NBA Finals berth puts Mav-nots past to rest

June 07, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Dallas Mavericks? They're big shots now, playing in the NBA Finals starting tomorrow, but they used to be colossal bunglers. I should know. I covered them in their formative years for the Dallas Times Herald, and any doubters can check the tape of CBS' broadcast of Game 4 of the 1984 Western Conference semifinals, in which I play a starring role, with my mouth as wide-open as a pig's on a Thanksgiving table.

CBS' cameras caught me after a moment that still ranks among the most remarkable I have seen in any contest. With a chance to beat the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 and even the series, a Mavericks rookie guard named Derek Harper dribbled out the clock with the score tied at the end of regulation, then threw the ball in the air in celebration, thinking the Mavericks had won.

The cameras cut to Dallas coach Dick Motta, who had led the Washington Bullets to an NBA title several years earlier. His mouth was open, a vision of sheer astonishment. Perched just behind Motta on press row, I had the same expression.

Predictably, the Lakers won the nationally televised game in overtime, and my phone started ringing. Friends and colleagues from across the country called to tell me my mouth had been so open they could have driven cars through it. Such comedians.

Harper's brain cramp sums up the Mavericks' inglorious history until now. They've had some winning seasons, but they're 148 games under .500 since being hatched in 1980, and like other star-crossed franchises such as football's Arizona Cardinals or baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays, it was always just a matter of time until they botched whatever they were doing.

The first player to sign with the franchise was Ralph Drollinger, a former UCLA center who - get this - signed literally as he came out of knee surgery. He played in six games, compiling 15 points and 16 fouls. Then his knee gave out.

The Mavericks had wanted Drollinger because they intended to build a Christian-based franchise, much like the Colorado Rockies today. (Drollinger, 52, now runs an evangelical company that provides ministry to legislators.) The religious experiment was quickly abandoned as losses piled up.

The Mavericks won just 15 and 28 games in their first two seasons, relying on alphabet-soup no-names such as Kurt Nimphius, Abdul Jeelani and Stan Pietkiewicz. (I became a Nimphius fan when I caught him reading the autobiography of Doors lead singer Jim Morrison on a flight.)

The point guard was former Maryland star Brad Davis, whose early departure from College Park in 1977 had infuriated Lefty Driesell. He was playing for the Anchorage Northern Knights of the Continental Basketball Association in 1980 when the Mavericks signed him to a 10-day contract that became a lifetime deal. Davis wore a Mavs uniform until 1992 and still works for the team

Adding All-Stars such as Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman turned the Mavericks into winners, but they still were cursed. They wasted the fourth pick in the 1982 draft on a bust, forward Bill Garnett. (Hall of Famer Dominique Wllkins went one pick earlier.) Harper dribbled out the clock on their best shot at upsetting Magic Johnson's Lakers. Roy Tarpley gave them the inside force they had lacked, but his career was cut short by drug problems.

Then things really fell apart. The Mavericks staggered through the '90s, winning as few as 11, 13 and 19 games in different seasons. GM Norm Sonju had claimed hockey would rule their Sun Belt town over his dead body, but he watched the NHL's Dallas Stars come to town in 1993 and later win a Stanley Cup.

The Mavericks were as moribund as any franchise in sports before Don Nelson's aggressive coaching and new owner Mark Cuban's deep-pocketed, spirited stewardship revived them. (Cuban bought the team from Ross Perot Jr. in 2000.)

Longtime observers still assumed they would lose when they went on the road for Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs last month. The Mavericks always blow it, right? This time, they won in overtime.

Then, when the Phoenix Suns were threatening to take over the Western Conference finals last week, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki poured in 29 points in the last 15 1/2 minutes of Game 5 to put the Mavericks in control.

As they wrapped up the series in Phoenix two nights later, the TNT network quickly ran through the franchise's lamentable history, revisiting Davis, Aguirre and Tarpley, among others. They left out the infamous shot of my wide-open chops, circa 1984, but I expect it to air sometime during the Finals. As a metaphor for just how far the Mavericks have come, my gaping mouth trumps all.

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