By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's a question he's thought about often, ever since he began playing basketball as a young man in Lincolnton, North Carolina--"down South," he says of his birthplace--and Columbus, Ohio, where he first tasted victory with the Linden-McKinley High School basketball team that captured the 1967 Class AA championship.
That was a long time ago, and the gray hairs sprouting from his face reveal that he has had a lot of time to get the answer right.
"I love how a group of individuals, if they truly believe in themselves and they use their abilities and awareness, can accomplish anything," he says, sitting in his office at the Baylor/Tom Landry Center after a team practice. His hands are clasped in front of him, almost as though he were praying.
"They have to sit down and continue to look and assess what their strengths and what their weaknesses are and then learn how to cover for each other, how to help each other. That's what society is all about. A team sport epitomizes people who can join together to accomplish a goal, and that's what I love about the game of basketball."
"Why do I love the game?" Don Nelson, the Dallas Mavericks' general manager, repeats the question as though it were an insult. Or a threat. Or just a damned stupid question.
He wears a vaguely disgusted look on his broad, sleepy face. His voice doesn't rise; it merely rumbles like Michigan thunder.
"Why do you love your wife? I mean, how do you know? You just love her. There's probably a hundred reasons."
There are indeed, he is told, each one of them easily enumerated.
"Well, I don't want to give you all my reasons. I think they're silly. I love the game. Let's leave it at that."
He pauses, grumbles something else under his breath.
Then, he spits, "I hate bullshit questions like that."
There are those around the Dallas Mavericks' front office who describe Don Nelson as a "no-bullshit kinda guy." Others call him a "larger-than-life personality," and still more refer to him simply as "a legend," almost as though it's his name: Mr. A. Legend.
They are cowed by his reputation and his history. The 57-year-old is, after all, the only man in the history of the NBA to be awarded Coach of the Year honors three times, the most recent coming in 1992 with the Golden State Warriors. They don't come any better than Don Nelson. Even he knows that.
The folks in the Mavericks' front office revere Nelson's basketball acumen. He has, after all, drafted some of the best to have played in the NBA in recent years: Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber--each of whom would go on to become All-Star players. He has also traded trash for treasures, acquiring the likes of John Starks and Bob Lanier for almost nothing and turning them into stars.
They worship his record as one of the sport's winningest players, coaches, and general managers. After all, he holds the record as the league's sixth winningest coach, posting a far-more-than-just-impressive 851 wins. When the league celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago, Nelson was voted by his peers as one of the 10 best coaches in the history of the game--a man who'd led the Milwaukee Bucks and the Golden State Warriors out of the basement and into the playoffs year after winning year. During his playing days with the Boston Celtics, he won five--five--NBA titles. His number, 19, was retired from the Celtics in 1978, when the team hung it from the rafters of the Boston Garden.
And they adore how he seems to leave his myth out in his black Mercedes when he walks into his office every morning. Standing on the court with his team, even next to the 7-foot-6 human beanstalk that is Shawn Bradley, Nelson looms over them all. At 6-foot-6, he's a powerful-looking man, the sort of character who says more with an enormous, fleshy handshake and a frown than most people do by screaming for hours. Yet when he comes to work, he's often wearing blue jeans and work boots. His is a casual sort of power.
If nothing else, the Mavericks' employees love the fact that their lowly franchise--one that has lost far more games than it has won for as long as anyone can remember--can boast that it now employs A Legend of the Game, a man unafraid to rip this team apart at the floorboards and rebuild it in his own image. If losing is a disease this team can't shake, they hope winning is as contagious.
But, right now, that brilliant basketball legend is simply an angry man. Fifteen minutes into a rather amiable interview about the future of the Dallas Mavericks, Nelson suddenly decides he doesn't like where the questions are going. Though the subject has not been broached, though it was never even intended as a line of questioning, he senses it coming. He's been asked it too many times since coming to Dallas in February, read it too many times in local sports pages and national magazines, heard it whispered ever since he came out of retirement in Hawaii and landed at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
"Everybody has written about me wanting to take the team over," he says, cranky exasperation creeping into his voice. He sits in his high-tech office in the bowels of Reunion Arena, his feet propped up on his desk and his hands folded on his stomach. "I don't want to get headed in that direction, if that's where you're going."
Just like that, a man known for his uptempo, run-and-gun style of offense goes on the defensive. He wants to block the shot before it's taken.
He's sensitive to murmurings that he's this close to firing head coach Jim Cleamons--something a lot of fans felt he should have done at the end of the 1996-'97 season, when the Mav-wrecks finished with 24 wins, two fewer than the team accrued the season before under Dick Motta. He's touchy when it comes to talking about Cleamons, a former assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls, especially when asked how his style of play differs from Nelson's. He's testy when asked what Cleamons' strengths are as a head coach.
"You're gettin' into areas I really don't want to get into," Nelson says, literally waving off the question. "I'd really rather just..." He pauses for a second. "You know, you talk to Jim about the coaching aspects and me about my business. I'll talk to you about general recruiting and putting everything together."
Fact is, Nelson and Cleamons couldn't be more dissimilar than, well, the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Mavericks. They have different coaching philosophies: Nelson likes the game to be played fast, while Cleamons prefers his basketball thoughtful and deliberate. Nelson is a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy who speaks in short, to-the-point sentences that end before they're out of his mouth. Cleamons will expound at length about the game, his role as coach, his desire to build for tomorrow, maybe even at the expense of winning today. It's almost as though by saying such things aloud, Cleamons can convince himself that he's doing the right thing.
But Nelson doesn't want to chat about philosophies. He wants to talk players, acquisitions, trades. Anything deeper than that, well, isn't important. He can't be concerned with what isn't on the floor, anything that's not part of the game.
"The philosophy [of the general manager and the coach] should be the same," Nelson says, almost yawning his words. "[They should] see the game the same and the direction of the team as the same."
He is asked if it's indeed the same here.
"It's all right," he shrugs dismissively. "One out of two's not bad. We both agree on the direction the team should go. The philosophies are a little bit different. I think Jim has given some [by] trying to run [the floor] more this year. I've given some on some of his strengths as a coach. It's not bad."
And it's not great.
The regular season is still weeks away from beginning, and already there are rumblings that Cleamons will not last until the All-Star break. ESPN and Sports Illustrated both insist that Cleamons will be out by December--regardless of how his team does. ESPN last week speculated that Cleamons will be replaced by Golden State Warriors general manager Garry St. Jean, whom, SI claims in its NBA preview issue, Nelson wanted to bring in at the end of last season, before owner Ross Perot Jr. blocked the move.
Though sources in the Mavericks' front office deny St. Jean was ever offered the job or is currently in contention for one with the Mavericks, few will refute the fact that the words Jim Cleamons and job security don't often collide in the same sentence. A conspiracy theorist might speculate that Nelson proclaimed his lowly Mavericks a playoff team a few weeks ago to set up Cleamons, so he could cut the young coach loose when he fails to live up to Nelson's inflated expectations.
Look, the theorist might argue, just because Nelson insists he doesn't want to be coach doesn't mean he doesn't want someone else to fill the job. Nelson supposedly tried to get rid of Cleamons when Nelson was hired in February--and Nelson doesn't like to lose.
As this season gets under way, the Mavericks promise "Never a Dull Moment," and as ad slogans go, it's probably less prophetic and more understatement. It couldn't get any worse than last year--or the last five years, for that matter. During the 1992-'93 season, the Mavericks came within a few late-season victories of setting the losingest record in the NBA history. But the question remains: How in the world will it get any better?
"Right now, Nellie's sitting back and letting things happen," says center Shawn Bradley, who's with his third NBA team in five years--and his fifth coach. "As much as he's coached in his career, he's stepping back from coaching and letting Clem do the coaching. They may have different styles, but he's being as supportive as he can. Clem, being a new coach and doing the things he thinks is right, is trying to make a name for himself, trying to teach a system he believes in. You got one guy trying to establish himself and one guy who's been established for a long time, and we're trying to see how it goes from there."
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.
"No, we're a playoff team," Nelson insists. "I think the talent's good enough. That's the kind of guys we try to get here."
When pushed, Cleamons will insist he came to the Dallas Mavericks because, on paper, they looked like a playoff team, maybe better. He thought--as did all of Dallas, thanks to a marketing campaign that heralded them as hired gunslingers who were going to bring a championship banner to Reunion Arena--that the trio of Jackson, Kidd, and Mashburn were All-Stars in the making. If most teams have one franchise player, the Mavericks had three.
"The thought was, you had three quality players, and you had two guards and a small forward who seemingly had the potential to carry a team," Cleamons says now, explaining why he took the coaching job. "That's what you're looking for--quality players at key spots. I mean, you look at the teams that have had good, positive histories in recent years--even throughout the history of the game--and you have to have players who complement each other. The thought was, these players could eventually complement each other if they just stayed together.
"But when you got here, you found out that these were good players, but they certainly weren't players that collectively could carry a franchise to a championship."
Kidd was traded because team management, specifically minority owner and interim general manager Frank Zaccanelli, felt the 24-year-old was a troublemaker--and not only because he'd demanded that either he or Jackson be traded before the beginning of last season. Management had learned from outside sources that Kidd, who had been complaining of a sore neck, had actually been involved in a traffic accident in L.A.--something he forgot to tell the team. When Zaccanelli found out, he wanted Kidd gone--and traded away the franchise. Just...like...that.
Then Nelson came in and, within days, decided he didn't like Jackson and Mashburn--didn't like their efforts on the floor or their behavior off the floor. They were millionaire crybabies, and The Man Called Nellie wanted them gone.
"I just didn't like what they were doing on and off the court," Nelson says of Jackson and Mashburn. "I just decided to change it if I could. I didn't go out to do the major trades we did; I didn't set out to do that. It just kinda happened. I thought it was important we trade Jamal Mashburn, because he obviously wasn't happy and didn't want to be here, and we had a big salary for a long time. He was having problems with Jim Cleamons as a head coach, he had problems with Quinn Buckner as a coach, and I guess he liked playing with Dick Motta, but I don't really know. So that had to be done. It was obvious.
"And Jim Jackson didn't want to be here. He was only going to play this year and was not going to re-sign with us. So that's pretty simple."
Nelson says he consulted with Cleamons before the Mashburn and Jackson trades were made--but only after he knew where they were going and whom the Mavericks were getting in return. But, he says with a shrug, even if Cleamons had wanted to keep the two players, it's likely Nelson would have made the trades anyway. It's the coach's job to win with the talent chosen by the general manager, plain and simple.
"I thought it had to be done," Nelson says.
And besides, Nelson adds, Cleamons "didn't say no."
Jim Cleamons seems almost relieved to talk about last season. It's a distant memory by now, permanently written in record books no one will ever read. He survived his first year, escaped it, and, he hopes, learned from it. He looks back on it now as someone might reflect on a near-death experience--with a smile and a sigh.
There were those in the local media who were surprised when owner Ross Perot Jr. kept Cleamons on at the end of the season--or, for that matter, when Nelson didn't sweep Cleamons out with the rest of the team. Surely the Mavericks have fired greater men than Cleamons--just ask the once-respected, once-heralded Quinn Buckner, who came to Dallas from the NBC broadcasting booth in 1993 and led the team to a grisly 13 victories before being exiled to doing play-by-play in Cleveland and, now, Indiana. But Cleamons escaped the death sentence, and deservedly so.
After Perot Jr., Frank Zaccanelli, and David McDavid--or Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo--bought the team from founder Don Carter on May 1, 1996, the Mavericks were a team so thoroughly bewildered it's amazing they even managed to field a team at the beginning of last season.
Former vice president of basketball operations Keith Grant, respected in NBA circles as a guy with a good eye for talent, suddenly resigned on October 17, 1996. Though he cited burnout, it was obvious to even the casual fan he didn't fit in with the new regime--especially with Zaccanelli, who had no basketball experience but nonetheless considered himself the man to lead the Mavericks. Zaccanelli will be forever haunted by the Kidd trade and the signing of Eric Montross--who came to Dallas after the team traded away a number-one draft pick to Boston and then turned into one of the team's all-time busts, lasting barely half a season before Nelson traded him to New Jersey with Jim Jackson, George McCloud, Sam Cassell, and Chris Gatling.
Then there was the matter of Mark Aguirre, who's perhaps the most loved and loathed player in the history of the Mavericks. Traded to the Detroit Pistons in 1989 for the hobbled Adrian Dantley, Aguirre finally got his shot at playing for a champion, only to return to Dallas when his playing days were over. A buddy of Zaccanelli's from way back, Aguirre was brought in as a director of player development and as a scout. Just how much he had to do with the mess that transpired before the beginning of last season is up for debate: He insists he had little to do with basketball decisions, while others told The Dallas Morning News earlier this month that he helped recruit Jim Cleamons...before the Bulls had given the Mavericks permission to talk to him, a violation of league rules.
No coach in the history of the game, especially a rookie head coach, had been expected to win with a team as disorganized and as misguided as the Mavericks were under Zaccanelli, who had made his money in real estate--not basketball. (Zaccanelli's now so far out of the picture, he's not even mentioned in the team's new media guide.) Cleamons never had the chance to define his style, never had a chance to learn his team's strengths and weaknesses--or, for that matter, their names.
In the end, Jim Cleamons wasn't fired because Jim Cleamons didn't deserve to be. Ross Perot Jr. knew that much about basketball.
"I was a bit surprised about the speculation I was going to be fired myself," Cleamons says. "I can't worry about [being fired]. I know I've got a job to do, and I'm going to do my job the very best I can, and hopefully we're going to be very successful. I don't even try to worry about other people's opinions."
Rather than dump Cleamons and break his four-year contract, team management gave him another chance--perhaps a first chance--with a very, very young team that almost looks like an expansion franchise, filled with rookie free agents and other teams' castoffs. But there is some hope. If only--again--on paper.
Former Phoenix Sun Michael Finley and sixth man Erick Strickland are formidable swingmen who can score from anywhere on the court. Former Orlando Magic forward Dennis Scott, a first-round pick in 1990, is a feared outside shooter, a man who puts up three-pointers like most players drive for lay-ups. Of course, he's also infamous for spouting off to a bunch of kids during a summer basketball camp that he was filled with "rage"; and, during the off-season, he threw himself a birthday party during which two people were shot. "They labeled me a troubled player," Scott says now, laughing off the incidents that made him expendable in Orlando.
Ex-New Jersey Net Robert Pack, who's with his fifth team in six years, finished last season eighth among the league's assist leaders. Shawn Bradley, reviled during his tenures in Philadelphia and New Jersey, even seems reborn in a city that doesn't see him as the chosen one. At the end of last season, he led the league in blocked shots--the first Maverick ever to lead the league in anything other than stinking up the joint.
Still, there are moments when Bradley looks awkward and unsure of what to do with the ball, much like another Don Nelson golden oldie--Manute Bol, the 7-foot-7 Sudanese center who once set league records in blocked shots, only to finish his career with the Florida Beachdogs of the CBA.
And though team captain Derek Harper is gone once more, this time traded with Ed O'Bannon to Orlando for Dennis Scott and $500,000, A.C. Green ranks among the league's most reliable players. He has won championships with the Los Angeles Lakers (he was part of the team that eliminated the Mavericks from the Western Conference finals in 1988) and come close with the Phoenix Suns. Perhaps more important for a team known lately for its here-today-traded-or-injured-tomorrow roster, Green finished last season having played in 896 straight pro basketball games, the second-longest streak in league history behind Randy Smith. If he plays the first 11 games of this season, Green will own the record, which might make him the Cal Ripken Jr. of the NBA.
This year's roster is probably lighter on talent than the lineup that began last season. Though the team has jettisoned the troublemakers and headcases, the guys who didn't want to be here and weren't going to re-sign after their contracts were up, the trades made during last season may well come back to haunt the Mavericks.
From all appearances, Kidd is playing with the same sort of ferocity that won him Co-Rookie of the Year honors in 1995. Jamal Mashburn, finally healed up from the knee surgery that made him such a disappointment in Dallas, is considered a three-point-shooting gem on Pat Riley's Miami Heat. And Jim Jackson seems rejuvenated with the Philadelphia 76ers, where he can start over without being tagged the troublesome franchise player. Maybe guys play better when they're not carrying such heavy loads.
But any Mavs fan will tell you we've been there before. They can reel off the names of the players who left here for success in other cities--guys like Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, Dale Ellis, Bill Wennington, Mark Aguirre. All that, of course, means nothing to Cleamons. He has to win with what he has, with what Don Nelson has given him. Or else.
"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.
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.
On the court, the Mavericks do not look particularly impressive--though they manage to score 19 points in the final six minutes of the third quarter. Their Triangle looks more like a rhomboid.
"They don't see the little nuances," Cleamons says of his team as he stands in the locker room after the game. "But I've got to be patient. I can't be rantin' and ravin'. These guys are out there because they want to play, and now I've got to be a good teacher. Two weeks ago today was their first practice. What the heck do they know? But I'm not disappointed. I keep tellin' them, 'Guys, I'm not angry about anything. I'm coaching. I'm teaching. Don't take my animation and the raise in my voice negatively.' I'm just doing my best to do what I do. I'm their biggest cheerleader, and what I've seen in the last two weeks, hell, I'll take it. We're learnin', we're growin'. That's a good thing."
And in the end, Jim Cleamons might well be a good thing for the Dallas Mavericks--a coach who doesn't celebrate a victory, who looks beyond the game clock and the stats sheet.
If he succeeds in Dallas, if he can outlast the skeptics who believe Don Nelson wants him gone yesterday, it will be because he can convince team management that the Mavericks have a whole lot of losing left to do before they ever win again.