An in-depth look at
Posted July 2006
A D-III school's NBA crusade
By Jason Bailey
No Division III basketball players were selected in the NBA draft this year.
But the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks might never have met in the 2006 NBA Finals without the work of two graduates from Wheaton (Ill.) — Heat general manager Randy Pfund ’74 and Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson ’86.
Both played basketball at Wheaton for four years, served as a team co-captain during their senior season, and have since been inducted into the school’s Hall of Honor. And both were influenced to attend the evangelical Christian school because of their fathers.
When Pfund’s Miami Heat defeated Nelson’s Dallas Mavericks in six games it was only their latest stop on what is a lonely path from Division III student-athlete to NBA executive.
Pfund and Nelson became general managers only after being scouts, assistant coaches, and interim head coaches. Unlike Hall of Fame general managers Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Jerry West, they never had a professional basketball career.
Everything changed when Nelson walked into his Brookfield, Wis., home to find out that his father was leaving the family. Nelson, who had just returned from his first year at a Massachusetts prep school, was left to take care of his mother and three younger sisters.
“I really ended up going to Wheaton because it was close to home,” said Nelson, who majored in physical education. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
Nelson passed up interest from several Big Ten and Big East schools to play basketball at Wheaton and currently sits in the Top 20 for points and rebounds in school history. He was the leading scorer on several bad teams, which finished 37-63 in his four seasons.
His mother, Sharon, attended almost all 100 of his basketball games. (She also watched two of her daughters play basketball at Wheaton.) Often present in the stands was his father, Don, to whom Nelson has grown closer while working with him in the NBA.
Don Nelson had his number retired by the Boston Celtics in 1978 after a 14-year tenure in the NBA and has compiled the third-most wins in league history as the head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks and Mavericks.
“A lot of times I went with aliases (in high school),” the younger Nelson recalled. “I didn’t want people to know who my dad was — I wanted to achieve things on my own.”
Mission accomplished. Nelson is recognized as one of the best international scouts in the NBA, has won three bronze medals in the Olympics as an assistant coach with the Lithuanian national team and serves as the chief advisor for the Chinese national team.
His interest in foreign basketball players began after his freshman year at Wheaton, when his mother convinced him to spend one month traveling throughout South America with Athletes in Action, a sports ministry founded by Campus Crusade of Christ.
“I had the chance to see how basketball was played in different countries and different cultures. It was just an incredible mix of experiences that cannot be replicated,” Nelson said. “You can go down to EPCOT at Disney 1,000 times and you just don’t get that feel of those cultures when you are actually there.”
Learning how to maintain long-lasting relationships has been the key to Nelson’s success. He holds the distinction of signing the first NBA players from the Soviet Union (Sarunas Marciulionis) and China (Wang Zhizhi) and was instrumental in the 1998 draft-day trade in which the Mavericks acquired the rights to Dirk Nowitzki.
“Whether it is an NBA franchise or school or life in general, it’s the people that make the difference,” Nelson said. “It’s not the bricks and mortar at the American Airlines Center that make that place what it is — it’s the people. And it’s the same at Wheaton.”
After playing quarterback and safety at Wheaton North High School, he was recruited to play football at several Big Ten schools. Pfund followed his two brothers to Wheaton, however, in order to play for his father, Lee, who coached basketball for 24 years.
“I was more excited about the game of basketball and had seen the success of the family ahead of me in basketball,” explained Pfund, who remembers watching his father lead Wheaton to the 1957 national championship. As a freshman, Pfund had the opportunity to play on an organized basketball team with his older brother Kerry for the first time.
Pfund, a point guard during his collegiate career, holds the school record with 478 career assists and is sixth all-time in career points.
With a publicized travel schedule that takes him through 29 cities each year, Pfund said he is able to keep in touch with many of his friends across the country. During road trips to Milwaukee or Chicago, he often returns to King Arena to watch Wheaton basketball.
The atmosphere of Division III basketball is much different than that of the NBA because it emphasizes coaching, teamwork and execution rather than raw talent, Pfund said.
“A lot of guys who have gone on to be successful, both in college basketball and professional basketball, have roots in small college basketball,” Pfund said. “It’s the breeding ground to find people who are really dedicated to the game.”
Pfund, who majored in social sciences, got his first job teaching geography and coaching basketball at Glenbard South High School. Twenty-five years later, he earned his third championship ring — two as an assistant coach and his first as a general manager.
Pfund created a formidable Heat roster — drafting Dwyane Wade in 2003 and trading for 13-time All-Star Shaquille O’Neal in 2004.
“It’s very satisfying after 11 years of work with the Miami Heat to finally be able to have that parade,” Pfund said. “Things can change pretty quickly in professional sports.”
through the system
“I think it is kind of ironic that they ended up in the same game against each other with the same background from a small school,” Harbeck said. “It is rather a unique situation.”
He was not at all surprised, however, by how quickly Pfund and Nelson ascended the NBA ladder, describing both of the “prolific scorers” as incredibly competitive while adding that they were helped by the atmosphere at Wheaton, which promoted integrity.
“They understood that there is loyalty involved and they understood the ethics of hard work and paying their dues as they go through the system,” Harbeck said.
Nelson and Pfund are not the first Wheaton graduates to go through the system, joining Les Habegger ’54 and Dick Helm ’55, who coached Nelson during his freshman year. Habegger was the general manager for the Seattle SuperSonics and Helm served as an assistant coach to Larry Wilkens for 40 years — following the Hall of Fame coach from the SuperSonics to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Knicks.
Lee Pfund, who recruited Nelson’s father while at Wheaton, said the demands of being a general manager require Nelson and Pfund to be both thorough and trustworthy.
“I think the experience of Wheaton for both of those fellows made a difference in their lives as to how they would react in any situation — high school, college or pros,” Lee said.
Nelson has experience as an assistant coach with the Warriors, Mavericks and Phoenix Suns but decided to continue in his current role with the Mavericks after interviewing for a head coaching vacancy with the Denver Nuggets in 2002.
“I am absolutely having a ball with what I am doing,” Nelson said. “It is a different experience from actually being on the bench but I find that I am able to have more of an impact with the relationships I have from the business community and overseas.”
Without saying he would never coach again, Nelson emphasized that he has appreciated the chance to leave the bench and get extra time to reintroduce himself to his family.
“I don’t want to be one of those dads that has to introduce myself to my kids at their graduation,” said Nelson, who met his Swedish wife, Charlotte, with Athletes In Action. They have a 14-year-old daughter, Christie, and a 12-year-old son, D.J.
Pfund, who is single, worked closely with Pat Riley when he was the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers but did not follow him to the Knicks. Pfund was offered a number of coaching positions but waited until the right opportunity, rejoining Riley in Miami.
Pfund said he would never rule out the possibility of coaching again but emphasized that he is very happy with his current position, which he described as a pure basketball job.
“It’s pretty much basketball, basketball, and more basketball,” Pfund said. “That makes it a job that is not the same as coaching but is very similar to being in the coaching world.”
As general managers, Nelson and Pfund had very little time to enjoy their franchises’ first trip to the NBA Finals. Eight days after a decisive Game 6, they were forced to begin looking forward again — the 2006 NBA Draft was held on June 28.
And although Nelson and Pfund realize they must put in hard work during the offseason in order to meet in the 2007 NBA Finals, they also know not to take anything for granted.
“Great people make great things happen, so you have to have great people,” Nelson said. “But you have to be lucky — you have to have destiny on your side.”
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