Don Nelson decided about three hours before tipoff that he wasn't feeling up to the job on the eve of his prostate cancer surgery.
The elder Nelson watched the game on TV in the coaches locker room, then went straight to owner Mark Cuban's plane for a flight to Salt Lake City, where he'll undergo surgery early Thursday.
He's expected to remain at the Huntsman Cancer Institute for six days and be gone from the team 6-8 weeks, missing up to 26 games.
"He has been very upbeat," Donnie Nelson said. "The fact that the hour is arriving, he's become a little more quiet. Just keep him in your prayers."
Fans arriving for Wednesday night's game signed a "Get Well Nellie" banner, then saw it paraded around the court during pregame introductions while the public-address announcer wished Nelson a speedy recovery. A youngster waved a poster that read "Get Wellie Nellie."
Donnie Nelson was quiet at the start, watching most of the first quarter crouched near midcourt. He shouted simple commands such as "Go!" "Run!" and "Back!" as Dallas fell behind by 15 midway through the second quarter.
He became much more animated in the second half as the Mavericks rallied to lead by three, trail again by 12 and eventually tie the game in the final minute. Then Detroit's Jerry Stackhouse hit three free throws in the final 26 seconds.
During the comeback, Nelson was very vocal and emotional. Sometimes it was comical as he used body English to try helping shots fall. One time he even flashed a signal with one hand and waved encouragement with his other.
When Steve Nash missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, Nelson dropped his head and slumped his shoulders.
Donnie Nelson has known since Christmas that he would be taking over, although he expected his first game to be Friday at Toronto. He began assuming more duties by running practice Monday and Tuesday. By Tuesday night, he realized his debut as interim coach might be bumped up.
"I knew last night that there was a strong possibility that he would not be physically able to coach, judging how he was reacting to his medicine," he said. "He wanted to leave it for a game-time decision."
In addition to dizziness caused by the medicine, Don Nelson was feeling weak because he had to avoid solid foods for two days.
Doctors had warned the 60-year-old Nelso that he might not feel up to coaching the night before his surgery, but he refused to ease his schedule until experiencing the side effects.
"You've got to understand, Nellie's played with 205-degree temperatures. He's one of those guys who is an old warhorse, he's going to show up and do his job," his son said. "Until you actually go through it, you don't know how your body is going to respond."
So, what about that projected two-month absence?
"I would say that's highly likely," Donnie Nelson said.
Don Nelson, who recently became the third winningest coach in NBA history, had planned on giving up coaching after last season. But Cuban's eagerness and a lucrative contract lured him back.
He's glad he did as the Mavericks are off to their best start in more than a decade.
His son doesn't want to mess it up.
"I think we're ready," said Donnie Nelson, in his 15th season as an NBA assistant coach. "I think we've had two really good practices. I think we're certainly prepared. We're upbeat and energetic. I think the guys want to do well for Nellie."
Nelson originally planned to turn the team over to assistant coach Del Harris, who had filled in for four games while Nelson decided how to fight his cancer. Harris, however, said the younger Nelson was better suited for the job.
"I don't have a goal in mind," said the younger Nelson, who is Dallas' director of player personnel. "I'm just trying to get through this month, month and a half, two months, and not lose ground."
The potential upside for Donnie is doing a good enough job to get hired by another NBA team. The downside?
"You don't want to be fired by your own old man," he said.
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