Foul trouble

The Mavericks are losing games--and faith in head coach Jim Cleamons

A month later, he is still chanting the same mantra: "I see a lot of babies runnin' around on the floor right now, guys just tryin' to figure out where they are, just tryin' to figure out what they need to do to achieve some success. And I'm just tryin' to help them out any way I can. That's what coaches do. You play for every one of them. You think about them when they don't think about themselves."

From the sidelines, Cleamons looks as though he's trying to will his team to a win. He speaks to himself, gently whispering things like, "Take your time, take your time, take your time." When he does bark something, it's usually along the lines of "See the ball!" or "C'mon, play!" or "Basic, basic!"

Cleamons may well be a nice, meditative man; he may well possess the best of intentions, and there may be something to his wait-and-win attitude that will eventually turn around a franchise that has been godawful throughout this entire decade. But he has committed the coach's cardinal sin: He has convinced himself he alone will turn the Dallas Mavericks into a winner.

Though he has one of the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA sitting in the front office, Cleamons has never once asked Don Nelson for advice. There are those around the Mavericks front office who say the two never speak about anything, much less basketball matters. And Cleamons has never called Bulls head coach Phil Jackson for counsel.

When asked why he hasn't sought some outside help, Cleamons bristles. "I have a tremendous amount of support," he says, "just because I'm not on the phone...I'm fine, but when I say I'm fine, I also don't like to lose. I don't like to lose at checkers or tic-tac-toe, so you go home and study and try to find ways to help improve the team."

Just a few weeks ago, Nelson was insisting that the Mavericks could contend for a playoff spot, if only because in such a mediocre league, crap can float to the top with a meager 35 wins. But 15 games into a season so reminiscent of every other one we've suffered through in the 1990s, this is a team competing only for a lottery pick.

And the sad thing is, this is the best group of players the Mavericks have fielded in a decade. Had the front office not given away the franchise player last year, had Frank Zaccanelli kept his stinky fingers out of the pie and not cut Jason Kidd loose, then this very well could be a playoff contender, especially if Dennis Scott learns to rebound, Erick Strickland gets more playing time, A.C. Green begins leading this bunch of children, and Shawn Bradley discovers that it's easier for awkward 7-foot-6 centers to dunk than take the 10-foot jumper.

And that's not to say Cleamons won't one day make a fine head coach in the NBA; perhaps he can replace Jackson next year, when the Bulls coach retires to his Zen paradise. After all, the Bulls can run Cleamons' beloved Triangle. They're the only team that can.

The players are right: The pros are no place to teach. Fans do not turn out to watch millionaires learn on the job.

The players have mutinied at least twice during games--once on November 22, when the Mavs scored a franchise-low 62 points, then again during the Spurs game, when they abandoned Cleamons' offensive game plan and started playing old-fashioned fast-break, pick-and-roll NBA basketball.

During the first half of the Spurs game, the Mavs look lethargic and aggravated; at one point, they are down by 23 points, the scoreboard showing a humiliating 40-17. Then the team, especially three-point-loving forward Dennis Scott, ditches the Triangle and gets down to the essentials: passing the ball, shooting the ball, rebounding the ball, and blocking the shot. They play passionate offense and aggressive defense, and hustle themselves to within three points of David Robinson and the Spurs--astonishing, really. But you can't bury yourself alive and hope there's enough air left in the grave for you to crawl out.

The final score, 102-91, could have been better--and it should have been a hell of a lot worse.

Perhaps that's why it was nice to see a real head coach in Reunion Arena that night. To see Motta in Reunion, talking to Ro and Davis, was to be reminded of a time when this team was not a punch line. To see Motta also was to remember a time when Reunion Arena was filled to capacity with rabid fans who loved their team and knew the game. Now, the Mavericks are lucky to draw a disinterested, disappointed 11,000. With crowds so small, it's hard to tell whether they're booing or cheering.

Perhaps Motta sums it up when he utters that "history will reveal what this team's about." Then again, this very ugly present says more than enough.

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