Mr. Nice Guy

Is Antawn Jamison too big a sweetheart to make the Mavs tough enough?

On this team, primacy has always fallen to the Three Amigos. But, more often than not, it is the supporting cast that determines your playoff fortunes. That's why the Mavs decided to ship Van Exel off for Jamison and banger Danny Fortson. That's why they unloaded LaFrentz and his unholy contract in exchange for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. That's why they imported Travis Best to serve as Steve Nash's understudy. Good or bad, Dallas has decided to rework its basketball paradigm--to supplement the Big Three by breaking up the Terrible Two (LaFrentz and Bradley) and adding all these new faces. On paper, they look deep and fearsome. But there are still questions, chief among them whether this team will coalesce--something the last few squads did organically. Even if the squad melds, it's not clear how easily it can navigate the Western Conference, which now has more quality players than the politicos in Washington have excuses.

With all the variables, there can't really be one fulcrum for the season. That said, whether the Mavs teeter toward a title or tilt ominously to final defeat will have a great deal to do with Carolina's favorite son. He was the star in Golden State. Here he'll be a sidekick, another option on a team full of them. With the addition of Walker, he'll now be asked to come off the bench, to be the sixth man--the team's primary reserve. How he copes with all that will determine a large part of the postseason's direction. More vexing than that: Can a self-avowed mama's boy be the inside enforcer for whom the Mavs have searched?

So you've got work to do. You'd better start hoping that the old adage is wrong. You'd better pray to whatever god you hold dear that nice guys don't finish last after all.

Danny Fortson, who came to the team in the Jamison trade, should provide the Mavs with a tough rebounding force--something the team has lacked for most of its existence.
Mark Graham
Danny Fortson, who came to the team in the Jamison trade, should provide the Mavs with a tough rebounding force--something the team has lacked for most of its existence.
Dirk Nowitzki, top, is an unusual 7-footer in that he is more comfortable shooting outside than close to the basket, but with the addition of Antoine Walker from the Boston Celtics, he may have to play the center position more often. Below, the German star contemplates that with the Canadian (Steve Nash, left) and the Icelandic-type person (Jon Stefansson).
Mark Graham
Dirk Nowitzki, top, is an unusual 7-footer in that he is more comfortable shooting outside than close to the basket, but with the addition of Antoine Walker from the Boston Celtics, he may have to play the center position more often. Below, the German star contemplates that with the Canadian (Steve Nash, left) and the Icelandic-type person (Jon Stefansson).


Calling the University of North Carolina and asking to speak with Dean Smith is a lot like ringing the Vatican and demanding they get Pope John Paul II on the line posthaste. He's that revered.

A nice woman named Linda picks up. She's Smith's secretary. She's not overly thrilled about the idea of bothering a Hall of Fame coach for some reporter from Dallas. When told it's for a piece on Antawn Jamison, class of '99, Linda falls all to pieces, cooing with the distinctive, smoky Southern accent of someone who's spent a lifetime on Tobacco Road.

"How is that dear, dear boy?" Linda asks. "He is such a sweetheart. Let me go get Coach Smith right now, and you tell Antawn that Linda from Coach Smith's office was asking about him...that dear boy."

That's all it takes. Without prompting, Smith, who won more games than any coach in college basketball history, does exactly what everyone else has done when told the topic is Jamison--he immediately launches into public relations, extolling his former player's virtues.

"I know they're gonna love him in Dallas," Smith says, sounding more like a proud father than a proud coach. "He's such a wonderful person. Don Nelson will use him in many ways. Inside, outside, defensively. He's not a real big guy, no, but his quickness is remarkable. On offensive rebounds, you can really see that. If he's there, if he's around the ball, he has a good chance to get it. His confidence level should be very high now.

"And he really is a great young man. He was raised in a loving family. He's a caring person who can also play basketball. What you see is what you get there. He's never going to get into trouble, and he's always going to work hard. I think that has a lot to do with his upbringing and his parents."

Early on, until Antawn was about 12, the Jamisons lived in Shreveport, Louisiana. But his parents, Albert and Kathy, knew all too well how hard it would be to rear one child, let alone three (Antawn has two younger siblings), in a run-down casino town populated by degenerates and drunks. (I know. I gamble there.) Still, it was hard to leave. Albert was the oldest of seven children; Kathy was the second youngest of four. Both extended families lived in the Shreveport area. Grandmothers, nieces, cousins, aunts and uncles, they were all there.

"My parents mean everything to me," Jamison says. Even though by NBA standards he's not a "big man," he is large and chiseled--6-foot-9, 225 pounds with oversized hands and a bulbous noggin--but he becomes soft now. He is folded onto a tiny, high-backed bar stool in the Mavericks office. As he talks about his parents, his voice gets softer, and he begins to shift as he tries to get comfortable, like a big cat wedging himself onto a small perch. "I talk to them almost every day. They moved all of us for a better situation for the family. Job opportunities, education, all of it. They sacrificed for their kids. They wanted to make sure that their kids had all the things that they didn't."

They moved to Charlotte, where Albert Jamison worked primarily in construction; Kathy as a nurse's aide. When Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, both had lots of work, so they weren't home much. But the family would try to eat together each night, and every weekend they made time for each other, walking around the corner to the local park. After church, they'd head over there, all five of them, and waste the day away in the soothing Carolina sun. Albert and Kathy would sit and watch the children or engage in a friendly game of tennis while the younger kids would play gaily on the monkey bars.

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