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.

He is 38 years old now, still powerful-looking at 6-foot-5, still endowed with hands so enormous they look as though they could palm the world. Since August 1996, Aguirre has been working with the Mavericks as scout and director of player personnel. It's his job to evaluate new talent and teach young players like Michael Finley, Samaki Walker, Erick Strickland, and Chris Anstey how to play the game that came so effortlessly to Aguirre. It's his job to help teach boys how to become men on the hardwood--a job made even more important during the current NBA lockout.

Aguirre, you see, is not officially under contract by the team right now, so he is the only person in "management" allowed contact with the players. Hell, he might be the most important basketball man in town at present, charged with making sure Finley and Walker and the others stay sharp while owners and players battle it out over money. "It's funny, isn't it?" he says, commenting on his return while standing in the front yard of his exquisite Frisco home. "I never thought it would happen--never."

How ironic--the man known for years as the quitter, the cry-baby, and the choker makes his comeback as a mentor.

Not part of Aguirre's official job responsibilities is perhaps an even greater task, the unspoken assignment he will have for the rest of his life: proving that the Mark Aguirre you thought you knew back then was not the way he was portrayed to be and is definitely not the same man now.

At first, Mark Aguirre didn't want to talk for this story--he didn't understand why anyone would be interested in what he had to say after all these years. He's just a businessman now, he explains, an investor in the North Dallas-based Source Media, a communications firm that provides content to various media outlets, including Internet sites. With the company for nine years, he is one of the smart athletes, a guy who took his millions and invested wisely. He will never have a full-time job again, and now he spends his time playing golf, picking up his daughters from school, working with Source--and, oh yes, for the Dallas Mavericks.

Come October 1, he hopes to have another venture off the ground, though he is reluctant to reveal just what it is. "Someone might steal it," he says, smiling. Suffice it to say it has to do with basketball, the Internet, and several NBA greats, including his old friend Earvin "Magic" Johnson and former Boston Celtics star Robert Parish.

Right now, Aguirre sits in his sparsely furnished study talking on the phone to Parish, explaining the enterprise to him. "No, you don't have to put up any money," Aguirre says on his end of the phone, sitting behind a grand desk. "But you will have stock in the company." The two talk for a while, joke about old friends, and leave it with Aguirre promising to send Parish a prospectus detailing the venture.

When he gets off the phone, Aguirre looks around his office, which is just off the kitchen in his expansive home--there's a pool, and a pool man, outside the window--and he shrugs apologetically, "I don't have many keepsakes around here."

Indeed, there are few reminders in his house that a two-time world champion lives here. There's only one action photo of him in a Mavericks uniform and two of him with Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, both taken at Mark and Angela Aguirre's wedding in February 1988. The ceremony took place in Mark's hometown of Chicago, and the very next day, the three of them played in that season's All-Star Game.

He says he doesn't even know where his championship rings are, muttering something about giving them to his wife. Almost hidden on a shelf is his trophy for being named 1980's College Player of the Year. When asked why it's his sole basketball memento on display, he pauses and says quietly, "It's personal. It's real personal." It's the only time during several hours of conversation that Aguirre offers a vague answer. The man, you see, has nothing much left to hide anymore.

Whether he likes it or not, his life during his playing days with the Mavericks is an open book--hundreds of pages of press clippings filed away in the Mavericks' office, located in the bowels of Reunion Arena. Dating from a 1980 Sports Illustrated article about his college career through the present, they reveal a career defined by success and chaos. They're full of harsh criticism from columnists and coaches, and stories documenting absolute greatness on the floor--and, even worse, absolute disappointment. Never in the history of sports has one man been blamed for the downfall of a franchise; never did failure sit so enormously on one man's shoulders.

That's what everybody in town believes about Mark Aguirre--he was so often great, but never good enough to help the Mavericks become basketball immortals. This headline from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1987 says it all: "Aguirre is Mavs' best friend, worst enemy." Fans loved him as much as they despised him. He seduced you, then broke your heart.

At least, that is what history tells us.
But Mark Aguirre is not much on history. He feels it has betrayed him, painted him as something he never was--a quitter, a loser. Sure, he made mistakes, but he will tell you now that he was just a child in the 1980s, still learning how to be mature, responsible, grown-up. Yes, he fought his coaches; yes, he was stubborn; yes, he blew up. But why?

"I've been my only defense all my life," he says, remembering his fatherless childhood in the Chicago ghetto. "I mean, I had like no defense so far as a male figure to defend me. I had no defense so far as an older brother to defend me. So I was my own line of defense."

As public and as ugly as Aguirre's relationship was with Dick Motta and his replacement, John MacLeod, there is much you do not know about Mark Aguirre.

Such as: During his days with the Mavericks, he often flew to then-Mavericks general manager Norm Sonju's basketball camp in upstate New York and delivered inspirational speeches to children. He actually did that at Dick Motta's camps here in town in the 1980s. Later, after he joined the Pistons, Aguirre did the same thing in the Detroit public schools, as he does around town today.

Or: After the Los Angeles Lakers lost in Game Seven to the Boston Celtics in the 1984 NBA finals, he and Isiah Thomas flew to Boston to comfort Magic Johnson.

Or: He has spent the past several years bailing Roy Tarpley out of jail, getting him lawyers, trying to get him straightened up and dried out, much of the time with his own money. Now Tarpley is back in Louisiana, living with his mother, though Aguirre says Roy will once again try to play basketball in Europe. Even Aguirre can't believe it.

Or: In June 1986, his mother Mary--who, as a single parent raised him and his three siblings--died. Throughout his career, Aguirre wrote her name on his basketball shoes. Her death from cancer made him grow up faster than Dick Motta or anyone else would ever admit.

And, finally: Aguirre is a devoted husband and father--the kind of male role model he never had in his own childhood. He has canceled events in order to take care of his daughters, who often cling to him with obvious affection.

The fact is, everything you know about Mark Aguirre is right--and so very wrong.

"He had the reputation of being moody, and at times he was, but he wasn't as difficult to get along with as people imagine he was," says Kevin Sullivan, the Mavericks' vice president of communications. "[Former head coach] Richie Adubato once said that by today's standards, Mark was Mother Teresa...And his departure here was bad, but it shouldn't completely erase what he did. Rolando Blackman has more points, but you can easily make the case Mark's the best player in team history."

Norm Sonju, the man who founded the Mavericks in 1979 and brought in Don Carter as the millionaire owner, has every reason in the world to hate Mark Aguirre. After all, Sonju is the man who helped draft and sign him in 1981, who ignored all the nasty things being said about him at DePaul University and gambled the franchise's future on a man who had a history of sulking like an 8-year-old.

Yet Sonju, most of all, is still among Aguirre's biggest fans. "He's one of my favorite guys," says Sonju from his home in Speculator, New York, where he and his wife run a camp for underprivileged children. "Even back then, when we drafted him, they talked about his attitude, but I saw the other side way more--the sweet side, the generous side. The other side I heard from Dick, but Dick has a way of finding faults with people."

Dick Motta does not want to talk about what happened. He wants it removed from his memory, erased from any future conversations he has with journalists. "I'm not interested," he spits when reached at his home in Fish Haven, Ohio, and asked if he would talk about Aguirre. It's no big deal, he is told. Just a little background.

"You're right," he says. "It is no big deal." Then he hangs up the phone, not altogether gently.

Twice Motta was ringleader for the circus at Reunion Arena--during the early days of this expansion franchise, then again when a veteran was needed to tame young men with no discipline and little heart. And twice he left in disgust and defeat--first in 1987, when he announced he was retiring and offered no reasons why, then again in May 1996, when Ross Perot Jr. and David McDavid bought the team from Don Carter. In nine years as head coach of the Mavericks, the third-winningest coach of all time never made it to the NBA Finals.

But he tried. Lord, how he tried.
Go back to the beginning, to June 1981. The Mavericks' inaugural season had just ended. The team finished the year with a 15-67 record, winding up sixth in the Midwest Division. It was about the best that could be expected, especially after Norm Sonju decided to go with a young team instead of one made up of veteran rejects available in the expansion draft.

Sonju and Rick Sund, the Mavs' director of player personnel, knew that with the first pick in the 1981 draft, they had to go after a player who could lead this team, a player around whom they could build a franchise. There were three easy picks that year: Aguirre, a star forward at DePaul; Isiah Thomas, who led Indiana to the NCAA championship in 1981 and was named tournament MVP; and Buck Williams, who, along with Aguirre and Thomas, was a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that boycotted the games. There was no bad choice.

Of the three, Dallas interviewed Aguirre the most. During his days at DePaul University in Chicago, he had acquired a reputation for being a "bad actor." He was a brilliant ball player at DePaul--his head coach, Ray Meyer, told Sports Illustrated in 1980 that "he can score 30 [points] any time he wants to." But he was also known as something of a head case, to put it mildly--a guy who wouldn't put his heart and body into a game when it was on the line, who showed up late for practice, who back-talked Meyer in public. He was confident and arrogant, brilliant and boorish--"a superstar," said Meyer. But he was also potential trouble for a Mavericks franchise built on Don Carter's love-God-first-the-game-second ethic.

"No question he was an outstanding basketball player," says Sund, now in charge of personnel for the Detroit Pistons. "The question marks were the moodiness and attitude. You would interview people, and some would love him, and some would hate him."

Surprisingly, Sund and Sonju both now say that the Mavericks agreed to financial terms with both Aguirre and Thomas before the June draft. After all, they were good friends who shared the same lawyer, and back then, you could talk money with a player before he was drafted. In the end, the decision on whom to draft was left to Motta, a revered coach who had won a world title with the Washington Bullets in 1978.

Motta had continually told Sonju and Sund he didn't want a problem player on his hands. He had been involved in too many run-ins with Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge at Washington to go through that personal hell again. But Motta was also fond of Brad Davis and knew he didn't need another guard like Thomas--he wanted a forward, someone who could shoot the ball.

"Dick had convinced Carter and myself and Norm that if [Aguirre] was the best player, the best talent, then he would be able to deal with him," recalls Sund. "Within a year, they were butting heads. No, within five months."

The day Aguirre was picked, headlines across the country contained variations on the same theme: "Aguirre flashes good-guy smile," "New image for Aguirre," "Dr. J or Mr. Hyde? Aguirre represents challenge to Motta." Before 1981 ended, newspapers both here and around the country insisted that Motta "has had to cuss Aguirre for his failings and that the other Mavericks detest Mark." Motta, for his part, soon enough uttered the words that would forever define their relationship. First Motta insisted he was going to "break him like a thoroughbred"; then he told the media, "I've said things to him I wouldn't say to my dog."

"To a young kid, those were kind of scary words," Aguirre says. "But Dick was going to say things, and I just was not going to tolerate him calling me different things. That may have been a fault of mine--other players could take it--but I just couldn't."

For the next six years, Motta and Aguirre had one of the most tumultuous and twisted relationships in the history of the NBA--and the most public. Mavericks sources say that Motta was drinking buddies with many of the sportswriters in town--including Dallas Morning News Mavericks beat writer Jan Hubbard and columnist Randy Galloway--and that he fed them stories about how Aguirre was too slow, too lazy, too fat. He humiliated his star at every turn, stepped in his way whenever it seemed as though Aguirre was making progress. Once, he told the newspapers that "this organization doesn't pay me enough to help him the way I've tried to help him."

Hubbard--the man toward whom Aguirre once "playfully" extended his middle finger during a game, a gesture that was believed by local scribes to be aimed at Dick Motta--made their every run-in public. On March 1, 1985, he reported that after the Mavericks were beaten by the Milwaukee Bucks, Motta and Aguirre had a heated locker-room confrontation. "Motta accused Aguirre of being a quitter," Hubbard wrote. "Aguirre suggested a trade. Motta said no one wanted him." Motta then told Hubbard, "I'll let him rot on the end of the bench before I send him someplace else and let him make a fool out of me."

Carter and Sund were forced to act as a buffer between the two egos, and Carter wasn't up to the task. When he decided in 1979 that he was going to pony up the $12 million needed to bring Dallas into the NBA, Norm Sonju gave Carter one piece of advice: Don't fall in love with a coach or a player, because there will come a day when a player needs to be cut or traded, and sooner or later, you will have to fire your coach. Carter didn't listen.

He embraced Aguirre as a son and Dick as a brother. "Dick didn't want to betray Don by trading Mark," says Rick Sund. "But more than anything, he wanted to use him as a scapegoat when we lost: 'Don, your boy--look what he did.'''

Carter spoke lovingly of both men, forgave them their tantrums, thought that deep down both men would work through their troubles and one day get along. He believed the two of them were going to bring him a championship, and he looked the other way whenever they blew up at one another.

On May 20, 1987--not long after the Mavericks posted a 55-win season, won the Midwest Division, and were then knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Seattle SuperSonics--Motta announced his resignation. His press conference was brief, emotionless--a short sentence and nothing more. He never explained his reasons for leaving, but everyone knew: He could no longer coach Mark Aguirre.

On June 4, 1987, John MacLeod was named Mavericks head coach. Things got better. Then they got much worse.

Of all the things Mark Aguirre is blamed for, nothing looms larger than what is known around the Mavericks' offices simply as Game Seven.

It was June 4, 1988. The setting was The Forum in Los Angeles, home court for the Los Angeles Lakers, the defending world champions and a team nearing the end of its reign as one of the best in the league's history. The Dallas Mavericks had somehow, almost miraculously, managed to push the Lakers to a final, deciding game in the Western Conference Finals--the winner would face the Pistons for the title of world champ. Those who were at Reunion Arena for games three, four, and six could feel the moment approaching: The Dallas Mavericks were destined to usurp the champs and become the league's dominant team. They had the talent, the drive, the passion, the sheer belief they were better than the Pistons, the Lakers, damn near everybody who wore a uniform and dribbled a ball. Game Seven would be theirs.

And for a while, it was. After six games and two periods, the teams were virtually deadlocked, separated by a mere Kareem Abdul-Jabbar two points at the end of the first half. But in the end, whether by luck, providence, or sheer ability, the Lakers beat Dallas 117-102. With Mark Aguirre sitting on the bench for much of the final period.

Why he sat out remains the subject of much debate. He pulled himself from the game with an injury after bending back two fingers on his non-shooting hand. He says now he wanted to go back in, but John MacLeod--who had replaced Motta, but not his system, not yet--kept Detlef Schrempf in the game. The local media didn't buy it: Aguirre had come off the floor, they insisted, because he could not and would not handle the pressure of being the "main man" during crunch time. No matter that Aguirre scored 24 points in the game; no matter that he had kept them in the game until the Lakers went on a 15-2 run in the final period to seal shut the coffin. The media hung the loss around Aguirre's neck, and he drowned for it.

"People say we lost because of Mark, and that's not fair," Sund insists. "Mark had a very, very, very low threshold of pain, but everybody blaming Mark is wrong. He had an injury, and he can't play with any type of pain...But do you give the loss to Mark? No. You give it to the Dallas Mavericks."

Aguirre, for his part, has a hard time talking about Game Seven. He says he and Harper and Blackman will not discuss it among themselves, "because if we did, we would end up talking about it for hours, for days." He counts it as the single biggest regret in his professional career, losing to a team he and everyone else knows the Mavericks should have beaten. "We would have been the best team in the Western Conference for a while, without a doubt, because nobody was powerful enough to beat us. We'd have had our shot at title after title."

But it was never to happen.
Aguirre picked up with MacLeod right where he left off with Motta, feuding in private and public. The end came during the middle of the 1988-'89 season, when Aguirre demanded to be traded to any team he chose. Sund says that he would only send him to a team that could provide a player who would help the Mavericks. The Indiana Pacers were about to trade Herb Williams and another player for Aguirre, but after team officials met with the Mavericks forward, they passed--bad attitude, they said.

Ultimately, Isiah Thomas got involved and met with Don Carter. The two men, along with members of the Pistons' front office, arranged a deal that sent Aguirre to Detroit and Adrian Dantley to Dallas--a deal Pistons head coach Chuck Daly didn't even know about until after it was consummated. Aguirre was ecstatic; Dantley was outraged and didn't even report to Dallas for a week. A little more than a year later, Dantley was waived by the Mavericks. And Aguirre was on his way to winning two world titles.

The odd thing was, when Aguirre got to Detroit, he and Isiah weren't as close as they had been as kids or as young men in the league. Isiah was a star in Detroit; Aguirre was just a utility man who played off the bench.

"It bothered me that Mark had no feelings for the Mavericks," says Sund. "I don't respect players as much when they have to go to another team to ride the coattails to go to the championship...I tried to get that across to Mark, and it was to no avail. But he was also under very difficult media scrutiny, though much of that antagonism he brought on himself. He'd duck out the back door or lie to the reporters. You can't beat the media."

Officially, Mark Aguirre does not work for the Dallas Mavericks, at least right now. His contract expired on July 1, and his future with the team is currently up in the air--such decisions will be left to coach-general manager Don Nelson, who, during his brief tenure coaching the New York Knicks, once tried to get Aguirre to play for him. But Aguirre's absence from the payroll is also a ploy designed to get around the current NBA owners' lockout that may well delay the beginning of the upcoming basketball season. Were Aguirre part of the team's management, he would be banned from even talking to any of the rostered players--such contact is disallowed under league rules during a lockout, which, in this case, is about the owners' desire to control escalating players' salaries.

Aguirre returned to the Mavericks quietly at first, brought in by his old friend Frank Zaccanelli, who worked for Ross Perot Jr. and, in May 1996, helped Perot negotiate the purchase of the team. Both men had come to town in the early 1980s--Aguirre with the Mavs, Zaccanelli as a broke young man from Syracuse, New York, looking to strike a little gold in Texas. They ended up playing basketball together at The Aerobics Center, where Zaccanelli met Roger Staubach and soon began to work for his real estate company. At the Staubach Company, he came into contact with his future employer, Perot Jr., who owned Hillwood Development Corp.

When Perot bought the team, Sonju was summarily dismissed. Zaccanelli insisted he take over the basketball operations and asked Aguirre to work with Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn to impart his knowledge to the three young players who seemed adrift on the NBA hardwood. Zaccanelli also asked Aguirre his opinion of Chicago Bulls assistant coach Jim Cleamons, whom Aguirre enthusiastically endorsed. In fact, it was Aguirre who, in the spring of 1996, first approached the coach about replacing Motta, who had returned for two seasons during the mid-'90s, before Cleamons was allowed, under league rules, to talk to another team about a new job.

In August 1996, his return was official: Aguirre was now part of the staff. The local media, which had helped run him out of town, was at once thrilled and bewildered when he first stepped onto the floor to work out with then-coach Jim Cleamons' young, awful team. "Hell has frozen over," wrote now-exiled-to-Chicago columnist Skip Bayless, who was among the writers leading the Aguirre-must-go charge 10 years earlier. "Pigs have flown."

The love-in, such as it was, would not last long: On December 26, 1996, Zaccanelli, Cleamons, and Aguirre were the three wise men who, at the time, were seen as fools for trading away Jason Kidd to the Phoenix Suns for Michael Finley, Sam Cassell, and A.C. Green. Merry Christmas, Dallas--Mark Aguirre's back. Now, of course, Zaccanelli is having the last laugh: If Finley were playing for another team in the league, save for the even-lowlier Denver Nuggets, he would be a superstar by now.

"Mark was basically an advisor," Zaccanelli says. "He was a close friend, someone I could count on to give me good, solid advice. He knew the league, knew all the players' pros and cons, and was a good source of information.

"But another reason I gave him this opportunity is that I don't think he liked the way he left Dallas, and I thought it would be great for him to come back to Dallas and give to the Mavericks what they gave him early in his career."

Now, Aguirre is charged with teaching Finley and Samaki Walker--the Mavericks' two players of the future--how to play the game. During the season and the summer, he works out with them and lectures them on the game's finer points, instructing them on how to focus, drive to the basket, open up passing and shooting lanes, adjust on the fly. The "troubled" player has become the patient coach; the "insolent" student is now the thoughtful teacher.

"Michael Finley has to learn how to use his quickness to get where he wants to be," says Aguirre, who can't go 15 minutes without offering a lesson in the game. "He showed excellent improvement. I mean, Michael's another quick, fast learner. Samaki may be even faster than Michael."

The Mavericks would do well by allowing Aguirre to continue to impart his wisdom to his progeny; even better, if they could find another Mark Aguirre in their future.

Yet there remains the belief that Aguirre choked in the big games, though Maverick officials disagree with that assessment. Indeed, Rick Sund explains that Aguirre was primarily a first- and third-quarter hero, the kind of player who could give his team a lead and, hence, command of a game. He could score eight or 10 points almost at will during the first 12 minutes of a game--so effortlessly did he move to the basket, so eloquently did he float the ball through the hoop.

That was his role--not to dominate at the end, but at the beginning. You wanted someone to finish an opponent off? Give the ball to Roy Tarpley or Derek Harper or, most often, Rolando Blackman. They cleaned up Aguirre's mess--and what a beautiful, masterful mess it was. But no one talks about that now. All they say is how Mark Aguirre ran out of gas, sulked on the bench as the clock ran out, and sabotaged the perfect machine.

That's what they said about Mark Aguirre--that he didn't care about the Dallas Mavericks. No, they insisted, he cared only about Mark Aguirre.

"When people say to me, 'Mark Aguirre is a bad guy,' I say, 'Have you ever spent time with him?'" says Zaccanelli. "It breaks down really fast that they don't know him...When you really take a look at him, he was an extremely unselfish ballplayer. He was always painted as being a selfish guy, but when you peel the onion back, he's always been a guy with a huge heart who made people better. I was never able to understand why people would question that."

After Aguirre left Detroit on October 7, 1993, he played for the Los Angeles Clippers--a stint that didn't even last 30 games. He was burned out, he explains, and in no mood to play for a team that could barely compete for last place. So he retired in 1994 and came home to Dallas, where he could escape the attention, the scrutiny, the acrimony--the whole mess of it. All he had ever wanted as a kid was to play ball and to win, and when he was on his game, few in the history of the sport played with more determination.

That he is remembered for those other moments--real or imagined, created by Dick Motta or the local media or Aguirre himself--is the unfortunate result of a sporting life misspent and misunderstood.

However history defines him--as hero or villain--Mark Aguirre will always be content in the knowledge that he was one of the best players, if not the best, ever to suit up in Mavericks white-and-green. In a town where Michael Irvin is adored and forgiven, Aguirre should be revered. But it will never bother him if he is not. It didn't then. It won't now.

"When I heard that he was going to be involved again in 1996, I took that as a positive," says Mavericks communications VP Kevin Sullivan. "When you're trying to build tradition in your franchise, a guy like Mark should be part of the family. His legacy should be what a great player he was.

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