One-on-one

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

In 1962, Winter actually wrote a now-out-of-print 200-page book on The Triangle, which does away with set plays and demands every player react to the ball and remain at all times within shooting and passing range. Now, Cleamons is trying to teach it to a group of young men who are not yet even comfortable playing with each other, much less with an offensive system so elaborate and mysterious no other NBA team dares try it. It crushed Quinn Buckner when he brought it here, and more experienced head coaches than Cleamons are scared to death of the Triangle, if only because it takes more than a season for players to get used to the intricate offense.

Given the Mavericks' ever-changing roster and Nelson's desire to make the playoffs this season, Cleamons is either very brave or very foolish to try to teach the Triangle. No, he is both.

"We had to start somewhere," Cleamons says. "I got an extremely young basketball team, and how do you teach them? What do you teach them? When do you teach them? This is it. You can't just let 'em run buck wild. With a team, you need a system. This is where we're gonna hang our hats, and we're gonna teach them and grow them individually and collectively till they start thinking as one."

And there's Jim Cleamons in a nutshell: He's a patient, thoughtful man who sees his role as father figure, as mentor, as teacher. If Nelson is concerned only with winning, Cleamons sees beyond that--even though he knows such thinking is not practical in the win-now world of professional sports. He loves to watch his team play as one, learn as one, evolve into a single-celled organism. He appreciates the art of the game, taking young men unschooled in the finer points of basketball and training them to think instead of play.

"Clem's a nice guy, very quiet," Strickland says. "He really thinks things through, and he's very thoughtful. Nellie wants to make it happen right now--Let's go!--and Clem really wants to take his time. For me, I'm a versatile player, and [the Triangle] works, but for a lot of our personnel at this point, it doesn't fit. I don't like to lose, but we are a young team, and I guess losing's going to be a part of it till we learn how to win and jell with each other and learn how to become one. Till that happens, we'll have to deal with it."

On October 17, the Mavericks beat the Phoenix Suns at Reunion Arena, and for a second, it almost seems to matter. It's not a particularly thrilling game on the floor--it has, in truth, all the excitement of a high-school game.

If anything, the most notable thing about it is the return of Jason Kidd to Reunion--the place where, it was once imagined in the wildest of dreams, he would help hang that championship banner that has eluded this team since its inception in 1980. He returns to score 19 points, and he displays the sort of play that made him such a joy to watch here--the astonishing no-look passes, the come-from-nowhere rebounds, the effortless lay-ups and rainbow-arc jump shots that nail opponents to the ground.

Perot Jr., watching from somewhere in the stands, must have felt a twinge of regret every time Kidd scored on the Mavericks, when he heard the hometown crowd welcome Kidd with the sort of cheer rarely handed out to visiting players. Perot bought this team, and Kidd will forever remind him of the cost.

Sure, the Mavericks win this night--but the score is unimportant. After the game, the press hanging around the locker room is told that Robert Pack has broken a finger on his right hand--his shooting hand--and will be out for four weeks. Jim Cleamons will say, not so jokingly, that perhaps it's time to bring in "a shaman" to take the curse off Reunion Arena. Even in victory, the Mavs seem to lose.

Those who've shown up for this preseason game--a crowd estimated at more than 11,000, though it's clearly far smaller than that--will cheer for a few moments as though the final score has any relevance. They will rise to their feet as the clock winds down to victory, cheer loudly as the buzzer goes off and reveals a final score in the Mavericks' favor.

When Shawn Bradley is ejected for committing a flagrant foul, using his jumbo elbows to knock a Suns player in the jaw, the crowd cheers his defiance. If Bradley was loathed in Philly and New Jersey, here he is regarded, for the moment, as a hero.

Cleamons does not celebrate this win. All night, from the sidelines, he has coached this team at the top of his lungs, pointing at spots on the floor and instructing his players to stand here or move there. He takes nothing for granted; he knows, given all the injuries this team has piled up in a matter of just days, that it will take him weeks--maybe even months--to establish a rhythm, a system, a scheme that will lead to more than one empty win over a Suns team that played sloppy, shoot-'em-up blacktop ball against the Mavericks.

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