By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
But what you don't know is that it takes a lot of food--and several full platters of boredom--to bring rookies to Dallas to play basketball.
This is the part of the NBA draft you'll never see. This is where Norm Sonju's sweaty Kleenex meets the road--to the NBA.
At 5 p.m. on draft day, the media parking lot is full. Two years ago, this team couldn't have lured such a crowd to a hacks-drink-free night at the Million Dollar Saloon.
Deep within Reunion, Mavs owner Donald Carter has laid down a mandate: there shall be no fancy food in the War Room this year--hot dogs and kraut only.
In the "sponsors room," the dark and fancy place for people from the companies helping bankroll various facets of the Mavs' activities, they are eating, too. Sponsors, of course, are eating real food.
But in the war room--this year--it's all business. "Mr. C just decided he wanted hot dogs this year," explains media relations director Kevin Sullivan. "Usually it's the good stuff in the War Room--beef Wellington."
The War Room, of course, is the inner sanctum, protected by two bouncers, where the Mavs execute their NBA draft battle plan.
A few thousand fans also have turned out to watch the feed from Toronto on the big screen. Most are season ticketholders eating from a buffet on the floor of the arena. But admission is free, and the crowd wanders between the seats and the snack stands.
Downstairs, the reporters are pigging on spicy fajitas. Heads look up from plastic plates at 6:30 p.m. to see a guy on TV in a Raptors suit--for the new expansion Toronto Raptors--sliding down a wire.
Yes, the NBA draft has begun.
"Live, from the shores of Ontario," goes the TV voice from a green room somewhere--the holding pen for the expected top draft choices, who will be brought out after their selection.
At Reunion Arena on this day, there is no green room--just a guy in a green suit in the blue locker room. Last year's draftee of choice, Jason Kidd, is sitting alone on a trainers' table in the Mavs locker room, dangling dress-shoed feet like a little kid and wishing he didn't have to do anything but sit until 8:30 p.m., when the Mavs will make their pick.
The original plan was to drag Jason out onto the floor of Reunion to address the common folk. But with so many fans on the floor level, says Sullivan, the team worried the crowd might push in and Who-concert to death the future of the franchise.
It's just as well with the NBA co-rookie of the year. As Jason could tell the future Mavs' choice, it takes way the hell too much energy to be an NBA star. A visitor asks him if he played golf today. He says he was too tired. "I feel like I just woke up," Kidd moans.
Tony, a media relations herdsman, tells Jason that they need him to schmooze with the sponsors in the big room full of the good hors d'oeuvres. He mutters something under his breath--an exhausted "shit."
Marla walks in, asking him to sign some stuff for fans. "I can't watch the draaaaaft," he whines, sounding more like a weary high school kid during dead week.
Jason, Marla declares, you haven't signed stuff for me since April.
He begs to just sit there just long enough to see who Minnesota picks.
At 7 p.m., Jason rises to turn up the TV as the Timberwolves select Kevin Garnett, the high school kid. It is suggested that Jason will finally have someone his age to play with.
The weary NBA star laughs. The inevitable can be avoided no longer; Jason has to go meet the sponsors. He's just so tired. Tony assures him he won't have to "walk through people."
In the press room, there are now enough empty plastic cups to recycle into a swimming pool. But no media boozing here: since "Mr. C" doesn't allow drinking in the press room, they are empty Diet Coke cups. Everyone is here to watch the draft--which has so very little action to watch. "We started having this last year," says Sullivan, "because of Jason Kidd and all. But this year there were more requests from smaller markets like Sherman and Denison."
Portland picks Shawn Respert at number eight. His momma and sister are bawlin' on the TV. In Dallas, the big pick is just four away.
Downstairs, as New Jersey picks Ed O'Bannon at number nine, Jason Kidd gets a plate of these little bitty corn dogs and taquito things and slips into a seat at the least-threatening table in the dark sponsors' room. Three women make small talk as he nods politely and gnaws on the food.
They make him get up and draw a number for a free hat. Kidd puts down an egg roll and does as he is told. With that, last year's draft darling walks alone from the room, stopping just long enough to shake the hand of the bartender, who says he is a big fan. Kidd then walks past a pair of couples flirting by the petit-fours, down a corridor of vending machines, past the big instructional board issued by the concession company on how to pour the perfect snack-stand beer, and is finally spotted by two guys from Channel 11 who want him to do something at 9:20.
He politely informs them that he plans to be in bed at 9:20.
Upstairs, everyone passing the guards blocking the door of the War Room whispers--as though Donald Carter's got a ward full of high-risk preemies stowed in there, along with the hot dogs and kraut. As the number 11 pick is passed--miracle of miracles!--I gain brief admission to the inner sanctum.
Inside, Dick Motta, Sonju, and the rest of the coaching staff and top brass are all sitting down on one side of a huge table, like Bill Clinton and his cabinet. They are all side-by-side on one side--the Stepford staff. No one really smiles or frowns. It's almost like they aren't even breathing, just talking.
The feed from Toronto is at one end of the room. The TV, of course, is on.
Norm Sonju wears a headset. The receiving end is in Toronto.
For a while, Motta and Sonju, director of player personnel Keith Grant, and a bunch of coaches had been kicking Cherokee Parks' name around really hard. Sonju has gone through a pile of tissues. They did not believe Parks would make it to Dallas. They had charted him as the seventh pick--and were drafting 12th. So Arkansas' Corliss Williamson entered the discussion.
Now, as the Mavs prepare to state their intentions, I find Norm Sonju and Keith Grant folding their hands. Sonju talks into the headset connected to Toronto. For the first time, he says the Mavs take Cherokee Parks.
The rest of the world will know in about two minutes.
The NBA commissioner goes to the podium in Toronto, and begins saying, "The Dallas Mavericks take..."
Sonju pats Grant on the back. A few guys smile. But there is no sense of relief. There is still a lot of air to be exhaled in this room. "...Cherokee Parks," the commish says to the rest of the world.
The Reunion Arena crowd boos like Dallas has just drafted the Antichrist. Or at least the anti-Jason.
Maybe with good reason. Chemistry alone is enough to make you wonder how a surfer guy named Cherokee who lives in Greenwich Village will fit in with this regular-guy, pool-shooting, Nintendo-playing group known as the closest-knit in the game. Parks once dyed his hair burgundy, fergodsakes.
This is not to say Cherokee is without merit. His vital statistics--6-foot-11, 31 three-pointers last year, an average of 19 points and 9.3 rebounds on a crummy Duke team--are respectable.
But in the cynical room where the fajitas were long gone, and out on the floor of Reunion where the honeymoon is already over, the consensus is: "Oh God, not one more big white guy."
The second first-round choice is so-called "project player" Loren Meyer, whose mug shot bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of Timothy McVeigh. Meyer is a nice guy who has overcome some tough times in life. It is unclear how much he's good for in the NBA.
When it is over, they make Kidd talk to the press before letting him go to bed. "I got up at 6:30 this morning," he says, standing alone in the hall, echoing his theme for the day.
Motta and company come down to discuss the evening's events with the media. Cherokee Parks is on a speaker phone and no one will ask him a question. Finally a Mavs person asks him to sum up his feelings. He says how great he feels--just like he's supposed to say.
Finally someone asks if he is aware the Reunion Arena crowd booed him like the Antichrist. He says he'd rather be booed than ignored--a choice comment, nicely pulled from the book of sports cliches.
"This completely shocked us," says Parks, who was expecting to go seventh to Toronto.
Join the club, Cherokee. We're all still feeling a little like we've been hit by a bus--or at least by another big man. (But then again, Cherokee was still in elementary school when the Mavs took Uwe Blabb and Bill Wennington, so he remains unjaded by this memory.)
A guy passes out popcorn as Motta talks up this year's draft.
Last year's top pick is driving toward the bed. Cherokee Parks' long day has just begun.