Fire at will

Getting Don Nelson to coach the Mavericks is good for basketball--and business

Downstairs, the beat writers were scrambling for quotes. Just moments earlier in the bowels of Reunion Arena, Ross Perot Jr.--the man who owns the Dallas Mavericks and, it seems, a good hunk of the Dallas City Council--had introduced Don Nelson, Mavericks general manager, as the team's new head coach. Junior then ran out of the building--he had a banquet to attend--and let Nelson field all the questions about the hows and whys of coach Jim Cleamons' firing earlier that morning on December 5. Next to him, a handful of Mavericks executives stood with hands clasped in front of them and just nodded their heads.

Nelson, wearing a suit and a solemn look on his face, said he suggested firing Cleamons a week earlier but didn't like doing it. "These things are never very pleasant," he said with a shrug. He spoke no ill of the deposed coach. "I respect Jim Cleamons," he said, and some in the crowded room tried to keep from laughing.

He promised better basketball at Reunion: "Entertaining," he called it. And that was pretty much that.

A few local radio stations broadcast the press conference live, the TV reporters watched in silence, and the newspaper beat writers wrote down every word, perhaps even before Nelson spoke them. After all, this moment had been anticipated for days, weeks--really, since Nelson came to Dallas in February as general manager of this floundering franchise. This moment was about as surprising as a sunrise.

Upstairs, just as the Nelson press conference was ending, a very different gathering of the media began unfolding. Oh, happy coincidence: On the very night Nelson replaced Cleamons, on the very night the Mavericks were to face the New York Knicks (which fired Nelson as coach only a year ago), and on the very night the planets were perfectly aligned in the night sky, Mayor Ron Kirk had scheduled an appearance at Reunion to kick off a voter registration drive timed to the January 17 vote on the proposed new arena.

Before the cameras and microphones and tape recorders, the mayor glad-handed the crowd. "You signed up?" he asked the shocked throngs as they walked through the Reunion doors. "Vote yes on the arena January 17!"

B-boys dressed in knit hats and eternal frat boys in Dockers were eager to meet Kirk, to shake his hand, to find out what the hell he was doing there. They stared dumbly into the camera lights as they watched the mayor shake hands and pose with Mavericks president and CEO Terdema Ussery.

The Mayor and The Maverick.
Do not for a moment think the events going on upstairs and downstairs had nothing to do with each other. Oh, there's no doubt Cleamons needed to go, but not only was his firing a good basketball move, it was also a great business decision.

Under Cleamons this season, the Mavericks had won a mere four games and lost an ugly dozen. And for their efforts, the team was rewarded with the boos and boisterous screw-yous of the meager 10,000 or so who turned out to witness the gore on the floor. Business was down; no-shows were up. The team rebelled against the coach, and fans turned on the team.

When cornered by the Dallas Observer, Kirk insisted that the increasingly poor turnout for Mavericks games and the impending arena vote are "whole different" deals. He said that no matter how poorly this team played, that Dallasites would still turn out for a new arena "because they want to see Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, they want to see the rising stars of the NBA, they want to come and see Barry Manilow, Paul Simon, Anita Baker, and the Ice Capades."

"The Mavericks clearly have to put a more competitive product on the floor, but they know that," he said between handshakes and head bobs. "Obviously, today's not one of their best days. They just released Jim Cleamons, but they want to win. There is no joy in putting an average product on the floor. Troy Aikman said something the other day, and it's true: Dallas is probably more of a winner's town than it is a sports town. We're a tough audience...But I think people understand the value of this [proposed] facility, whether they come or not."

Only a fool would think the firing of Jim Cleamons and the arena vote sleep in different beds. They are, in fact, connected like mother and child by the umbilical cord that stretches from Ross Perot Jr. all the way to Ron Kirk.

"I don't know about no head coach," says one lonely, exasperated hot-dog vendor standing behind an empty counter in the Reunion Arena concourse. "But anything's got to be better for business."

Which is, of course, the point.
Don Nelson tried to get Cleamons fired after last season, when he won 24 out of 82 games, but the owner said no. Back then, Perot didn't think the rookie coach had been given a fair shot, especially in light of the two mammoth trades Nelson made last year that dismantled an already fragile team.

Yet when Nelson approached the owner about "making a change" last week--if indeed these talks began only last week, and nobody in the world believes that--Perot was only more than happy to consider firing Cleamons. But Perot stipulated he would cut loose Cleamons only if Nelson would take over, which he did, even though Nellie always said he wouldn't.

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