IOWA CITY — Don Nelson will end his quest Saturday for the one accomplishment that has eluded him all these years — a college diploma.
Nelson, the NBA’s winningest coach, will graduate from the University of Iowa and receive his diploma from UI President Sally Mason 50 years after leaving the school. It was a lifelong goal for Nelson to graduate, and Saturday he achieves it.
“It’s one of the highlights of my life,” said Nelson from his home in Hawaii. “It’s right up there with winning championships with the Boston Celtics and making the Hall of Fame. I think making the Hall of Fame might be No. 1.”
Nelson, 71, left Iowa in 1962 just 10 credits shy of his degree in physical education. He needed eight hours of a foreign language and took six hours of correspondence work. He then completed four more hours while he was in Spain. But there was one problem.
“I called them, ‘I’ve got my language now what do I need?’ Nelson said. “And they said, ‘Well, you need practice teaching.’ ‘I’m working full-time, I’m not going to have time to go to school and practice teach,’ So I forgot about it.”
Once Nelson retired in 2010, he started to think about his diploma. In fact, an unlikely source gave him the idea for finishing his education.
“I got my inspiration really from Shaquille O’Neal,” Nelson said. “He went back and got his degree and now he’s going for his doctorate.
“The university, when I retired, said, ‘Well, you’ve been teaching for your whole life in basketball, so we’ll forgive the practice teaching and you’ve got enough credits. So come out.’”
Nelson will do exactly that. He had plans to fly into Chicago, pack up family and rent a bus. He’ll then head to the Quad Cities — Nelson is a Rock Island, Ill., native — and pick up some more family. In all, 45 family members are scheduled to attend including his sisters, seven children and all 15 grandchildren.
Nelson will stay in Iowa City for three days and meet former teammates, including current Polk County Judge Joel Novak. Iowa will honor Nelson with a framed jersey.
“There’s no question he’s one of our storied alums, great former players,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “What’s been fun to see is how excited Don is to come back with his family. He’s really made it a family deal about coming back and getting his degree and walking across the stage. President (Sally) Mason is anxious to meet him and having him back.”
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery will be out of town this weekend and said he regrets missing Nelson. Barta plans for Iowa’s current players to meet Nelson Saturday.
Nelson will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 7. He has an NBA all-time best 1,335 wins in 31 years of coaching.
At Iowa, Nelson ranks 11th all time in scoring with 1,522 points and averaged 21.2 points a game from 1960-62. Nelson led Iowa in scoring and rebounds and was named team MVP all three seasons he was eligible to play. He was named first-team all-Big Ten and second-team All-American in 1961 and 1962. He still holds Iowa’s record for most free throws in a game (21).
Nelson recalls his Iowa days fondly, especially his relationship with former coach Sharm Scheuerman, who died in 2010.
“What I remember most about it is playing for Sharm and our relationship over 50 years and how close we were and how much I loved that man,” Nelson said. “A role model certainly, but I could never duplicate that man’s life because he was so special. I certainly tried. I’m certainly a better person just by knowing him and talking to him. But we spent a lot of time together over the last 50 years.”
In the NBA, Nelson ranks among the most accomplished players. He played 14 seasons and won five championships with the Boston Celtics, who retired his No. 19 jersey in 1978. In 1976, he began his coaching career with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he stayed for 11 years. He’s credited for creating the “point-forward” role which the small forward runs the offense. Nelson also coached the Golden State Warriors for 11 years, the Dallas Mavericks for eight seasons and spent one year with the New York Knicks for one season.
His NBA teams reached the playoffs 18 times and he won 75 playoff games. He’s one of only two NBA coaches to win 250 games with three different teams.
Nelson’s accolades are unmatched in the annals of basketball. But this weekend it’s about family and receiving the piece of paper.“I want to walk down the aisle. It’s something I’ve never experienced,” he said. “It’s going to be a wonderful time with my family.”