Joel Novak Assisted Don Nelson in Pursuing Iowa Degree Later in Life
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Joel Novak is best remembered for an outstanding legal career, which included 32 years as an Iowa district court judge.
But Judge Novak loved to reminisce about his time on another court – The basketball court.
Novak, who passed away last week in Des Moines Sunday at 80 years of age, and his good friend Don Nelson were basketball stars at Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Ill.
Hawkeye coach Bucky O’Connor successfully recruited both of them, but never got to coach them. O’Connor died in a traffic accident in April of 1958. O’Connor’s assistant coach, Sharm Scheuerman, succeeded him.
Freshmen weren’t allowed to compete when Nelson and Novak, friends since they were 15 years of age, enrolled in the fall of 1958. Nelson was a three-year starter, earning all-American status while scoring 1,522 points and grabbing 784 rebounds. Novak started his final two seasons.
Nelson and Novak were senior co-captains in 1961-62. Nelson liked to tell people that Novak was the man responsible for him being the leading offensive rebounder in the Big Ten in all three of his varsity seasons.
Following their senior season, Scheuerman asked Novak and Nelson to coach Iowa’s 1962-63 freshman basketball team.
“We were going to divide $6,000,” Novak said in a 2013 interview. “That was a lot of money at the time. Nellie was going to stay and get his degree. But all of a sudden he said, “I’m going to go pro and finish my degree later. I didn’t blame him. He was a hot property.”
The Chicago Zephyrs took Nelson with the 17th overall pick of the 1962 NBA Draft. Nelson played 14 seasons, the last 11 with the Boston Celtics including five championships. The club retired Nelson’s No. 19 jersey in 1978.
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Nelson would go on to coach 2,298 NBA games for the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors, winning a record 1,335 of them before retiring after the 2010 season.
While Nelson spent his career in the NBA, Novak pursued the law. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree and receiving the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1962, Novak was admitted to law school at Iowa and got his Juris Doctorate degree in June of 1965.
After working for several Des Moines firms, Governor Robert D. Ray selected Novak as a 5th Judicial District Court trial judge in August of 1979.
Novak retired in September of 2011, but continued as a senior judge for six more years. He also served as the first Judge in Residence at the Drake Law School Legal Clinic until September of 2017.
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According to his obituary, “Joel felt deep gratitude for the many opportunities granted to him, and thought of them as ways God had blessed his life. He was grateful for the basketball scholarship that enabled him to pursue a college education; for the gift of being able to do the work he was called to do and loved, and for knowing he was in the right place in being able to serve as a judge. Joel just loved being a judge. His time in Residence at Drake University was, to Joel, an added bonus and blessing. Along with these opportunities, Joel gained the love and respect of many friends, peers and colleagues.”
The bond between Nelson and Novak remained strong, even though their careers went in different directions.
Nelson called Novak in 2011 to see what steps he needed to take to get his degree from Iowa. Novak contacted another former Hawkeye teammate, Mark Schantz, then emeritus general counsel at the University of Iowa.
Nelson, enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, had taken his needed foreign language requirement through correspondence.
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Once it was verified that Nelson had completed 10 hours of correspondence work in Spanish, two more than he needed to graduate, the university waived a requirement that Nelson complete student teaching. It was decided that Nelson’s career as a coach filled the teaching requirement.
In November of 2011, Novak called Nelson, got his voice mail and left a message: congratulations, graduate. Nelson called him back.
“He was so happy he was beside himself,” Novak recalled. “It means so much to him, and it means so much to me. Jokingly, I told him, “Nellie, I’ll get you a card but not a gift.’ His response was, “You gave me the gift of a lifetime.’”
Nelson donned a cap and gown and received his degree in commencement ceremonies at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in May of 2012, 50 years after he left campus. And Novak, his friend and teammate, was there to celebrate the moment.
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