March Mav-ness

Don't look a gift Bull in the mouth, but a win over Chicago doesn't mean a darned thing

They crowded around Dennis Rodman until it seemed as though they were suffocating him with their cameras and questions. He spoke as he dressed, covering himself in a vomit-yellow silk shirt and a red crushed-velvet hat and dark wrap-around shades to block out the blinding TV lights.

The reporters--and there were dozens, most of whom had never even stepped into Reunion Arena before the night's game--had literally cornered Rodman in the visitors' locker room, seeking to understand how the lowly Dallas Mavericks could beat up the sainted Chicago Bulls. How, as Mavericks forward Erick Strickland would put it later, Dallas "beat a dynasty." Not even those who witnessed the upset could believe it in the moments after the final overtime buzzer had sounded, but there it was on the scoreboard: Dallas 104, Chicago 97.

"Does it hurt to lose in your hometown?" one reporter asked Rodman, the Oak Cliff native who didn't even play team basketball until he went to college in Oklahoma.

"No."
"Does it hurt losing to the Mavericks?" the same reporter wanted to know, egging him on.

"No." Then a grin cut across Rodman's face. "It hurts when you go out for a couple of drinks and a girl won't have sex with you. That hurts."

With that he was out the door, and the reporters followed him all the way to the bus. By the time most of them got to the Mavericks' locker room, the team and coaching staff had already dressed and gone home. Only Strickland remained, telling reporters he was only too happy to accept the Bulls' gracious parting gift.

A week later, the memory of the game--The Game, as it will surely be remembered by those who attended it and those who will say they did--already fades. Two days after the win over the Bulls, the New Jersey Nets came to Reunion and whipped the Mavericks with numbing familiarity. Two nights after that, the Mavericks traveled to Phoenix and stood by as Jason Kidd scored a triple-double--20 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists--to help the rising Suns beat Dallas 100-90.

The Mavericks beat Chicago and Michael Jordan on the eve of his retirement, but as of Monday, Don Nelson's team was still 34 games behind the Utah Jazz in the Midwest Division of the Western Conference, still years away from being respectable, much less playoff contenders. A win against the Bulls will give a team confidence for a few hours and top billing on SportsCenter. It will end a 10-year losing streak against one of the greatest sports franchises of all time. It will suggest that a team with 14 wins and 51 losses--a team that also beat the Seattle Supersonics twice, the Indiana Pacers, and the New York Knicks--is better than its record.

It will even become the stuff of legend, the night Michael Jordan came to Dallas for his final game here and was kicked out the door by Michael Finley, who played so remarkably that two out-of-town sportswriters demanded to know why his name isn't heralded alongside the sport's other up-and-comers, such as Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant and Grant Hill. For one glorious March night, it even felt like real basketball was being played in Reunion Arena.

But a win over Chicago will not commute another season's death sentence. It will not erase the memory of bad trades and wasted draft picks. The Mavericks' win was less an accomplishment and more an illusion. As Jordan said before he escaped this pit-stop nightmare: "They may be getting better, but this was still a gift."

The win only looks impressive on the stat sheet and in the record book, where it will be recorded that it was "the Mavericks' biggest comeback win in franchise history"; such a description was heard over and over the day after the win, just as we were constantly reminded that the crowd of 18,255 was the "largest ever for a sporting event in Reunion Arena." Not to denigrate the Mavericks' play during the final period and overtime--indeed, most teams would have rolled over and died when down by 10 points with a minute to go, but not these scrappy losers. Yet it was painfully clear at the end how little the Bulls cared about winning this game.

They played sloppy, desperate basketball almost from the start. Bulls coach Phil Jackson called a time-out barely three minutes into it, his team leading 8-6. Jordan had missed his first two shots and missed them badly, looking distracted and uninterested; Jackson wore a tired, angry visage himself, as though he'd rather be anywhere than here. He would yell at his team all night long--"Slow it down! Line 'em up"--his voice a weathered, husky growl. The Zen Master lost his cool as the game went on; by the end, when free-throw whiz Steve Kerr somehow missed two gimmes at the end and allowed the Mavericks to hang on, Jackson had no words left.

Though the Bulls would at one point take a 19-point lead, it proved a tenuous advantage. Jordan missed easy shots, sinking only 10 baskets out of the 24 he attempted. Each time Jordan would take a shot, you could almost hear the crowd hold its collective breath. The flashbulbs would pop--a thousand at a time it seemed, so many you wondered how he could even see the basket--and it felt as though the air left the arena. If he made the shot, he was rewarded with a quick, deafening cheer; when he missed, which he did too often on this night, the crowd let out a slow, soft groan.

People come to see Jordan play not just to watch him play the game; indeed, the game is almost incidental now, a sideshow featuring nine other men whose names they won't remember. They come to see Jordan re-enact the moves that made him famous--the glorious fadeaway shot in which he seems to hang from the ceiling like Peter Pan, the layup that turns into a tongue-wagging slam dunk at the last moment. But there are nights when the game turns even the best of its heroes into flat-footed mortals, and against the Mavericks, Jordan's occasional heroics looked almost accidental.

Perhaps it was Jordan's lackadaisical play that allowed Michael Finley to look so good. Finley, against the odds and gods, was the star of the night, the guy who made the desperation baskets look so easy. During the first half, the game belonged to the Mavericks forward as he dunked over Jordan, somehow making him look old and worn-out. More often than not, Jordan would respond to Finley's challenge: Finley would dunk, cutting the Bulls lead to two, then Jordan would hit a fadeaway jumper to build it back to four. But at the end of the night, it was Finley who was walking through the corridors of Reunion long after everyone else had left, looking for anyone with whom he could share this moment.

All season long, Jordan has had to face down the Young Turks looking to take his place, as though such a thing is possible; He's gone one-on-one against Bryant at the All-Star game, duked it out with Hill and Alonzo Mourning and the other comers who've been promised by their agents and shoe companies they would get their shots at the crown once the king steps down. But Finley, perhaps more than any other player this season, proved he was up to the task: At the end of the night, Finley scored 32 points, six more than the greatest basketball player of all time. Even Jordan would have to say later: "Finley kept them in the game. You have to give him credit. He came out and played hard."

If Finley didn't play for such a horrible team, he'd be hailed as one of the league's premier players. He has the talent, the moves, the absolute determination to play beyond himself--much like Jordan. Little attention has been paid to the fact that he's among the league leaders in scoring this season: As of March 16, Finley was 11th in the league, averaging 21.3 points per game--more than Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Reggie Miller, Keith Van Horn, and a dozen other would-be superstars. Only that he wears the stink of being a Maverick keeps the national media away from him; one day, when he goes to a contending team as all good Mavericks do, he will earn the recognition he will never receive here.

Of course, it was Cedric Ceballos who ultimately kept the Mavericks in the game: It was his miracle three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left on the clock that sent the game into overtime. Ceballos wasn't even supposed to be the one shooting the ball; it was supposed to go to Hubert Davis, but instead the former Phoenix Sun took the shot himself, and despite the blinding double coverage, connected from deep in the baseline corner. It was a rainbow shot that landed in a pot of gold, a once-in-a-lifetime basket, a cosmic goof. Ceballos, the sacrificial lamb in a trade that sent crybaby three-point shooter (and misser) Dennis Scott to the Suns on February 18, had it coming.

"The shot just dropped," he deadpanned later. "You never know."
Yes, Michael Finley and Cedric Ceballos, who combined for exactly half of Dallas' points against Chicago, won this game for the Dallas Mavericks. Then again, they're perhaps the only two legit NBA starters on this team, and there's a good chance Ceballos, whose contract is up at the end of this season, might not even be here next year.

Those who watched the Mavericks-Bulls game carefully, who weren't numbed by shock and the actual cheering of an actual crowd, might have seen how mediocre Dallas can still be, even when beating world-beaters. Shawn Bradley, for one, is still a joke, a 7-foot-6 stick figure who can't shoot, can't rebound, and flat-out can't play; once, when Bulls 6-foot-7 forward Scott Burrell dunked over Bradley, the entire Bulls bench broke into giggles. The oft-injured Erick Strickland, recipient of a six-year, $14.4-million contract last August, scored only four points in 32 minutes.

"Damn, man, it's just one game," Bulls guard Ron Harper would say to no one in particular as he exited the Bulls' locker room, wading his way through the dozens of reporters waiting outside to talk to Michael and Dennis. He looked at the throng of cameras and smiled. "I mean, what's all the fuss about?"

No kidding. In a few weeks, the Bulls will head once more to the playoffs, and the Mavericks will be pondering yet again how to breathe life into a dead basketball team.

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