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Jim O’Brien: Attorney Garry Nelson still a formidable court figure

August 10, 2013

Jim O’Brien: Attorney Garry Nelson still a formidable court figure

Jim O’Brien’s column on Garry Nelson For The Valley Mirror

Garry Nelson stood tall, and patiently, at a doorway in the lobby of the Allegheny County Jail, waiting to be admitted to confer with one of his clients earlier this month.

Nelson, at age 63 and 6-feet 10-inches tall, may be the tallest defense attorney in town.  A guard recognized him and asked, “You’re one of the twins, aren’t you?

Nelson nodded and said, “You’re too young to remember us.”  And the guard said, “No, I saw you guys play.  You were good.”

Garry and his brother Barry joined 6-10 Gary Majors to form a fearsome frontline for Duquesne at the outset of the ‘70s.  “We had the tallest team in NCAA Division I,” recalled Nelson.  They were a tough threesome under the boards.

During the Nelsons’ three varsity seasons, the Dukes were 21-5, 17-7 and 21-4, nationally ranked and played in the NIT and NCAA tournaments.

The Nelson Twins both credit their coach at Duquesne University, John “Red” Manning for much of their success as collegiate basketball players.

Manning was a smart guard on Chick Davies’ teams at Homestead High before he moved on to play ball at Duquesne University.  Under Davies, the Homestead Steelers won a WPIAL and PIAA basketball championship in 1950.  He had been a successful basketball coach before he came to Homestead when he served at DuquesneUniversity.

Manning would be an important figure in DuquesneUniversity basketball for 33 years. His record from 1958 to 1974 was 247-138.  He was a no-nonsense kind of coach, sometimes too grim for his own good.

He was furious when he found out that Barry Nelson had wrestled a bear at the West Penn Sportsmen’s Show at the Civic Arena,   That was in late February, 1970, in the middle of a basketball season.  It was an Alaskan Brown Bear named Gentlemen Ben.  It stood 7-feet 10-inches on its hind legs and weight 675 pounds.

Barry used some of the same moves he called upon to defend against Big Bob Lanier, a brawny 6-11 center from St. Bonaventure University.  Roy McHugh, a sports columnist at The Pittsburgh Press at the time, was disappointed that Barry did not use a full-Nelson or a half-Nelson to subdue Gentleman Ben, but he did wear the bear out before he jumped on its back and pinned the bear, and picked up perhaps $50 in prize money.

Manning put the Dukes through a demanding practice at their next session to show them his unhappiness with their off-the-court shenanigans.

But Garry Nelson also remembers that the Dukes were the most popular sports team in town during his days on The Bluff.

“In our senior season (1970-71), we were upset by Pitt in the Steel Bowl, and then won 15 straight games,” Nelson said.  “That loss to Pitt still haunts me.”

When knowledgeable Duquesne fans reflect on the team’s storied history, they think of Chuck Cooper, Dick and Dave Ricketts, Sihugo Green, Willie Somerset, Norm Nixon, Billy Zopf and Mickey Davis, who all played pro ball.

And they remember the Nelson Twins.  They came from FoxChapelHigh School, but that was a bit misleading.  They grew up in Blawnox, a blue-collar community along the Allegheny River, that just happened to be in the FoxChapelSchool District.  Fox Chapel was a cut above Blawnox on the society scene.

They grew up in the shadow of The Workhouse, which was a penal institution where men who committed lesser crimes were locked up.  “Those short-term inmates worked farm fields on a hill above the Workhouse,” recalled Garry Nelson.  “We’d get chased when we played ball in those fields.”

The workhouse was closed in 1971 when the Nelsons were seniors at Duquesne, and was developed into the RIDCIndustrial Park.  “I definitely think there should still be a place like the Workhouse for petty criminals,” Nelson said.

He’s among the Duquesne alumni who think that building a jail below The Bluff and the DuquesneUniversity campus and the Eastern entryway to downtown was some kind of cruel joke perpetrated by the City Fathers, probably Pitt grads.  Of course, the old jail building still stands at the base of the other side of the campus.

He reported that his brother Barry is now living in Plano, Tex., “still working on his hand speed, foot speed and his flexibility to improve his squash game.”  Barry is in sales division of Hewlett-Packard.

Both had brief flings at playing pro ball, but were among the late cuts.  Garry had tryouts with the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA and the Buffalo Braves of the NBA, and ended up playing in the Eastern Basketball League and in Italy for a few years.  Barry played a year for Milwaukee Bucks and played three years in Paris.

Their dad was a teamster and Garry got into the trucking business with Eazor Express, and driving a truck and then as a manager for McClean Trucking Co. at their terminal in Winston-Salem, N.C., and returned to Pittsburgh with Roadway Express.

He decided he wanted to do something different with his life, and entered Duquesne LawS chool.  “I started with three children under three and ended with four under five-years old in my third semester,” he said.  Garry graduated from Duquesne’s Law School in 1982.

He began by trying cases as a prosecutor in Robert Colville’s district attorney’s office, trying 62 juries-to-verdict in two years.  He then joined Grogan, Graffam, McGinley and Lucchino, a law firm at Gateway Three, and continued trying cases.  Now he’s on his own.

“It’s a competitive business,” he said.  “There’s a scoreboard.  You want to win for you and your client.  You have to be well prepared when you go to court, just like when you went onto a basketball court.

“I think that athletics in general helps with teamwork and competition which prepares one for business,” he continued.  “Our coaches at Duquesne, Red Manning, Al Bailey and John Cinicola, made sure that we were prepared for the season.

“Our father was a hard-working Dane from South Dakota, and he instilled a great work ethic in us, and a consideration for other people and honesty.  Our mother was Pittsburgh Irish with a great sense of humor and the ability to work through tough times.”

Asked what he does best to be successful these days, he said, “I return my phone calls and I do not procrastinate.”

Jim O’Brien has written 24 books in his “Pittsburgh Proud” series.  His website is and his e-mail address is




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