Foul trouble

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

Dick Motta enters Reunion Arena quietly, with no introduction or applause. The crowd doesn't even know he's on the floor; they pay him no mind as he visits with a few of his former players, retired Mavericks whose faces are so familiar we take them for granted.

Dressed in a warm-up jacket, wearing glasses, his face deep with wrinkles, the coach gives his players, Rolando Blackman and Brad Davis, a warm greeting--a hug, a reassuring hand on the shoulder. This is how old friends greet each other, or old Army buddies who haven't seen each other since...gosh, how long has it been?

After Motta says his hellos and how-are-yas, he retreats into the seats, taking his place in a row far above the Mavericks' bench. This is where the former coach of the Dallas Mavericks watched the November 26 game against the San Antonio Spurs.

When Motta walked onto the floor to say hello to Davis, now the color analyst for KLIF-AM, and Blackman, who was in town working the game for San Antonio TV, only a few longtime Mavericks employees noticed. They seemed genuinely excited to see the man who turned an expansion Mavericks team into a contender in only four years and who returned three years ago to see if he could work his voodoo one more time.

"Hey, is there a press conference tomorrow I should know about?" one staffer asked Tony Fay, the team's press liaison. Someone else wore a look that said, If only...

But no, Dick Motta, retired and living in Scottsdale, Arizona, was not in town to announce he was becoming the Mavs' head coach for the third time. He was here only to visit his new grandchild, and on this night, was just another fan in the empty seats--one of the 11,557 who turned out to watch the Mavericks stumble through yet another defeat.

"I don't know any of these guys," he says, pointing to the team on the floor below, where Erick Strickland, Samaki Walker, and a few other anonymous Mavericks do a little pre-game shoot-around. "I don't think anybody's left from when I was here [two years ago]. It's sad."

Though it's a team of strangers now, Motta still follows the Mavericks from Arizona. Yet he will not offer his opinion about this year's model, one that lost by 45 points one night then scored a franchise-low 62 points a few nights later. Motta will only say that he likes general manager Don Nelson--"He's a competitor."

He has absolutely nothing to offer about Jim Cleamons. "I have no comment about that," he says about the coach who replaced him at the end of the 1995-'96 season.

Dick Motta is perhaps the only man in Reunion who doesn't have anything to say about Jim Cleamons, who's about to overtake Barry Switzer for the local Coach of the Jeer award.

The fans despise this man who has, once more, turned Reunion Arena into a slaughterhouse. They boo Cleamons, call him names as he walks on and off the floor, shout obscenities from the cheap seats. They phone radio talk shows and wonder why he hasn't been fired yet. Indeed, on this very night, a KLIF van parked outside Reunion broadcasts a call-in show through enormous speakers. Fans walking in to the game are treated to one caller insisting that "this crap at Reunion has got to stop!" His voice echoes through the parking lot and into the warm, thick November night.

Welcome, Mavericks fans!
More to the point, Cleamons' own team has turned against him. They can hardly contain their dislike for the man, for his coaching system, for his touchy-feely brand of basketball. They blame Cleamons--and only Cleamons, refusing to bear any of the responsibility themselves--for this team's pitiful 4-11 record. They also want him fired, right freakin' now.

"Something's got to change," says one player after the Spurs game. "Someone's got to go." He doesn't say who, but take one guess.

Players insist this team is losing because of Cleamons' vaunted Triangle Offense, which demands players pass and pass and pass until they finally shoot the ball--if they ever shoot the ball. Cleamons continues to ram this system, which he learned during his five-year tenure as a Chicago Bulls assistant coach, down this team's throat, even though they repeatedly demand that he either ditch the Triangle or run it only part of the time, as the Milwaukee Bucks do.

"He's still on this Chicago Bulls thing, always saying how the Bulls couldn't run it either in the first year," one Maverick says. "Well, we ain't the Chicago Bulls. Michael Finley's a good player, but he isn't Michael Jordan."

Cleamons, of course, knows this. He also knows his job is on the line--it has been ever since the end of last season, when housecleaner Nelson wanted him axed and owner Ross Perot Jr. overruled the GM's desires. And yet Cleamons sticks with his Triangle, even though he is likely to cut himself on one of its sharp corners.

Though he looks weary, a little beaten-up--"I'm cryin' in my beer," he says, only half-jokingly, when asked how he's holding up--even after the loss to the Spurs, Cleamons still sounds as he did in the upbeat days before the season began. Back then, he spoke of "teaching" his players, of needing to turn five disparate young men into a cohesive unit of one, of optimism and hope.

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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