Hoop dreams

Kevin Sullivan devoted 18 years to working for the Mavs. So, was it worth it?

Kevin Sullivan remembers the exact moment when he realized the Dallas Mavericks no longer mattered, at least to the rest of the world. He recalls the moment in detail, as you might remember the music playing during a breakup.

It occurred during the All-Star Game in 1993, which was held in Salt Lake City. It was the first year the National Basketball Association's league office set up its fan-interactive NBA Jam Session event, where kids could take free throws, play basketball video games, run through obstacle courses, even pose for their own trading cards. Strewn throughout the convention center in Salt Lake were giant reproductions of trading cards, posters featuring the best and best-known players in the league. Team logos adorned the walls, filling every inch of free space.

"And there wasn't a Maverick logo or a picture of a player anywhere in the convention center," recalls Sullivan, then the man charged with Mavericks public relations. To find his team absent from one of the league's proudest moments was a slap in the face, a punch in the stomach, a...well, you can only imagine how it felt. And the 1992-'93 season--when the Mavericks won only 11 games, when first-round draft pick Jim Jackson held out till March, when the laughingstock known as Quinn Buckner was hired--was just the beginning of the nightmare.

"I just felt we had fallen off the map, going to the All-Star Game with no representation," Sullivan says. "Having everybody walk up to me like I was a cancer patient, putting their arm around me and telling me to hang in there. At the time, I said, 'Hey, I'm fine, I love my job, don't feel sorry for me. There are plenty other people worse off than me.' But it seemed at the time so bleak." That was the first time; it would not be the last.

Still, at this very moment, the 38-year-old Sullivan, whose business card identifies him as the Mavericks' vice president of communications, should be in the middle of coordinating Mavericks radio and television operations. He should be gearing up for the Mavericks' November 17 game against the world-champ Chicago Bulls.

But there is a lock-out, and it's likely the NBA will not resume play until December or, more likely, early 1999.

And besides, this interview is Kevin Sullivan's last official act as a Dallas Mavericks employee.

Just last night, with his wife and their 12-year-old son, Terry, Sullivan finished cleaning out his office, gathering 18 years' worth of belongings into boxes and carrying them out to his car. There were the old photos, the handwritten game logs, the collected detritus of nearly two decades' worth of dedication to an NBA franchise that hired a kid from Purdue University in 1980 as one of its very first employees. With his departure, Sullivan is the last of the original Mavericks employees to bid farewell. He has endured as no man should.

If you think it is hard being a Dallas Mavericks fan, imagine being a lifelong Mavericks employee--and then imagine you are the guy stuck between cynical, discouraged writers who sulk on the Mavericks beat and the overpaid, undertalented players who have defamed a once-coulda-been-great franchise. Sullivan has been stuck in the middle so long, the spirit should have been crushed right out of him.

Yet he never once lost faith in the home team, never once uttered a disparaging word about the Mavericks. And he has never made it difficult for journalists to do their jobs. Indeed, he is so beloved that Dale Hansen bid him a kind, graceful farewell at the end of a 10 p.m. newscast last week, telling the viewing audience that if there's a better guy in the pro-sports business than Kevin Sullivan (known as "Sully" to his colleagues), he has never met him. And legend has it that after one press conference, Sullivan got up to ask the assembled reporters if there were any more questions, and somebody shot out: "Yeah, can you go to work for the Cowboys?" There's not a single member of the media who has anything bad to say about him.

But that's not why he's the subject of this column; after all, what's to gain from kissing his ass after he's gone? Rather, Sullivan is the most devout of true believers, a man who utters the phrase "Wait till next year" because he truly expects a better tomorrow; then again, how could he not? He has endured Roy Tarpley's drug suspensions, Mark Aguirre's temper tantrums, the debacle of three J's, the biggest trade in the history of the sport, and the Jim Cleamons-Don Nelson wrestling match of egos. He has lived through a run at the championship and the decline of a franchise. He has withstood lousy draft picks and a year when the Mavericks nearly set the NBA record for futility. He has watched attendance at Reunion Arena dwindle year after humiliating year.

For God's sake, the man has missed only five Dallas Mavericks home games in 18 years. If that alone doesn't deserve a medal, much less a few column inches, then nothing does.

And he is still a fan. Wait till next year, he says repeatedly. And he is not kidding. Never has a man smiled through so much misery.

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