Story by Sarah Ruppenthal | Photography by Nina Lee | Art Direction by Cecilia Fernández Romero | Flowers by Paradise Flower Farms
They say good things come in small packages, but don’t tell that to six-foot, six-inch NBA coach Don Nelson. One of the most successful coaches in the history of professional basketball, Nelson has achieved a legacy of sizeable proportions—both on and off the court.
After years of dazzling fans across the nation as one of the game’s greatest “sixth men,” the Boston Celtics champion retired his green-and-white #19 uniform (it now hangs ceremonially in the rafters of Boston Garden), to take the coaching world by storm.
As head coach for San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors, Nelson is the second- winningest coach in NBA history, racking up an impressive 1,280–954 win-loss record over a span of twenty-nine years, and earning the prestigious NBA Coach of the Year Award on three separate occasions.
Key to Nelson’s winning strategy is his knack for recruiting talent. So it should come as no surprise that when he and wife Joy decided to build a home in Kula nearly ten years ago, the coach knew exactly whom to recruit for the job.
George Rixey recalls the day Nelson phoned, asking to meet him at the property. Moments later, the Maui architect was making the drive to the twenty-two-acre vacant lot up in the clouds.
When Rixey arrived, he was surprised to see his new client had set up camp on the property, and was cooking hot dogs under the evening sky—not your conventional business meeting, but one that set the tone for the months to come. “I liked him instantly,” Rixey remembers. “It was hard not to.”
As they sat in the stillness of the crisp mountain air, Nelson shared his vision: the home was to be a retreat for entertaining guests, and it should take full advantage of the dramatic setting. There was a third and final requirement: Nelson wanted the home to comfortably accommodate his stature.
“Don was a very hands-off client,” Rixey says. In fact, after construction began, Nelson left Maui to resume his coaching duties, and did not see the property again until the house was completed.
Despite his absence during its construction, the house is remarkably evocative of its owner—“an extension of Don’s personality,” Rixey says. “He has a very solid, stable presence, but he is also extremely outgoing.”
The architect decided to represent Nelson’s strength and easygoing nature through the primary elements of concrete, glass and steel; and a floor plan that flows seamlessly from entryway to lanai. “The design is intended to bring you to the best view,” Rixey explains. “The scale of the building reflects the client.”
Built in three separate segments—a massive garage, guest quarters and main living area—the home is open and bright, with generous proportions that contribute to the sense of spaciousness. Vaulted ceilings rise to sixteen feet in the living room, ten feet in the master bathroom. Sliding glass doors eight feet high open to the lanai. Ten-foot-tall doorways are accented by expansive, thick-paned windows.
The home features indoor and outdoor fireplaces, two detached bedrooms and a king-sized bed that folds into the wall to maximize the living space. The décor, a contemporary blend of Hawaiiana and Asian influences, lends drama and elegance to the rustic surroundings.
Today the immaculate grounds of the Nelson home are accented with jacaranda trees, vibrant gardens, and a thriving koa forest. But when Rixey first arrived to survey the property, he found himself standing before an overgrown forest of invasive wattle trees, many of which had been chopped down, their trunks and stumps abandoned. Because access roads to the remote property were too steep and narrow for large trucks to navigate, the dense vegetation couldn’t be hauled away. Instead, it was ground up on site and recycled.
The terrain here is so heavily sloped that, although the house is a modest 2,600 square feet, construction was no easy task. With limited space for building, Rixey and local contractors Bill Cunningham and Greg Oldfield quickly learned to make every square inch count. Take the thirty-four massive concrete piers that support the roofs. Intended to represent the strength of the owner, these magnificent, ten-foot-tall columns are surfaced with aggregate black-lava chips; handcrafted on site, they were mixed, sprayed and poured into concrete forms, where they took nearly four weeks to cure.
“The process was so time-consuming,” says Rixey, “that while they were curing, we built the roofs in what is now the driveway, then lifted them with a crane and dropped them on top of the columns. You don’t see that every day.”
Yet the most distinguishing element of this lovely property is the unobstructed view that stretches out to the sea—a visual marvel that Nelson’s daughter Lee never tires of.
“A sense of peace and serenity comes over me when I am there,” she says. “I feel blessed when I look out over the island and take in all that she has to offer.”
Don Nelson had imagined a home that would be the pinnacle of tranquility—in more ways than one. Recruiting the right talent made transforming his dream into reality a slam dunk.