The Defense Rests

Can the Mavs guard anyone? To find out, John Gonzalez gets offensive with a drunk Don, a focused Finley and a nutty Cuban.

"That's what he has to do," Nellie says. "He has to hit the boards for us."

As he turns to a friend, I sidle up close to Nellie, expecting him to drop more knowledge about the game. After all, who better to educate me on basketball nuances than Nellie? I ready my pen in anticipation of brilliance.

"Better move," Nellie says to his pal. "I think I'm gonna pee my damn pants."

Dandy Don: General manager and coach Don Nelson acknowledges the adoring crowd at Dave and Buster's while doing an interview with Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams of The Ticket.
Mark Graham
Dandy Don: General manager and coach Don Nelson acknowledges the adoring crowd at Dave and Buster's while doing an interview with Mike Rhyner and Greg Williams of The Ticket.
Don and son/assistant coach Donnie sign autographs and guzzle.
Mark Graham
Don and son/assistant coach Donnie sign autographs and guzzle.


There's a passage in Dante's Inferno where Virgil comes upon a hermit pope in hell. The pope is there because he shirked his responsibilities and acted improperly. He knew what he was doing, and where it would lead, but he did it anyway. It's a rough analogy, but that's essentially what's happened to the Mavs as a result of Mark Cuban's sometimes poisonous personality. There can be no denying that yelling at refs like a loon and making snide remarks about various NBA policies have been detrimental to the club. Consequently, the Mavs get scrutinized. They've been marked. Cuban would never admit it, but his actions have adversely affected his squad.

It's hard to get a read on the man. He's bright and driven, but he can also be childish and overbearing. It's the latter side, the dyspeptic manner, that frequently gets him into trouble and causes the league office to dip deep into his pockets.

So this season isn't just about on-court basketball. It's also about how the Mavs' growth might be stunted by the one man who, more than anyone else, wants to see them excel.

"There's a perception about Mark, yeah," says a longtime East Coast NBA scribe. "Some people love his energy, but he's made a lot of enemies, too. The players...they love him, right? Nellie loves him, right? Everyone over there loves him. But, in the back of their mind, they've got to know that some of the things he does make things difficult on them for no good reason."

I tried asking Cuban about it, along with a host of other questions, but he decided to be cute and condescending instead of professional. (Hey, that's my job.) My favorite was his response to the organization's lack of substantial off-season moves: "I got bored. I couldn't find anyone to make trades with me so I got married instead."


He finished the e-mail by taking a shot at "reporters who find that asking what's been asked is the best they can do. Then I wait for them to write the same thing that's already been written." I guess he was talking about me. That's fine. He's entitled to his opinion, though the way he sometimes presents himself speaks volumes.

The man could be huge--a positive force, a Pied Piper type. Instead, he chooses to act up and act out. He clearly wants what's best for his team, and by extension the fans, but what he wants and how he carries himself are often in direct conflict. Wouldn't it be pragmatic for him to tone it down? Not to say that he has to abandon the fight, because that's part of his charm, and it can, at times, serve a purpose, but picking his spots would make real sense. If nothing else, it would dim the spotlight on the Mavs and ease some of the attendant pressure.

The whole thing can be distilled to this: There's something to be said for being comfortable with who you are, but when the maturity of a 40-something constantly has to be questioned and factored into wins and losses, something is amiss.

There are only a few minutes left in the Grizzlies game. A little while ago, I said my goodbyes and was ready to sneak out. My bed was, and still is, calling me. It's a seductive cry, and I'd love to answer it, but my work here isn't done.

The Mavs have blown a good portion of their 20-point lead. (I'm sure Bradley is behind it somehow, but my notes are too muddled to indict him.) The crowd has abandoned most of the frenetic side activities and focused in on the game. They are starting to get nervous, even quiet and a little worried. Meanwhile, the fans in Memphis are getting behind their team--you can hear their cheers through the speakers.

Our celebration, the one that looked so certain for the last two-plus hours, can't possibly be ruined by a loss to the lowly Grizz, can it?

In fact, it can't. It's the Mavs' night. With close to three minutes left, Raef LaFrentz tips in another ball and puts Dallas up by nine. Everyone at Dave and Buster's breathes a little easier, and the clock slowly ticks its way down to a Mavericks victory. Nellie shoots both arms back into the air; Donnie spreads a crescent grin over his mug; the congress hoots wildly, and the party kicks back up. (As an aside, the Mavs tell anyone who will listen that the opponents' field goal percentage this year will be the barometer for defensive achievement. The Grizzlies, who lost 59 of 82 games a year ago, shot 55.8 percent tonight... Yup, that's some fine work.)

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