By Lauren Smart
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They've come to bear witness to what has been, much to their chagrin, an exercise in futility in recent years. Co-hosted by The Ticket (1310-AM) sports radio, they've come here, to the Mavericks draft party, to consume frosty beverages and to hope Dallas can undo 10 years of anguish and misdeeds with a few hours of poker-faced gambling.
Just then, the PA system crackles, and an unfamiliar female voice with a surprisingly gruff timbre tries valiantly to speak over the crowd's low rumble.
Please direct your attention to the video screens, she says simply.
The already dank setting grows dimmer as the lights fade. The only illumination comes from the sunlight streaming in from the bustling entranceway and the blue glow of a host of televisions. Simultaneously, the TVs begin showing a somewhat blurry, black-and-white scene in an urban Dallas setting where it appears to be raining. Across the bottom of the screens, in tiny letters, is the phrase "The underdog has grown hungry."
Suddenly, a vicious-looking Rottweiler on a short leash appears and begins snapping hungrily at the audience. A few seconds later the mutt is gone, vanished into thin air, replaced by three tall, muscular black males. One is crouching, examining the vacated spiked collar. One is dribbling a basketball. The other simply takes up space, practicing, perhaps, for the upcoming season. All three casually turn and groove off camera in that slow, methodical walk employed by Quentin Tarantino--a saunter that's not overly flamboyant, not incredibly animated, but purposely deliberate and definitely cool. Look-at-us cool.
After the picture fades, we're left with more words, but these flash intermittently against a dark backdrop: "It's payback time, Dallas Mavericks, 2000-2001."
The response is one of resounding indifference. A smattering of claps come from an overflow crowd so dense that it reminds you of a college fraternity party in both volume and erudition. Aside from those few who offer a soupçon of applause, most don't know what to make of the video. It's a rather crude promo, actually, but the Mavericks' PR people assure everyone it's just a rough copy, not yet massaged into final form. Good thing too, since one of those paybackers featured in the spot is guard Erick Strickland, who is just a few hours away from being traded to the New York Knicks.
D'oh. Um, did anyone deliver the memo to public relations? Guess not.
More amusing, or at least ironic, is that the Mavs not only asked Strickland to be part of the ad but also requested he be present at this little shindig to entertain the invitation-only bluebloods in the VIP room--which he did in sincerity, but only after he and forward Gary Trent, upon arrival, immediately asked "Where's the free food at?" Strickland's reward for accommodating the organization, for taking time to hang with total strangers? Some cold chicken fingers and a ratty "I · ·N.Y." T-shirt with yellowed pit stains. All this, strangely enough, after neophyte owner Mark Cuban enthusiastically endorsed No. 20 at season's end for his hard work and exemplary character.
Double d'oh. So much for loyalty.
Little does everyone know, the insanity is just beginning. Hours later, Cuban and antsy coach/general manager Don Nelson will have somehow wrangled three first-round picks, one second-rounder, and two newcomers by way of trade into the Dallas stable. More important to those assembled here, the pair will have coaxed countless frowns into beaming crescent smiles--occurrences that are all too infrequent in Mavericksland.
Actually, they happen, oh, once a year. In an amazing coincidence, it's always right around draft time.
For a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in 12 years--or so it says way in the back of the team's media guide, where the information appears isolated as a result of embarrassment--draft night is a big night. For the fans who have endured a litany of futile acquisitions and loathsome teams, it remains the only night. The only night when Mavericks-bashing transitions, if just for a few hours, from fashionable to unbecoming. The only night when it's acceptable to dream what has been an impossible dream around here for more than a decade: Dallas in the postseason.