Rebound

When Mark Aguirre left the Dallas Mavericks a decade ago, he became the fall guy for the team's decline. Now he's back, dealing with his ghosts and trying to help the franchise regain its former glory.

He will never forget the date: March 25, 1990. That's the day Mark Aguirre, dressed in Detroit Pistons blue, came home to Reunion Arena to play the Dallas Mavericks, the team that made him the No. 1 draft pick nine years earlier and then swapped him for a washed-up player with bad knees and a worse attitude. He will never forget the moment he stepped into Reunion as an outsider for the very first time--a shadow in the spotlight after so many years as this team's first and only real star.

He walked out of the locker room, through the tunnel, and onto the hardwood. He could feel the crowd waiting for him, waiting to tear him apart with their boos. They used to love him, till they turned on him, believing he was the one who turned on them.

Aguirre now says he expected such a reception. During his time here, he had grown used to the chorus of catcalls after years of the local media accusing him of going soft in the big games, choking when the spotlight shone brightest. He had seen fan adoration turn to hate, the product of so many years of listening to him and then-head coach Dick Motta fight in public--watching them snipe in the sports pages and on the court, go for each other's throats until neither man was left standing.

The boos cut him, sure, but what he minded most was coming home wearing the uniform of a team he knew wasn't as good as the Mavericks team he had played on, especially the 1987-'88 incarnation that took the defending world-champion Los Angeles Lakers to Game Seven in the Western Conference Finals.

But those Mavericks lost to the Lakers, who went on to barely beat the Pistons in seven games. Barely. By three points.

And when those Mavericks didn't win, when so many years of struggle turned to turmoil and pain, Aguirre wanted out. He begged owner Don Carter and vice president of basketball operations Rick Sund to trade him, and on February 15, 1989, they arranged for him to leave for Detroit, where he could play alongside his old buddy from the West Side of Chicago, the great Isiah Thomas. In return, Dallas got the empty shell of Adrian Dantley.

After that, the Mavericks would never win another playoff game.
And many would hold Aguirre responsible. "People thought of him as the Antichrist," says one Mavericks employee, only half-jokingly. But the reasons the Dallas Mavericks slid slowly, surely, almost purposefully into disastrous infamy are so numerous they could fill a book. They have names like Roy Tarpley, whose astonishing talent disappeared in the bottom of a bottle; and Fat Lever, whose knee injury sidelined the one-time All-Star; and Randy White and Doug Smith and Cherokee Parks, first-round draft picks who, together, barely made a full player; and coach Quinn Buckner, an egomaniac who came to save the Mavericks and instead smothered them to death while they slept. And that is just the tip of the iceberg that sank this rotten ship to the bottom of the NBA.

The day Aguirre said good riddance to Dallas was the day the end began, the day a team that could have been a habitual title contender began disintegrating. In time, Detlef Schrempf would leave for Indiana, Sam Perkins would move to Los Angeles, and Tarpley would finally be banished from the league altogether. In time, Ro Blackman would leave for the New York Knicks, Brad Davis would move to the coaches' bench and the broadcast table, and the long-suffering Derek Harper would be forced to watch Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn, and Jim Jackson destroy whatever was left of his precious team.

In time, it would all collapse. The Dallas Mavericks would become not even a joke, but a cruel, humorless punch line.

Yet no one shed a tear for Aguirre when he left. No one said how much they would miss his prolific scoring on the floor, the way he drove to the basket as effortlessly as ordinary mortals blink, the 24.6 points he averaged every night during his seven and a half seasons here. No one asked him to stay, not even Don Carter, the father Mark never had while growing up in the tough neighborhoods of Chicago. Carter, a devout man who loved Christ as much as he loved his millions, could do nothing for his son now. It was time for Mark to go.

And then it was on to Detroit and two championships, to the Los Angeles Clippers for a handful of games. On February 1, 1994, Aguirre was waived by L.A., and then came retirement and the blessed anonymity brought to a businessman, a husband, and a father who wanted nothing to do with basketball ever again.

But as much as he tried, he could not escape it.
He and the Dallas Mavericks are inextricably bound, like earth and sky. In this town, you can't say one name without thinking the other. Perhaps it was inevitable that a decade after he left Dallas under a black cloud that shrouded his accomplishments, he should return as part of a team trying to rescue itself from ridicule.

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