Why weren’t the Nelsons at Dirk Nowitzki’s ceremony? Don says Mavs didn’t invite him.

By Brad Townsend

DALLAS — Two days have passed and the afterglow of Dirk Nowitzki’s jersey retirement ceremony remains bright.

The speeches, the video montages, the music and the banner-raising itself were poignant and virtually perfect by all accounts — except, as more than a few fans have pointed out to The Dallas Morning News, for the notable absences of the two men most responsible for Nowitzki becoming a Maverick.

Don and Donnie Nelson. The general manager who acquired Nowitzki’s draft rights on the night of June 24, 1998, and Don’s assistant GM/son who was insistently bullish about raw 19-year-old Nowitzki’s NBA potential.

“I wasn’t invited,” Don Nelson said when reached Friday at his home in Maui. “I really wanted to be there, but I didn’t feel that I should just show up without an invitation, so I didn’t.”

Don Nelson said he isn’t certain whether Donnie Nelson received an invitation. The elder Nelson said that he wasn’t able to catch the ceremony on TV, but he did read about it.

Nowitzki and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban thanked the Nelsons during their speeches, but given the elder and younger Nelsons’ roles in Nowitzki’s arrival and early career development, their physical absences were conspicuous.

“I read about what [Nowitzki] said,” Nelson said. “That was nice. I don’t think Dirk had any decisions about who was there. I think that’s all an organization thing. Mark Cuban’s in charge of that, I’m sure.”

A source told The News that Cuban was not in charge of the invite list. That was done by an event-planner. There was a three-page spread sheet of guests for whom Nowitzki requested tickets, but more than 60 were unable to make it to Dallas because of canceled airline flights that day or COVID-19 concerns.

“I was told Donnie was going to show up,” Cuban said. “But I haven’t talked to either of them so I have no idea what the deal was.”

If Cuban and the Nelsons aren’t on speaking terms, it would not be particularly surprising. After 24 years with the organization, the last 19 as president of basketball operations, Donnie Nelson was forced out by Cuban last June 16, days after the Mavericks failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the 10th straight season.

Donnie Nelson has not commented publicly since his Mavericks departure, and he did not response to a message seeking comment for this story. But the man who hired Don Nelson as Mavericks general manager in 1997 said he was shocked not to see either Nelson at the ceremony.

That man is Frank Zaccanelli, a Mavericks minority owner when Ross Perot Jr. was majority owner from 1996 to 2000.

“Dirk deserves every accolade and every tribute that anyone could ever give him,” Zaccanelli said. “He’s the most important person in Mavericks history. And he’s one of the most important people in Dallas’ recent history.

“The bottom line is he deserves everything that he gets and more, but it’s clear that Cuban carries these rifts and there were glaring holes [Wednesday night]. Don Nelson, other than Holger [Geschwindner] and Dirk’s father, is more responsible for the maturation of Dirk Nowitzki than any other human being.”

Zaccanelli emphasized that he has no ill will against Cuban. He’s well-aware that Perot in 2010 sued Cuban for “financial mismanagement” of the Mavericks, a suit that was dismissed, but Zaccanelli called Perot a “great owner who never sought credit” for the significant accomplishments during his tenure.

Those included the hiring of the Nelsons, the acquisitions of Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley, and the building of American Airlines Center.

“Cuban’s rift with Ross Jr. is his rift with Ross Jr.,” Zaccanelli said. “But without Ross Jr. he’d just be another guy who’s got billions of dollars [and] who no one really knows a lot about. And that’s a [expletive] fact. And not having Don Nelson at that ceremony, how could you do that?

“And I’ll say publicly: Mark Cuban owes me nothing. I don’t expect anything. I don’t ever expect any accommodation, nor do I want it. But for Ross Jr. and the Nelsons as it relates to Dirk Nowitzki, I mean, come on.”

Cuban and Don Nelson, too, were involved in past litigation. Nelson in 2007 sued Cuban for $6.6 million, money to which he said he was entitled after his departure from the Mavericks and ultimate re-landing at Golden State. An arbitrator ultimately awarded Nelson the $6.6 million and $800,000 for attorney fees.

Still, that didn’t dissuade Cuban’s continued employment of Donnie Nelson, until last June. During his Nowitzki retirement ceremony speech, Cuban did briefly credit the Nelsons.

“More than anything else,” Cuban said, turning toward Nowitzki, “for myself and my family, to you and your family, to Holger, to all your teammates always, to the Nelsons who helped bring you here, to everybody who made all this so special, thank you, Dirk.”

Though he wasn’t in American Airlines Center on Wednesday, there seemingly is a good chance Don Nelson will be one of Nowitzki’s presenters when he is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, most likely in his first year of eligibility, the Class of 2023.

Hall of Fame inductees can only be presented by someone who already is in the Hall. Don Nelson was Nash’s presenter when he was inducted in 2018.

In his jersey retirement ceremony speech, Nowitzki effusively showed appreciation to both Nelsons.

“I want to thank the two Nelsons, Donnie and Don, I was just drafted and I wasn’t sure whether I was coming to the U.S. I wasn’t sure if I was ready.

“Immediately when they heard this, they both got on the plane … and came to my hometown of Wurzburg, met my family, met Holger and wanted to see my roots. That meant a lot to me. … They wanted me very badly, and that meant a lot to me. I’ll always remember we had a barbecue at Holger’s house, and they were staying with me in Wurzburg. …

“Point of the story is they made that effort to come all the way to make me feel welcome and want me to come over there. … Old Nels with his philosophy of giving me freedom and letting me shoot. These two guys, I owe a lot. So, Nelsons, I’ll always be grateful.”

When it comes to the Hall of Fame, Nowitzki surely will be in charge of the invitations.

“I don’t travel anymore,” Don Nelson, 81 said, “but I would have gone to Dallas to honor him. If he asks me to put him in the Hall, I’m want to make sure I go to that, if he invites me.”


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