Don Nelson has spent a lifetime hanging out with a bunch of 20-somethings.
He did it for 14 seasons as an NBA player. He did it for 31 more seasons as an NBA head coach, compiling more victories than anyone else.
And he’ll do it Saturday morning, when he dons cap and gown and receives his degree in physical education from the University of Iowa in commencement ceremonies at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“The reason I coached all these years was that I enjoyed so much being around young, talented people,” said Nelson, who turns 72 next Tuesday. “This will be like coaching my teams, really. I love talented, young kids.”
Nelson left Iowa as an All-American in 1962, with a 21.2-point career scoring average but a few hours shy of a degree. He fulfilled his foreign language requirements through correspondence, but his NBA lifestyle never made it possible for him to return to Iowa City.
Retired from coaching in 2010, he’s finally making it happen.
“It means a lot to me personally,” said Nelson, who will be joined by more than 40 family members and friends in Iowa City to celebrate his graduation. “When I went to college, I was the first male in my family with a chance to go. One thing that was important to me was to get a degree. I was in the pros for so long that I had to postpone it until now. But it was a goal of mine, and I’ve achieved it.”
Nelson, who played on the Boston Celtics’ 1969 NBA championship team and coached 2,398 NBA games, winning a league-best 1,335, said he won’t be tied in emotional knots Saturday morning.
“I don’t think I’ll get nervous because I don’t have to give a speech,” said Nelson, who splits time between homes in Dallas and Maui, Hawaii. “I do look forward to throwing my hat up in the air. You can do that, right?”
Nelson graduated from Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Ill., in 1958, but he doesn’t recall attending ceremonies.
“I might have been on a basketball trip or something,” Nelson said. “I was probably in detention hall. I don’t recall. I think this will be the first time I’ve had a cap and gown on.”
Senior Judge Joel V. Novak of Des Moines, went to high school and college with Nelson, and they’ve been friends since they were 15. Novak can’t recall if Nelson attended his high school ceremony, either.
Nelson said he was motivated to get his degree, 50 years later, by Shaquille O’Neal. Nelson coached O’Neal and Dream Team II at the FIBA World Championships in Toronto, Ontario, in 1994.
“He went back and got his degree (from LSU), and now he’s going back to get a doctorate,” Nelson said. “He’s been an inspiration to me. I don’t believe he knows that. I never told him.”
Nelson called Novak, a retired Iowa District Judge for 32 years, in 2011 to see what he needed to do to graduate. Novak called another former teammate, Mark Schantz, emeritus general counsel for the university.
Once they verified Nelson had completed 10 hours of correspondence work in Spanish — he needed eight — the university waived the required student-teaching requirement since Nelson had done his share of teaching as a coach.
In early November, Novak called Nelson, got his voicemail and left the good news. Nelson returned the call.
“He was so happy he was beside himself,” Novak said. “It means so much to him, and it means so much to me. Jokingly, I told him, ‘Nellie, I’ll get you a card but not a gift.’ His response was, ‘You gave me the gift of a lifetime.’ I’m getting goosebumps talking about it.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball