Commentary: Iowa should honor Don Nelson, other past Hawkeyes


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Former Iowa basketball player Don Nelson became the NBA’s coach with the most career wins on Wednesday. Golden State’s 116-107 triumph over Minnesota moved Nelson past Lenny Wilkens with 1,333 coaching victories.

But Nelson hasn’t only been successful on the bench. Before having his No. 19 jersey retired by the Boston Celtics, the most storied franchise in the NBA, Nelson played his college ball at Iowa.

As a Hawkeye, he averaged 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per game over his career and was named the team’s MVP all three seasons he played — freshmen weren’t eligible to play during the 1960s.

Yet, nearly 50 years after leaving Iowa as the school’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder with 1,522 career points and 784 career rebounds, his No. 15 still hasn’t been retired by the program.

Quite honestly, I’m baffled.

I bring this up not only because of Nelson’s latest coaching milestone, but because of recent events surrounding the Iowa men’s basketball team.

When Fran McCaffery was introduced as the new men’s basketball coach on March 29, I sat in the Iowa Room of Carver-Hawkeye Arena listening to him speak. Before a word was uttered by either him or Athletics Director Gary Barta, I couldn’t help but notice the former players who showed up for this press conference.

Ryan Bowen, Jess Settles, Kenyon Murray, Wade Lookingbill, Jason Price, and Bobby Hansen were all among those in attendance that day.

One thing I believe separates football from basketball right now at Iowa is the acknowledgment of past Hawkeye heroes. For instance, at every home football game, a former Hawkeye player or coach is honored, and they get to walk out to midfield with the football captains for the game’s coin toss.
Why isn’t anything like this done for basketball?

No honorary tossing the ball up at the opening tip. No “Greg Stokes Night.” Nothing.

Sure, the Final Four team from 1980 was honored this past Halloween — at a football game. Why not use this as a way to boost attendance for a basketball game in December against Prairie View A&M?

I’ll give you a good example of how this can work: Look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

As recently as three to four years ago, no one spoke of them in the same breath as other Chicago pro teams. During the midst of the past two years as one of the NHL’s elite teams, however, a promotion is done at Wednesday home games in which a Blackhawk legend is honored before the opening face-off, kind of like the Iowa football games.

Now, with this sudden emphasis placed by the basketball program on reaching out to those connected to Iowa’s past, this is a good time to start doing something like this.

And when this finally does happen, why not begin with the man known around the NBA as “Nellie”?

With Devan Bawinkel graduating, no current Hawkeye dons No. 15. Why not place it with the likes of Nos. 10, 12, 21, 31, 33, 41, 46, and of course, No. 40?

Then from there, let’s take time to honor the others. Maybe not by retiring numbers necessarily, but by recognizing them for their contributions at Iowa. One night can honor someone such as Kenny Arnold, another can honor someone such as Dean Oliver, and so on.

People want to be passionate again about basketball, especially with the McCaffery era now in progress. Taking the time to honor someone like Nelson at the first home game next season could evolve into an idea similar to the one I’ve outlined.

And who knows? Maybe fans will fill Carver-Hawkeye Arena again when they not only see legends like Nelson return but also see them supporting the current regime and players involved with the program.

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