Chumps to Champs

Remarkable journey takes Mavs from worst to--finally--first

Even more than Dirk turning into Larry Bird this spring, Howard has morphed into Scottie Pippen.

"He contributes in so many ways," says back-up guard Darrell Armstrong. "He can beat you with his offense, with his defense, with his hustle. In a lot of ways he's our heart and soul."

Another steal by general manager Donnie Nelson, Howard, taken with the last pick of the first round three years ago, is a microcosm of Mavs maturity. Last year prone to outbursts and getting technical fouls for throwing his headband during a Houston Rockets game, this year the kid grew up, getting braces off his teeth and putting brakes on his anger.

Fittingly, the Mavs will complete their exorcism by snatching the title from the player who through the years has tormented them like no other--O'Neal. Whether dunking on Bradley, mocking Erick Dampier, flirting with Cuban or clowning around with Nelson, Shaq has made a career out of turning the Mavs into his personal punch line.

But those days, those ghosts, are gone. Forever.

Right, Zelda?

"These chumps...(wait for it)...are now champs."

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