Donnie Nelson never envisioned himself wielding power-broker status.
That, he thought, was reserved for the alligator-shoe-wearing crowd. Not for a guy born in Iowa City, Iowa, the son of a basketball coach.
But Nelson and his cowboy boots lifestyle have fit quite well among the top executives of the NBA.
Nelson is general manager and president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. He also owns the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends and has invested heavily in a residential and entertainment development called South Side, and the honky-tonk bar Gilley’s, both in southern Dallas.
“To take kind of a discarded part of the city and get it back on its feet and provide jobs and housing for folks that are medium-to-low income has just been something I’m blessed to be involved with and is very rewarding,” Nelson said of South Side. “We took the old south side of Dallas, the old Sears building that was a war zone when we first got involved, and we flipped [it].”
Earlier this month, Nelson became co-owner of the Professional Futsal League, a hardcourt, five-a-side derivative of soccer, an interest that he said came from his 23-year-old daughter Christie.
“We were looking at buying the Sidekicks, and that’s when my daughter, at the breakfast table, said, ‘Hey, gee whiz, we should really kind of take a look at this Futsal thing,’ ” Nelson said. “She went up to Milwaukee and she had a chance to meet some of the other [Futsal] industry leaders, and Keith Tozer, who is now our commissioner, and Rob Andrews, the international guy.
“We kind of changed gears and said, ‘Hey, go big or go home. Instead of getting a franchise, why not look at this entire league, because it was FIFA approved and anointed as an official developmental sport and there was a lot of interest.”
Nelson later convinced Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to purchase a principal stake in the league.
After spending three years as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, where he formed a close relationship with point guard Steve Nash, Nelson became an assistant on his father’s Mavericks staff in 1998.
“Steve was playing behind Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson [in Phoenix], so he couldn’t get the time of day,” Nelson said. “So my first conversation with my dad when I came to Dallas was, ‘Hey listen, I’ve got your quarterback and he’s sitting behind those two guys.’ ”
On draft day, June 24, 1998, the Mavericks were part of a three-team trade with the Milwaukee Bucks and Suns that ultimately landed Dirk Nowitzki and Nash in Dallas. It’s the only time in NBA history that two players who went on to be league MVPs were included in the same trade.
After Nash left Dallas for Phoenix in 2004, he was the league’s MVP in 2005 and 2006 with the Suns. Nowitzki took home MVP honors in 2007.
While Nelson regrets allowing Nash get away in free agency, it allowed funds to acquire Jason Terry and eventually win an NBA title in 2011. It was a championship roster Nelson stitched together that included Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakovic, DeShawn Stevenson, J.J. Barea, Brendan Haywood, Corey Brewer, Nowitzki and Terry.
“As far as Dirk goes, we’re still kind of reaping the benefits of that deal that happened 18 years ago,” Nelson said. “Words can’t describe how blessed I feel to have run into Dirk when he was a teenager and to have him by the luck of the draft end up in a Mavericks uniform and carry the baton in a way that very, very few superstars can carry it.
“His humility, his spirit, his DNA is all over this franchise from really the time that he started kicking in.”
Now 53, Nelson has been with the Mavericks through 11 consecutive seasons (2000-11) of 50 or more wins, including three with 60 or more. He also has been part of three Western Conference Finals teams, two NBA Finals and that coveted championship.
In 2007, Sports Illustrated named Nelson the second-best personnel boss in the NBA. In 2009, Yahoo! Sports named him the third-best general manager for the decade of 2000-09.
Nelson, however, has never been named the NBA’s executive of the year.
“I don’t want that executive of the year [award],” Nelson said. “No. 1, I think there are 29 guys out there that are as good as or better than me. There’s a lot of politics that goes behind it. I would much rather be the guy behind the scenes.”
The Mavericks are 29-26 this season and open the stretch run of the season Friday in Orlando, Fla.
“Look, once you get in the playoffs, as anyone can attest to years back when we won it, anything can happen,” Nelson said. “The good news is we’ve got veterans that know how to win big games, and for some reason this team pulls out its best in crunch time in the fourth quarter.
“We’re not perfect, but we weren’t perfect back a couple of years ago either when we won it. So the hope is that we continue to grow and come together and get better and be more consistent, and then we’re playing our best basketball at the right time and we’ll see what happens.”
Spoken like a true cowboy-boots-wearing executive.