One-on-one

With Mavericks Coach Jim Cleamons and GM Don Nelson, life's a constant battle for position

On October 15, the Chicago Bulls were in Paris, preparing to play against the world's finest basketball teams in the McDonald's Championship. They were strolling down the Champs Elysees, tasting wine on the Seine, being feted as royalty--yes, even former Maverick Bill Wennington, yet one more painful reminder of better times.

Meanwhile, the other teams in the NBA were slogging their way through training camps and meaningless exhibition games. The Bulls can't be bothered with such things. On October 15, Michael Jordan and the boys were in Paris to conquer the world.

And, on October 15, the Dallas Mavericks were in Rapid City, South Dakota, losing to the Vancouver Grizzlies--and losing guard Erick Strickland, a player heralded by Don Nelson as one of this team's leaders, to an injured right ankle for at least four weeks. About 3,175 people turned out to watch the meaningless affair, one the Mavs were out of long before halftime.

Sometimes, you have to wonder just what in the hell Jim Cleamons was thinking when he agreed to coach the Dallas Mavericks.

Wait...sometimes? Make that every second of every day.
Had he held out another year, had he stayed with the Chicago Bulls for the 1996-'97 season, Cleamons might have gotten a better offer from a better team. He might have ended up with a contender instead of a bottom feeder. One thing is for sure: Had he remained with the Bulls last season, he would have added yet another NBA championship ring to his collection.

But instead, as the Bulls were marching toward mythdom, Cleamons found himself watching the playoffs at home, thinking to himself, "Thank God, the season from hell is over." He, too, had set an NBA record--by using 27 different players throughout the course of the season. It's a record Cleamons would rather not own. It's one that says: We threw everything against the wall, and nothing stuck. It's a record of a team that installed a revolving door leading to the basement.

"It's certainly not an easy situation, but the fact remains, if it was easy, then Dallas would have been a winner long before now," Cleamons says. "What I have to do is think positive about my hopes and my dreams about the future. I'm workin' on my third team in a year, and what I'm hopin' is one of these days I will have the nucleus of our team, and then we can establish some continuity and some consistency."

When it was announced in the spring of 1996 that the Dallas Mavericks were hiring an assistant coach from the Bulls as their new head coach, Mavericks fans were elated. Though no one had ever heard the name Jim Cleamons, he came to town carrying baggage that had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson written all over it. He had been one of coach Phil Jackson's assistants in Chicago from 1989 until 1996, when the Bulls captured four NBA titles and became one of the greatest dynasties in all of modern sports.

Cleamons, now 48, knew all about championships: He also won one with the Los Angeles Lakers during his rookie season, in 1971-'72, from the bench. He also knew a whole lot about losing: When he was the head coach at Youngstown State from 1987-'89, his team posted a record of 12 wins and 43 losses. During his playing days in the NBA, Cleamons also didn't make much of a mark on the league; he was one of those guys who bounced around with L.A., Cleveland, New York, and Washington. In 1980, he was even drafted by the brand-new Dallas Mavericks--though he never signed with the team. In the end, Cleamons' playing days amounted to little more than a footnote.

You could say the same for his coaching days: With inexplicably high expectations placed upon him last year, the Mavericks finished with a whopping 58 losses. But perhaps it was inevitable: Just months after leaving the world-champion Bulls, Cleamons' Mavericks fell apart, literally.

In December, two months before Nelson was hired, Jason Kidd (along with Loren Meyer and Tony Dumas) was traded to Phoenix for the aging A.C. Green, Michael Finley, Sam Cassell, and a second-round draft pick. Cassell would be gone two months later.

Then, when Nelson came, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson were packaged up and sent to faraway places in blockbuster trades that brought Shawn Bradley--long considered the league's biggest underachiever--and more anonymous potential to town. Never for a second did it seem this team would ever again see postseason from anywhere other than in front of a television. The Mavs had become an embarrassment, a joke, perennial losers who could only sell season tickets if they were for seats at Texas Stadium.

Don Nelson was supposed to change all that in the off-season. He was supposed to bring some NBA legitimacy to a team that might have made the playoffs in the CBA. He was supposed to give the Mavs the push in the right direction, toward the championships Nelson himself had so often enjoyed as head coach and GM. And so he ripped apart the fabric of the Dallas Mavericks and went about rebuilding this team--yet again--with Aussie player Chris Anstey and draft choices like Bubba Smith, who's no choice at all. If the Mavs win 30 games this year, it'll be a miracle...no, an accident.

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