And my journey through life as a Warriors fan is inextricably linked to Nelson, for better and worse, as it is for others at GSoM: my dad took my brother and I to our first Warriors around the beginning of Nelson's relationship with the franchise, for years during my adolescence I blamed Nellie for sending the Warriors into an abyss of mediocrity with no end in sight post-Webber trade, and I welcomed the brief reprieve he offered us with the We Believe team.
But no matter how you felt about him, it's hard to deny that Nellie's philosophy and style of play made the Warriors exciting for Bay Area basketball fans who came of age in the late-80's to early-90's and a large part of that was a cast of characters he put on the court - there are certainly Warriors cult classics you could choose outside the Nellie era, but it only seems fitting to find one from the players that he put on the court within his quirky brand of ball.
My personal favorite, and the first player I thought of when SBN-NBA decided to do a NBA cult classic theme day, was free agent acquisition Keith "Mister" Jennings who gave me hope that I didn't really need to be taller to be a baller. And you can't really forget the energy that a guy like Šarūnas Marčiulionis brought to the court, who may or may not be considered a "cult classic".
But one guy who stands out as a Warriors cult classic - and probably an iconic Nellie baller - was 7-foot-7 Sudanese center Manute Bol.
In a sense, it might be hard to call Bol a uniquely Warriors fan favorite - he began his NBA career with the Washington Bullets (1985-1988) and you could probably argue that his biggest moment came with the Philadelphia 76ers when he hit six threes against former teammate Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. On the other hand, it's hard to ignore that Manute Bol-The-Three-Point-Assassin didn't really emerge until he joined Nellie's Warriors in 1988 - he hadn't made a NBA three until that point in his career and the 20 he made that year ended up being a career high.
You don't want to say that Nellie made a player like Bol - that partially denies the player's own agency in creating his legacy. But it's almost impossible not to see Nellie's imprint on what made Bol such a memorable player.
But while Bol excited fans in D.C., Oakland, and Philadelphia with his awkward-looking threes and shot blocking ability, he also made an impact worldwide. One of the people who names Bol as a hero is Guor Marial, a South Sudanese marathon runner who competed in the recently-completed 2012 London Olympics and was recently the subject of a Kansas City Star article by Sam Mellinger.
His journey from escaping civil war to running in the Olympics has roots in Olathe, of all places. A man who lived there died so that more could live. Marial never met that hero. But his face lights up when he hears the name.
Manute Bol inspired a generation born into South Sudan with his courage, and Marial is one of three athletes from the country to make to this summer’s Games. Luol Deng, the Chicago Bulls star who helped Bol through his later years, played basketball for England. Lopez Lomong, another former refugee, was adopted by an American family. He finished 10th in the 5,000 meters for the U.S. team on Saturday.
Bol was 7 feet 7 and became famous for being the tallest player in NBA history, at least at the time. But he never forgot his life’s purpose. Basketball was a tool for him. A tool to fight decades of violence that killed an estimated two million people in his native Sudan.
Marial ultimately finished 47th in London and his relationship to his native South Sudan is complicated, as Mellinger describes. But he's just the latest example of just how far-reaching Bol's impact was.
Steve Perrin of SB Nation described the "cult classic" theme as tributes to, "players that earned a following within their fanbase that was, shall we say, disproportionate to their skill levels on the basketball court." Many of the guys discussed as cult classics today were loved by the fan bases of a city for being sort of quirky on the court, but few meant as much to their extended fan base outside of the NBA as Bol did.
Who would you pick as a Warriors cult classic? Check out what other SBN NBA sites are saying and drop your thoughts in the comments.