Fire at will

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

Ussery and Perot insist the impending arena vote didn't necessarily play into their decision to oust Cleamons. They knew a change had to be made--but they also should have known that at the end of last season, when Cleamons ran off his sole superstar, that expendable nobody named Jason Kidd. Cleamons, who repeatedly insisted he had to turn a bunch of millionaire "babies" into a team of men, was the wrong man to coach a team that has been rebuilding since the middle of the Bush presidency.

And nobody can say, with a straight face, they just realized that last week.
"The arena vote is clearly important," the affable Ussery said during a half-time interview. "We'd like to stay in Dallas--we hope on January 17 everyone supports this thing--but [the Cleamons firing] was a bigger issue than that, quite frankly. Whether we're in Dallas or we're somewhere else..."

Whoops. The former Nike executive paused, then began again.
"We ask people to partner with us, if you will," he continued. "And our obligation is to put a great product on the court, as best we can. Well, whether or not there's a vote, I can look you in the eye and tell you the result that came about today would have come about anyway."

A few Mavericks officials joke about the new arena-Jim Cleamons firing "conspiracy theory," and maybe it is just that. After all, a coaching change was an absolute necessity. Cleamons publicly committed hara-kiri during his brief tenure as Mavs head coach. He allowed Perot and partner Frank Zaccanelli to give away the future when he nudge-nudge-wink-wink OK'd the Kidd trade with the Phoenix Suns, distanced himself from his players by forcing a philosophy down their throats instead of a workable gameplan, and then treated Nelson like an interloper instead of his boss.

Players say Cleamons, who's so fond of the Triangle offense that favors passing instead of shooting, went out of his way to ignore Nelson's pleas to turn the Mavericks into a fast-break, uptempo team that would run the ball instead of hide in the corners. Cleamons was too stubborn, too arrogant for his own good, and he paid the inevitable price. Ussery says that when informed of his firing, Cleamons was "resigned" to the news.

It's far too soon to tell whether the Nelson era will bring better results to Reunion. The crowd for the Knicks game was a paltry 12,600--still far below last season's average of more than 15,000; Mavericks officials had expected walk-up business to be much higher on this most special of nights, when one of the greatest coaches in NBA history took to the Reunion sidelines against Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley. No such luck.

Still, it's hard not to revel in such moments as these for a team that would rather forget the past eight years. The Mavericks that faced--and soundly defeated--Patrick Ewing and the Knicks, then nearly beat the Houston Rockets two nights later, was a born-again team, free to run and shoot and rebound and play basketball again. No more standing around; no more talk of triangles, only of round balls and round hoops and scores of more than 100 points. The Mavericks were a joy to watch last Thursday night, hustling for rebounds and turnovers, shooting three-pointers and dunking for power, outplaying the hell out of a Knicks team that seemed baffled and distracted. Nelson threw his team on the floor, and they threw everything they had at New York.

Cleamons' departure is what the players always wanted, what they begged for at first privately, then very publicly. Dennis Scott and Erick Strickland, among the most vocal of those insisting Cleamons had to go, played with particular fire against the Knicks. Strickland, among Nelson's favorites and Cleamons' least, started for the first time all season; Scott played at power forward and scored 12 second-half points.

After the game, Scott was especially elated by the coaching change. As dozens of reporters (far more than the handful usually around after games) piled into the locker room, Scott scurried around clad only in a loose-hanging towel. On his way to and from the showers, he shouted things like "The NBA is back, baby!"

"With Cleamons, it's just we weren't having any fun, and you could see the difference," Scott said later. "We played hard with him; it's just that when you feel like a robot, you can play as hard as you want and it doesn't make a difference."

An hour after the game, after the players and media had exited the locker room, Nelson was left in the weight room with some Mavericks employees. He had a tall-boy can of Budweiser in his hand and a slight smile across his face.

Nelson, till just last week, always said he would have taken the position with the San Antonio Spurs if he truly wanted to coach again. During an interview with the Observer only two months ago, he exploded at the mere hint of suggestion that he was dissatisfied with Cleamons' coaching style.

Two months later, Nelson called Cleamons, fired him over the phone, then took his job--all in the span of 12 hours.

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