Nelson and his father swung Dallas’ draft-day trades in 1998 to acquire the rights to relatively unknown Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) as well as Steve Nash (Canada) from Phoenix. The Mavs have been among the league leaders in acquiring international players during Nelson’s time running the franchise.
“The cultural exchanges that have happened over the years are really good,” he said. “It’s good for our team, good for our fans. It teaches world peace and tolerance. It helped me grow. My mom told me you’re going on this thing and I fought it. It changed my life. It really did.”
NBA short takes
An ounce of pretension is worth ...
Whatever happened to just saying you’re playing again Sunday?
Kobe Bryant announced his return after eight months away because of a torn Achilles’ tendon by uploading a two-minute video to his Facebook page Friday. The professionally produced video — entitled “Seasons of Legend” — shows his No. 24 L.A. Lakers jerseys flapping in a dramatically lighted sky that transforms from clouds of creation into sleet, snow and pelting rain that tear the jersey before the sun returns and the jersey is made whole again.
The video ends like a Hollywood blockbuster movie trailer with these words on the screen: The Legend Continues … December 8.
Get your popcorn and watch him play Toronto, I guess.