Helping the Healing

Nothing like a little hardball to help the Mavs forget

Saddened by recent spills but stimulated by his new grills, Dallas Mavericks guard Marquis Daniels steps into the batter's box. Awkward and unsure at the plate, he resembles his NBA Finals team down the stretch.

As the pitching machine expels the ball toward him at 60 mph, Daniels takes a hitchy, cumbersome swing about as majestic as Courtney Love falling out of a hammock. Daniels misses the ball, but the fun is just beginning. Like the Mavs didn't hold onto a lead against the Miami Heat, Daniels doesn't hold onto his bat in the summer sun. During his violent follow-through, both hands slip off the bat, sending the black lumber helicoptering toward scrambling souls near the third-base dugout.

When the bat finally, harmlessly comes to rest, Frisco's Dr Pepper Ballpark sits in stunned silence. As if to raise a white flag of surrender, Daniels forfeits his remaining two swings in the Reebok Heroes Celebrity Home Run Derby by motioning no mastoward the press box.

Announces Daniels, "Man, I'm sticking to basketball!"

Mavs teammates Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse literally fall to the ground in uncontrollable laughter. Fans give Daniels a standing ovation. Celebrity teammates mob him with giggly high-fives.

And about 90 hours after the Mavs suffered the most mind-boggling, heartbreaking collapse in Dallas sports history, the healing officially begins.

Says Daniels, flashing his diamond-encrusted tooth ornament before munching $1.99 sunflower seeds, "I didn't want to hurt nobody."

Sadly, that's a little late. There's lingering pain and raw emotions in every Mavs fan this summer, from bandwagoners that planned their nights around basketball on TV, to families who delayed their summer vacations for a potential June 24 parade, to die-hards left holding primo tickets to a Game 7 that inexplicably never happened.

"To be that close and wind up losing, it makes it that much harder to deal with," says Flower Mound's Ross Nantz, who brought his 10-year-old son Jason to gawk at celebs and began suturing open wounds. "I mean, we had it."

The 2-0 lead. The 13-point stranglehold in Game 3. The missed free throws. The phantom fouls. The ill-timed timeout. The in-and-out 3-pointer at the buzzer of Game 6...

As tempting as it is to keep dwelling on this year, the Mavs will be back next year. Back on the court. Back in the playoffs. Back in the Western Conference Finals. But back in the 2-0 driver's seat in the Finals?

"Nothing in our sport is guaranteed," admits Mavs coach Avery Johnson, acknowledging that his team may never again be presented with such a downhill road to a championship. "But I know my guys will come back. And I know I'm ready to give it another shot."

Despite the biggest collapse since Bob Dole ran out of Viagra, the Mavs' summer seems simple: 1. Re-sign Jason Terry; 2. Decide exactly where to hang the "2006 Western Conference Champions" banner in American Airlines Center alongside those commemorating Brad Davis, Rolando Blackman and the 1986 Midwest Division title.

With only Terry unsigned and a nucleus that averages 25 years old, performs on the court and stays off the police blotter, the Mavs are perfectly positioned to be favorites to win the title in 2007. Keith Van Horn's almost certain departure will refresh the salary cap with more than enough loot to help re-sign Terry at around $9 million a season. The Mavs have the 28th pick in Wednesday's NBA Draft, same pick that landed them Howard three years ago. Factor in the projected improvements by players like Howard, Daniels, Dirk Nowitzki, DeSagana Diop and Devin Harris, and it'll be easy to get excited about the Mavs again.

Eventually.

But for now, players who otherwise would be sitting home in pity have valiantly chosen to do the only thing sure to kick-start the mending--charity.

"It still stings...still a bitter taste," Daniels says. "A lot of things went wrong, and it's our job to try and learn from them next season. Right now it just feels good to blow off some steam, taking some cuts, getting our minds off basketball. Helping these kids is good for all of us."

In its fifth year, the Heroes game long ago surpassed $1 million for Dallas' inner-city kids through the foundations of tech titan Todd Wagner, Dallas Stars forward Mike Modano and the Little Heroes Baseball Field in Pike Park near AAC. Assisted by Dallas stockbroker Charlie McKinney and former SMU star quarterback Lance McIlhenny, the growing foundation this year attracted Whoopi Goldberg for a Draft Dinner at Gilley's and 5,000 spectators to the Saturday night game.

"Sometimes we as athletes get tired of having our every move scrutinized," Modano says while signing autographs for an endless line of fans in what feels like 137-degree heat. "But this is the flip side. It's an honor to have the opportunity to have such a positive impact on the lives of so many kids."

For their time, the athletes (like the Stars' Brenden Morrow and the Cowboys' Roy Williams) and celebrities (like Wedding Crashers' Geoff Stults and Sex and the City's Jason Lewis) give hope to underprivileged kids and get a $2,700 swag bag highlighted by watches, automotive gadgets, home-delivered steaks and a weekend of bullfighting lessons in California.

Oh yeah, and a chance to play baseball.

On this night the Red Sox, managed by Ken Griffey Sr., out-slug Brooks Robinson's Black Sox, 15-11. Williams slashes two doubles. Mavs owner Mark Cuban gets a couple hits. Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Ware is the Most Valuable Player, mostly for his over-the-head Willie Mays catch.

Modano modestly wins the Home Run Derby with nothing more than a can o' corn to medium left-center. Cuban, who received the night's loudest ovation, fouled a couple into the stands. But neither Daniels nor Stackhouse nor Howard nor Darrell Armstrong (so defenseless that he became the first player on record to square around to bunt in a Home Run Derby) gets a ball out of the infield. It's OK; fella named Michael Jordan couldn't hit a lick either, and he retired with six rings.

The Mavs, somber upon arrival, laughed and played catch and signed autographs and goofed off and generally acted like the kids they were helping. For fleeting moments, they remembered their past and forgot their present.

"We'll be fine," Howard says. "Right now it's just good to get away from everything and laugh a little."

On Saturday the Mavs were supposed to play to hundreds of thousands of parade fans.

Instead, they played baseball.

Let the healing begin.

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