One-on-one

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

"Everyone wants to win," Cleamons says. "There are 29 teams in this league that want to win, but ultimately the teams that really win are the ones that have the desire to have a plan and stick with that plan, knowing that their plan is sound and structured right. Every team goes through cycles."

But it doesn't get any easier for Cleamons. The Mavericks will limp into the 1997-'98 season. A few days after this interview, Strickland will be sidelined with an ankle injury--the same malady that has kept forwards Kurt Thomas and Martin Muursepp out of practice--and Robert Pack will break a finger. Forward Samaki Walker suffers from a sprained ligament in his right knee.

Dennis Scott is out with a strained right quadricep--and he's been killing time by recording a hip-hop album. Center Chris Anstey remains in Australia, where he must finish out the season with his team there--a fact Nelson didn't discover till he signed the guy. For now, this team's in the hands of men with names like Ace Custis--who went down with a knee injury during the preseason--and Carlos Strong, fill-ins who will probably never wear a Mavericks uniform in a regular-season game.

Cleamons, asked how he's dealt with the turmoil of the past year, says, "Prayer." But as he begins to expound on his answer, Erick Strickland walks in and asks Cleamons for another copy of a questionnaire the coach has asked each player to fill out. He left his at his mom's house. If Strickland, or any member of the team, doesn't turn it in on time, the coach will fine him. Young millionaires need rules, and rules must be enforced by punishment.

When Strickland leaves, the last remaining copy of the inquiry in hand, Cleamons smiles.

"I got such a young team, man." He almost whispers it. "See?" His whisper rises into a hoarse holler. "I got a young team." Cleamons raises his arms to the ceiling. "I got babes. I got babes. And it's gonna take time. It's gonna take time. If somebody's got a magic wand, I'll gladly wave it. But it doesn't work that way."

Before Don Nelson accepted the general manager's job in Dallas, he had briefly considered coming back into the league as a coach. Living in Maui, he'd watch games on a sports bar satellite and occasionally dream of winning a title as a coach--something he had never done before.

Though he's one of the greatest to have coached in the league, his championship rings had come as a player for the Celtics. And his record as coach-GM is hardly impeccable: During his tenure in Golden State, he signed washout Houston Rockets center Ralph Sampson, then traded both Mitch Richmond and Chris Webber and received little in return. Then, just 60 games into the 1995-'96 season, Nelson was fired as the New York Knicks' head coach--if only because he wasn't Pat Riley.

When Perot first called Nelson about taking over the Mavericks last winter, Nelson was skeptical. He'd decided to retire, to live the idyllic postcard life in Hawaii; Nelson had become someone who sort of liked his time away from the court, who liked hanging out in honky-tonks with a cold beer in his enormous hand. But he still yearned to prove he was not just one of the best, but the best, someone who could instantaneously resurrect a moribund franchise as a championship team.

"I think more than anything else, I was convinced that I was needed," Nelson says. "That's always nice to hear. And I was wanted. [Dallas is] a good sports town, and the owner has money that I am assuming he'll spend when he gets excited enough about the team to get players and the new building."

Nelson has always been known for a quick style of basketball, a game of fast breaks and swift scoring. He's like that off the court as well--quick to get down to business, quick to judge talent. He insists he knows whether he's made a good hire in a matter of days, and so he attends many of the practices during training camp to keep an eye on the investments. Right now, the Mavericks are spending $26.9 million on this team, and Nelson has little time for anything other than making sure this team wins now.

"Nellie is very serious about what he does," says 23-year-old Erick Strickland, whose ankle is now encased in a plastic cast. As one of Nelson's prized players, he was signed to a six-year deal in August--one worth about $14.4 million. "When it comes to doing business, Nellie is very hard-nosed at getting the job done, and he hates to lose."

If Don Nelson is a man who wants to win yesterday, then Jim Cleamons is a man looking to succeed tomorrow. Cleamons is trying to teach these young men the tricky, almost indecipherable Triangle Offense--one so damned complicated that the only other team in the league to utilize it is the Chicago Bulls, who could run a Trapezoid Offense with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on the roster. The Triangle was first run almost 50 years ago by the USC basketball team, where assistant Bulls coach Tex Winter played during his college days. Winter brought it to the Bulls in the mid-'80s, and it became the winning formula by 1989--when Phil Jackson and Jim Cleamons came in and when Michael Jordan finally accepted that the Triangle demanded he pass the ball as much as shoot it.

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