Chumps to Champs

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

Screw David Hasselhoff. Where's Zelda Rubinstein?

Rather than the former Baywatchcrooner turned Mavericks coattailer, Dallas should trumpet its long-awaited arrival at the NBA Finals with Zelda, who played creepy clairvoyant Tangina Barrons in Poltergeist.

As she did dramatically in declaring the departure of ghosts from a haunted house in the movie, Zelda should strut to center court at American Airlines Center before Thursday night's Game 1 against the Miami Heat and proclaim: "This house...(wait for it)...is clean."

Two years before the 1982 fright flick, your basketball team began collecting cobwebs, attracting apparitions, gathering ghouls and drafting dead people. But, finally, after 26 years and countless tears, the Mavericks too have been cleansed:

Of having to win the final two games of the 1993 season to reach 11 victories and avoid tying the NBA's worst all-time record.

Of being so harmless that in '97 they became the first and only NBA team to play an entire 12-minute quarter without a basket, managing only two points on free throws by Derek Harper.

Of the litany of white elephant centers like Tom LaGarde, Scott Lloyd, Ralph Drollinger, Pat Cummings, Kurt Nimphius, Uwe Blab, Bill Wennington, Bill Garnett, Greg Dreiling, Darren Morningstar, Jim Grandholm, John Shasky, Radisav Curcic, Cherokee Parks, Raef LaFrentz and Shawn Bradley.

Of '89 first-round draft pick Randy White being a flop on the court and a folly off it. He actually--saw it with my own eyes--crouched down, cocked his head and screwed on his new license plate upside down.

Of substance-stricken star Roy Tarpley swaying in his locker--totally naked--singing about peeing in Lake Lewisville in '95. And then, less than 45 minutes later, playing in an NBA game.

Of a sanctimonious management style in the 1980s that prohibited songs with lyrics like "I wear my sunglasses at night" because, well, who knows?

Of miserable failed experiments named Doug Christie, Antoine Rigadeau, Oliver Miller, Dennis Rodman, Doug Smith, Chris Anstey and Quinn Buckner.

Of Jim Cleamons' Triangle.

Of being so out-of-ideas clueless on March 5, 1996, that coach Dick Motta said, in effect, "Shit, just shoot." His Mavericks launched an NBA-record 49 three-point attempts (making 18) in a rare victory.

Of a "Three Js" era, founded on should-be superstars Jason Kidd-Jim Jackson-Jamal Mashburn, feuding and floundering its way to a 62-102 record.

Of being so lackadaisical that in '84 Motta brought a circus tiger into the halftime locker room for the most uproarious pep talk in league history.

Of being the fabled Mav-wrecks, a franchise that won only 28 percent of its games in the '90s and earned the infamous title of "Worst Professional Sports Franchise" of the decade.

Of a spirited Harper, enthusiastically dribbling out the clock in a tie playoff game that eventually became a heartbreaking overtime loss against the Lakers in '84.

Of an owner named Ross Perot Jr. who initially didn't know how many players were allowed on the court. And his interim GM, Frank Zaccanelli.

Of being so pathetic that in 25 years the Mavs have only one championship ('86 Midwest Division) banner hanging from the rafters. Las Vegas oddsmakers have made Dallas strong favorites in the Finals.

"We're happy but not satisfied," says coach Avery Johnson. "We came into the season with the idea of winning a championship. That's what we signed on for. And now we've got a chance."

It was eerily surreal as the seconds dwindled in Dallas' Game 6 victory at Phoenix. As a kid who attended the franchise's first game, an adult who chronicled the team's every move for a living and a parent whose son named the family dog "Maverick," the overwhelming feelings at the sight of the Mavs finally making the Finals weren't joy and delirium but rather relief and reflection.

Those emotions certainly will change after Dallas wins its first NBA championship. And, by the way, the Mavs will win it in five games.

Because of the championship culture developed by Johnson. Because of the maturation and mettle of Dirk Nowitzki. Because of depth. Because of destiny. But mostly, because of Josh Howard.

The Mavs beat the Memphis Grizzlies by showing up. They beat the San Antonio Spurs by playing fast. They beat the Phoenix Suns by playing slow. And now, thanks to Howard and enough big bodies to bang Shaquille O'Neal into mortality, they will beat the Heat by simply playing.

Dwayne Wade, meet your worst nightmare.

The Heat All-Star guard is accustomed to being quicker, faster, more athletic, stronger and just plain better than his defender. But against Howard, he will have a decided advantage in exactly, oh let's see, none of those areas.

"Wade's a great player, but Avery will put Josh on him and we'll see just how great he is," says former Mavs head coach and current consultant Don Nelson. "When Josh is healthy and he puts his mind to it, there aren't too many guys he can't slow down."

Despite sprained ankles, iced knees and a bandaged thumb, Howard's long arms, gangly athleticism and sneaky speed have already muzzled San Antonio's Manu Ginobli and Phoenix's Steve Nash. With his offense, Howard has the Mavs 25-0 when he scores at least 20 points. And with his moxie Howard gives Dallas a nasty edge, the kind of sneer and swagger sorely lacking for decades. It's the kind of attitude that has the Mavs finally shedding their "soft" label and creeping within four wins of a championship trophy.

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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