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Things are looking up for the Mavs -- of course, everything's up from the bottom

The round little boy wears a green plastic cowboy hat adorned with the Dallas Mavericks logo. The hat is a thousand sizes too small for his large blond head; it looks like a thimble resting atop a basketball. The boy sits next to Steve Nash, among the newest and richest Mavericks, on a couch in the den of a rather stately home near downtown. The room is decorated for a child's birthday party, banners and balloons strung everywhere. Nash wears his Mavericks white warm-ups, and the smile on his face is genuine.

But Nash's grin disappears altogether when another child literally leaps on top of him, attacking him with arms and legs going every which way. Then another child comes in for an attack; then another, while even more children run amok in the room, yelling and screaming at the top of their puny lungs. Nash looks as though all the air has left his body, even more so when a kid throws a green-and-blue mini-Mavericks basketball directly at the point guard's groin, scoring two very painful points.

"Wait, wait, wait, wait! Everybody calm down!"
The director finally begins to lose patience with the kids, telling them this is "only a pretend birthday party." Nash's makeup begins to run a bit as sweat falls from his forehead the way pouring rain drops from a tiny leaf. A few feet away, three more children hang from the arms of Mavericks forward Samaki Walker; he's a jungle gym with legs.

Finally, the director calls action! and the cameras begin rolling on a commercial that will air as part of the Mavericks' "One Fan at a Time" ad campaign--the team's tongue-in-cheek-desperate way of wooing back a crowd beaten down by eight years of humiliating "pro" basketball and a lockout that turned apathy into whogivesacrap.

Just 10 minutes earlier, Nash was talking about how he never imagined that playing in the NBA meant having his personal basketballs trounced upon by child actors. "But we all have a responsibility to the fans this year to make the fans feel appreciated and welcome," Nash was saying, and if that means shooting a commercial at a fake birthday party, then so be it. Anything for the team.

Nash, who turns 25 on Sunday, hasn't played a single official second in a Mavericks uniform, and already he is being held aloft as the poster boy for the new-look Mavs--the young Mavs, the playoff-competitive Mavs, the born-again Mavs, or whatever else Nelson likes to say of a team that features a 20-year-old German rookie without a second's worth of NBA regular-season experience, a power forward who punched his pregnant girlfriend in the ribs and face in 1997, and a God-fearing stick figure at backup center who does more good on the bench than on the floor.

Twenty-four hours before the commercial shoot, Nash sat at a table with Nelson and guard Michael Finley, the closest thing Dallas has to a would-be-should-be star, and was introduced as co-captain of this team. Nash was also being given a six-year contract worth nearly $36 million--all this, before Nash ever suited up in Dallas whites.

"I didn't ask for this," Nash says. "But I'm willing to take on the responsibility of being a focal part of an organization trying to mend its wounds and rise up and stand on its own two feet. I look forward to it."

Last season, Nash was a backup point guard for the Phoenix Suns, seeing limited playing time behind Kevin Johnson and ex-Maverick Jason Kidd. Now, Don Nelson talks about Nash as one of the "cornerstones" of this relatively young team. Don's son, assistant coach Donnie Nelson, insists he's the next John Stockton, the Utah Jazz guard destined for Hall of Fame immortality. In other words, Nash is the great white hope who could lead Dallas into the promised land--or, at least, fifth place in the Midwest Division.

The senior Nelson also keeps talking about how Dirk Nowitzki is a shoo-in to win the Rookie of the Year Award--even though the young German has never faced real players.

And, of course, Nelson once more talks about how the playoffs aren't out of reach once the season begins February 5. This, despite the fact that Dallas lost a staggering 62 games last season.

Of course, the man called Nellie has promised as much in the past. He has ordained myriad players the future of the franchise, the answer to the prayers of lost generations: Robert Pack, Shawn Bradley, Chris Anstey, Dennis Scott, Erick Strickland, Kurt Thomas. And he has been wrong every single time.

Yet in the days before the lockout-shortened season is to begin, this is the most optimistic this franchise has been since the promise of the Three J's--Jason Kidd, Jimmy Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn--turned into a threat that destroyed the Mavericks one more time. But around the Mavericks' offices or Reunion Arena during the sole pre-season game last weekend against the Suns, there has been little evidence of a lockout hangover. Though how could one tell in a city where, for the past eight years, the National Basketball Association has appeared only when another team came to town?

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