No one pictured him becoming a coach.
When Don Nelson was starring on the basketball court for three seasons at Rock Island High School from 1955 to '58 and then becoming the all-time leading scorer at the University of Iowa, his coaches and teammates saw the physical talent. They could see the toughness and competitive fire. They recognized the work ethic.
None of them saw great leadership qualities.
They certainly never imagined that Nelson someday would win more games in the NBA than anyone who came before him.
"No, not at all," admitted Sharm Scheuerman, a fellow Rock Island product who was Nelson's coach at Iowa from 1959 to '62. "I never thought he would go like he did."
Going into Tuesday night's game at Washington, Nelson had won 1,332 games in 31 years as an NBA head coach, matching the total accumulated by Lenny Wilkens. The Warriors lost to Washington, but will take another shot at giving their coach the record tonight in Minnesota.
"Hey, when you're 125 years old, you should have that many wins ..." joked Joel Novak, a district court judge in Des Moines who played with Nelson at Rocky and Iowa and remains one of his closest friends. "The guy's older than Noah.
"But no, I don't think anybody thought of him being a coach back then."
Scheuerman and others, while professing genuine affection and admiration for Nelson, sometimes wondered about his intelligence in the early days of his career.
"In high school, he kind of struggled with his scholastics, I think," said Bill Bisby of Andalusia, who played with Nelson at Rock Island. "Then I think he got married and his wife kind of tutored him and got him through college."
Scheuerman also recalled that tutors played a major role in helping Nelson navigate the academic waters of college life.
"Nellie really worked his tail off just to get through school," he said.
But he did notice that Nelson was a student of the game.
"Nellie picked up the game on the street," Scheuerman said. "He just became street smart, I guess you could say. He picked up a lot and he observed."
Nelson also worked very, very hard to make himself a better player. It's something Nelson feels made him a better coach.
Larry Requet, who was a year behind Nelson at Rock Island, had to guard him every day in practice and recalled that he was one of the few players he played against who could shoot equally well with either hand.
Requet said Nelson lived in downtown Rock Island and he would walk to school, stopping along the way to shoot baskets at several different locations.
"Then he would go to the YMCA after practice and shoot some more," Requet said. "Most of us guys were tired and worn out, and he was still going."
The Nelson work ethic also is imbedded in Novak's memory.
"When I played against him in junior high, the kid couldn't run up and down the floor without tripping," Novak said. "But he really worked at it. He was like this flower that just sort of blossomed when he was a sophomore in high school."
Novak said the rail-thin Nelson would have teammates hang off his arms to see if he could pull them up.
"When I was with him, he put in all the time to be as good as he could be," Novak added. "I think he coaches the same way. It's all about time and effort."
As a junior at Rocky, Nelson averaged 12.6 points a game for a 25-3 team, then upped his average to 20.2 in helping the Rocks to a 22-4 mark in 1957-58.
Freshmen were not allowed to play varsity basketball in college in that era, but Nelson became an immediate star for the Hawkeyes as a sophomore, averaging 16 points a game. He was just under 24 points a game in his last two seasons.
Scheuerman offered he and Novak a chance to get into coaching right away, as the co-coaches of the Iowa freshman team. But Novak was going to law school and Nelson was drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs so that plan was shelved.
Nelson spent 14 seasons as a journeyman forward in the NBA, spending most of that time with the powerhouse Boston Celtics. Unsure of what he wanted to do after that, he took a job as an assistant coach under Larry Costello with the Milwaukee Bucks and suddenly found himself as the head coach when Costello was fired early in the 1976-77 season.
Three and a half decades later, he still is stalking the sidelines.
It's not clear how much longer Nelson will coach. This is assured of being his worst season in a decade, and he will turn 70 on May 15. He retired once before to languish on the beach in Hawaii, where he owns a large amount of property, only to be lured back into coaching by Dallas in 1997.
Nelson, who has not been in the Quad-Cities since his 40th high school reunion in 1998, might choose to hang it up and head back to the beach, leaving behind a victory total that Scheuerman said is "unfathomable."
The record is guaranteed to be his for at least three years, probably much longer than that. Among active coaches, Utah's Jerry Sloan is 145 wins behind Nelson and the Lakers' Phil Jackson trails him by 236.
"Nellie ended up doing pretty well," Scheuerman said in an admitted understatement. "He just took to it and stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed."