A decent shot

Six years after coaching a wretched Mavs team, Gar Heard finally gets back in the game

But it was a single 18-foot desperation jumper that made him the stuff of legend. With a single second left on the clock, Heard's bucket sent his Phoenix Suns into triple overtime against the Boston Celtics in Game Five of the 1976 NBA finals; it was the so-called "shot Heard 'round the world." When the league celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago, that Suns-Celtics contest was judged by 50 NBA beat writers as the greatest game of all time.

He retired in 1981, returning to the hardwood when Dallas coach John McLeod hired him as an assistant coach in 1987. That was the same season the Mavericks got further in the playoffs than the team ever had, or ever will again, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Seven of the Western Conference finals. Heard stayed in Dallas long enough to outlast everyone on that team, save the martyred Derek Harper. By the time Heard became Dallas' head coach for the final 53 games of the 1992-93 season, he had seen Roy Tarpley self-destruct, watched Mark Aguirre go to the Detroit Pistons, witnessed McLeod's firing, and been part of myriad other catastrophes that turned a contender into a puff of stale smoke.

To say the 1992-93 season was a bleak, difficult period for Heard would make it sound too rosy. The Mavericks were odds-on favorites to at least tie the Philadelphia 76ers' pitiful record of nine wins and 73 losses, set in 1973; national reporters came to Dallas in search of the sad story. There were times during those 53 games when Gar Heard looked like a man who couldn't tell the difference between a good laugh and a good cry; his face seemed frozen in a look of sad, groggy disbelief. Once, during a game against the Houston Rockets, Heard was relentlessly cajoling a referee -- yelling at him, cursing, but mostly begging for mercy.

Gar Heard coached the worst team in the history of the Mavericks; finally, he gets a real team.
Gar Heard coached the worst team in the history of the Mavericks; finally, he gets a real team.

"You gotta help them out," Heard pleaded from the sidelines. "They can't see anything. They're blind." After the game, Heard told reporters he was thinking only one thing during the blowout loss: "Would somebody please make a shot?"

To make matters worse, Heard knew almost from the beginning of his tenure as Mavericks head coach that it wasn't to last. He assumed control of the team the morning of January 13, 1993 -- Richie Adubato, with a record of two wins and 27 losses, was fired before the team's shootaround -- and won his first game as head coach only six days later. But on March 4, then-general manager Norm Sonju announced that NBC basketball analyst Quinn Buckner was going to take over the team -- the following season.

Buckner, who was introduced the same day as holdout Jim Jackson, insisted he wanted to start fresh, meaning there was no way in hell he wanted to be the fall guy if and when Dallas set the league's record for the most losses in a single season. It fell upon Heard -- who had been told by management he wasn't expected to win with such a talentless lot -- to take Dallas to the end of the season. A more thankless job has never existed in the history of professional sports.

"When Gar found out Quinn was going to be coach, he took it in stride, but it hurt him a little bit," says former Mavericks guard Brad Davis, who acted as Heard's assistant in 1993. "It wasn't the fact it was Quinn, but they weren't going to see him through to the end of the season -- see what he could do and give him a chance. He wasn't even a viable candidate for the job. But even when he was an assistant with McLeod, I could tell what a good coach he was -- the way he understood the game and related to players. He's a class guy."

Heard knew Buckner was going to be coach weeks before the official announcement was made. But he never complained publicly, never denounced owner Don Carter, general manager Sonju, or vice president of basketball operations Rick Sund for making him the lamest of ducks with the lamest of teams. Indeed, years later, Heard would end up as an assistant with the Detroit Pistons -- where Sund still holds the title of vice president of basketball operations. Heard holds a grudge like a colander holds water.

"If I had gone 49-10, I wouldn't have gotten the head coaching job in Dallas," he says. "It was a no-win situation. But I enjoyed it. I didn't have the greatest talent in the world, but they worked hard every night."

Heard deserved far better than the screw-you-very-much he received from Dallas management. Seventeen years after the buzzer-beater in Boston, Heard was coaching Continental Basketball Association rejects, becoming more and more exasperated with every loss until all he could do was smile and groan. Back then, he genuinely believed that heart could compensate for the lack of talent; he was convinced passion could fill in the blanks left empty by skill. He was wrong.

"We had all CBA guys," Heard recalls of a lineup that included such never-rans as Mike Iuzzolino, Randy White, Donald Hodge, Walter Bond, and Morlon Wiley. "We probably wouldn't have won the CBA championship that year."

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