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Crossover Dreams

Mavs man: Tim Hardaway gets to the point.
dallasmavericks.com

The lights from the back of the room shine brightly as they bounce off his handsome face and expensive jewelry. Decked out in a pimp suit--that is a sharp ensemble, not a fedora and a fur coat and a cane, though that might be more interesting--he absorbs questions with style and ease, appearing as comfortable in his new surroundings as he must surely be in his dapper clothing. In one ear, the left, a large diamond stud dangles from the lobe, while a gold, stone-encrusted watch clings to his left wrist. If not for the rabble in this room, Tim Hardaway could be doing a shoot for GQ or Esquire--posing as the very embodiment of slick.

Completing the package is a beautiful ring that adorns his left hand and draws the kind of attention and awe usually reserved for his trademark "killer crossover." The only trouble here is that the ring commemorates his marriage. Oh, don't get me wrong, the sanctity of vows is wonderful and all that noise, but in this context Hardaway wouldn't mind showing off another kind of important ring.

In that, Hardaway--who was recently acquired by the Mavericks from the Miami Heat for a second-round pick and cash--and his new teammates have a commonality of interest and purpose. And void. Like the Mavs, Hardaway, the archetypal point guard who has been an all-star and a Dream-Teamer, never has enjoyed or experienced the euphoria that only accompanies an NBA championship. He spent a good while with the Heat, commanding a talented lot under Pat Riley's supervision/dictatorship, and he came close to the goal before falling agonizingly short. The five years he spent there were successful; that is, the team won and contended, but mostly it was an exercise in dealing with ultimate defeat and broken dreams.

"We had a great run in Miami," Hardaway begins, introducing himself to the Dallas media. He is flanked on either side by agent Henry Thomas and Hardaway's son, Tim Jr. "It was fun. The fans were great. The organization was great. But we both decided that it was time to move on. They helped me get here. I thank Mark Cuban and Don Nelson for getting me here.

"It did end in a way I didn't want it to end in Miami. I thought I'd finish my career there, but it didn't happen. They're looking to go younger in the backcourt, and I didn't fit into those plans."

No, but he surely meshes well here. Unlike the last news conference--where we were forced to wait an hour, an hour, for Shawn Bradley--this one was both interesting and important for the Mavericks. Hardaway, who will turn 35 soon, may have overstayed his welcome in Miami, but in Dallas, where winning is still fresh and experience is scarce, if not completely absent, he will be an integral part. Now, obviously, his role will be different from what he's used to--the starting job rightly belongs to veghead Steve Nash. But that doesn't diminish Hardaway's significance. Actually, it accentuates it.

Last season, Howard Eisley, now a New York Knick, played understudy, but he stumbled to learn the dialogue while earning tepid reviews. A good player, he was ill-suited for coming off the bench or for working with this cast of characters. Hardaway, long a student of the run-and-gun offense beloved and employed by Nellie, was molded and versed long ago for a crew such as this. On the surface, this appears to be a fine acquisition for the Mavericks and Nellie, who coached Hardaway during his most productive years in Golden State.

"We feel really good about getting Tim," Nellie says on the team Web site. "He is the quality of player we want to help us not just in the regular season but also in the playoffs."

Naturally, the last part of that statement is contingent on a few points. Primarily, where Hardaway's age is an asset in locker room leadership, it could be a detriment during the dog days, when even the trainers are sucking wind and praying for a moment's rest.

"Oh, I can run," Hardaway insists, cutting off the question in midstream--not rudely, but in anticipation. It's a concern that has dogged him in recent years and one he's tried his best to shake, so he pounces reflexively whenever it's broached. "The wheels feel great. I'm 100 percent. You can ask Michael Finley and Juwan Howard what I'm doing up in Chicago. We play on the same team all the time. We get up and down with the best of them. Even with the young guys. It's no different."

Well, yeah, it is. It's good to hear that he's moving and not yet confined to a geriatric ward. Encouraging, even. Still, this is August, and August is never a worry. The Fear comes in March, when the playoffs loom and his body is lumpy and discolored from myriad maladies. He is, frankly, injury prone. That was part of the reason why the Heat was willing to part with one of the best guards the league has seen--the injuries and the years.

It crept up on him slowly, the age did. Where once he was breaking ankles much the same way Allen Iverson does today, where once he ran fluidly up and down the court like a whirling dervish--part basketball player, part Tasmanian Devil--he is now resigned to a more plodding, thoughtful approach to the game.

The other issue here, the other major bone to gnaw, is his weight. Standing somewhere between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot--you never can tell with these athletes; lies in their media bios are givens--his frame can only be described as soft. Now, I feel for the man. When I was younger, I was short and fat, too, though my grandmother (a matronly women who's as kind and caring as I am disillusioned and bitter) would tell me in her sweetest voice, bless her heart, that I was just big-boned. Then we'd go shopping for "husky" pants.

Hardaway knows all about husky pants. He gives hope to portly, would-be hoopsters everywhere. In Miami, they had a regular weigh-in for him. This is unusual for a professional athlete who doesn't don shoulder pads and a helmet. Or one of those frightening diaper things the sumos wear.

"No weighing in this year, I'm in shape," Hardaway counters. There's no trace of nacho cheese on the corners of his mouth, so perhaps he's being honest. "I'm in tip-top shape. My weight is down and will be down. You do not have to worry about that. I will not be out there looking like Oliver Miller."

If he can avoid chocolate-covered lard, and if his legs hold up, and if he stays healthy, Hardaway could be a most essential piece for the Mavericks push into the playoffs. Those are a lot of "ifs," but even so, Dallas is already better for having annexed him.

Editor's note: This is the last installment of Fair Game, as John "Gonz" Gonzalez is returning to Philadelphia. We will miss his freakish Philly accent, his disparagement of all things Texas and his East Coast "flava." Still, we wish him well. However, we wish nothing but failure upon the 76ers, Eagles, Phillies and Flyers.


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