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Feelin' the draft

Cuban is all smiles after yet another "promising" Dallas Mavericks draft night.

It's nearing 6 p.m. as the happy-hour crowd shuffles through heavy doors. Making the trek to Addison and this typically trendy suburban pub--Rock Bottom Brewery, a generic Belt Line eatery featuring greasy personal pizzas and cold hot wings, among other good-if-you're-hammered sustenance--was an adventure for most, considering the Tollway's ludicrous rush-hour traffic. Most head directly for the varnished imitation wood surrounding several overworked bartenders in the back right corner of the restaurant, salivating at the prospect of a cold libation, hoping to at once ease the road rage left behind and the tension that lies ahead.

They've come to bear witness to what has been, much to their chagrin, an exercise in futility in recent years. Co-hosted by The Ticket (1310-AM) sports radio, they've come here, to the Mavericks draft party, to consume frosty beverages and to hope Dallas can undo 10 years of anguish and misdeeds with a few hours of poker-faced gambling.

Just then, the PA system crackles, and an unfamiliar female voice with a surprisingly gruff timbre tries valiantly to speak over the crowd's low rumble.

Please direct your attention to the video screens, she says simply.

The already dank setting grows dimmer as the lights fade. The only illumination comes from the sunlight streaming in from the bustling entranceway and the blue glow of a host of televisions. Simultaneously, the TVs begin showing a somewhat blurry, black-and-white scene in an urban Dallas setting where it appears to be raining. Across the bottom of the screens, in tiny letters, is the phrase "The underdog has grown hungry."

Suddenly, a vicious-looking Rottweiler on a short leash appears and begins snapping hungrily at the audience. A few seconds later the mutt is gone, vanished into thin air, replaced by three tall, muscular black males. One is crouching, examining the vacated spiked collar. One is dribbling a basketball. The other simply takes up space, practicing, perhaps, for the upcoming season. All three casually turn and groove off camera in that slow, methodical walk employed by Quentin Tarantino--a saunter that's not overly flamboyant, not incredibly animated, but purposely deliberate and definitely cool. Look-at-us cool.

After the picture fades, we're left with more words, but these flash intermittently against a dark backdrop: "It's payback time, Dallas Mavericks, 2000-2001."

The response is one of resounding indifference. A smattering of claps come from an overflow crowd so dense that it reminds you of a college fraternity party in both volume and erudition. Aside from those few who offer a soupçon of applause, most don't know what to make of the video. It's a rather crude promo, actually, but the Mavericks' PR people assure everyone it's just a rough copy, not yet massaged into final form. Good thing too, since one of those paybackers featured in the spot is guard Erick Strickland, who is just a few hours away from being traded to the New York Knicks.

D'oh. Um, did anyone deliver the memo to public relations? Guess not.

More amusing, or at least ironic, is that the Mavs not only asked Strickland to be part of the ad but also requested he be present at this little shindig to entertain the invitation-only bluebloods in the VIP room--which he did in sincerity, but only after he and forward Gary Trent, upon arrival, immediately asked "Where's the free food at?" Strickland's reward for accommodating the organization, for taking time to hang with total strangers? Some cold chicken fingers and a ratty "I · ·N.Y." T-shirt with yellowed pit stains. All this, strangely enough, after neophyte owner Mark Cuban enthusiastically endorsed No. 20 at season's end for his hard work and exemplary character.

Double d'oh. So much for loyalty.

Little does everyone know, the insanity is just beginning. Hours later, Cuban and antsy coach/general manager Don Nelson will have somehow wrangled three first-round picks, one second-rounder, and two newcomers by way of trade into the Dallas stable. More important to those assembled here, the pair will have coaxed countless frowns into beaming crescent smiles--occurrences that are all too infrequent in Mavericksland.

Actually, they happen, oh, once a year. In an amazing coincidence, it's always right around draft time.

For a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game in 12 years--or so it says way in the back of the team's media guide, where the information appears isolated as a result of embarrassment--draft night is a big night. For the fans who have endured a litany of futile acquisitions and loathsome teams, it remains the only night. The only night when Mavericks-bashing transitions, if just for a few hours, from fashionable to unbecoming. The only night when it's acceptable to dream what has been an impossible dream around here for more than a decade: Dallas in the postseason.

 


This gathering is full of dreamers. It's an interesting conglomeration of middle-aged, khaki-wearing cell-phone-toters; college-aged, hormone-crazy dudes; and every-age hoops enthusiasts/draft geeks. Under normal circumstances, this crowd wouldn't hang together for all the undivided attention of every scantily clad, eyelash-batting "Ticket Chick" in Dallas. Tonight is different, though. Tonight, they have a common purpose, a reason to smile and consort with those radically unlike themselves. Tonight, it's all right to come out from the closet wearing blue and green and publicly embrace your vision of future Mavericks glory.

"I'm optimistic," says an early-20s college student wearing an outfit eerily similar to the one displayed by his taller friend. Both sport baggy off-white shorts, Abercrombie & Fitch shirts, and ragged baseball caps pulled so low that you can barely see their dark eyes. Only the color of their shirts--one is red, the other blue--and the slightly different shade of the hats distinguish the duo. They look as though they've just stepped from the pages of a mail-order catalog.

"We've been through it all with this team," Abercrombie continues. (Fitch doesn't say much. He's preoccupied with ogling a nearby, but uninterested, female.) "It's been rough watching [the Mavs] over the years. [Draft night] is one of those nights you can just forget about the past and be optimistic about the future."

Just then it becomes obvious how insightful Abercrombie is, belying his age. In this place, on this night, hope and anticipation are almost as tangible as the numerous Bud Light bottles with peeling labels. Happiness is as readily available as gaudy striped shirts are prevalent among the aging cell-phone crowd.

The mood only energizes further as Dallas selects Etan Thomas, from Syracuse, and Courtney Alexander, from Fresno State, with the 12th and 13th picks, respectively. Word quickly filters through the humid air, which smells of body odor and fried food, that these are quality players. More encouraging still, they're from the good ol' U.S. of A and scored more points in college than they have consonants in their names--a rarity among Nelson-coveted prospects.

"The first pick freaked me out," says one ample-bellied guy in a striped shirt, double-fisting light beer. "At first, I didn't like it."

There were a handful of boos. Uh, did you boo?

"I can't remember," Stripes slurs, turning to a friend also wearing a shirt with the same pattern. (The theory here is that stripe-wearers multiply much like bunnies. But that's just a theory.) "Hey, did I boo? I don't know, he's not paying attention. If it were me, I would have picked the [shapely blond] with the tight ass over there."

Let the good times roll.

While the bar's intoxication level rises, the more sober (such an ugly word on draft night) among us discuss Nellie's propensity to strike deals. Most were originally braced for certain obscurity because, let's face it, the big fella has been wont to find a few unknowns. With The Don, there have been good moves in his career (e.g., the selections of players like Dirk Nowitzki, Latrell Sprewell, and Tim Hardaway) and not-so-good moves (e.g., the unfortunate, recondite selections of players like Australia's Chris Anstey, China's Wang Zhi Zhi, and Mars' Leon Smith).

Problem is, good draft or bad--and no one really knows yet; it tends to take the hindsight only time affords to determine that--propaganda will inundate the hopeful. Happens every year. From Steve Nash to the Tallest Chinese Guy Ever, management predictably offers assurances that each is a cornerstone pick. A lot of it is, quite obviously, attempted brainwashing because too many former draftees aren't qualified to do much more than serve as load-bearing walls in abandoned warehouses. Most of these patrons know the empty feeling left by unfulfilled, overevaluated talent the way they know the contours of their mattresses. Still, most embrace the soothing words from the Mavericks brass, however premature.


Later, Nelson will dub the festivities "a very encouraging draft for our franchise." Few will argue. They'll choose to buy in and get swept away like followers of a cult. Nothing will deter them from enjoying this night. Nothing.

"Know what? I liked the draft," Stripes decides with a good flip-flop.

But before you didn't, remember? You said something about being freaked.

"Yeah," he says, taking a long pull from his sweaty brew. "I changed my mind."

Abercrombie and Fitch side with Stripes, advocating the work of Nelson and Cuban in a phrase beginning with a hearty "Yo, dude" and ending in a determined "way phat." For the uninformed, that's good.

It seems to be the consensus, that general they-done-good feeling. Whether it's the not-so-subtle effects of the booze or simply the calendar's date, or both, giddiness abounds. Lots of toothy grins attached to cold beers.

 

In separate, almost segregated sections of the bar, Stripes and his bunnies--uh, buddies, that is--as well as Abercrombie and Fitch find comfort in both items. Nipping on grandpa's cough medicine will produce sunrise nausea, no doubt, but it makes the evening bearable as the 43rd pick, and points beyond, are scrutinized by the TV folks. But will the smiles leave an aftereffect in the morning, or in the preseason for that matter? Or in January or June? As longtime Mavs fans, the only thing they're sure of is that past smiles have been too short-lived to be sure of anything.

So they indulge, one and all, basking in the moment, enjoying what could be ephemeral euphoria. With the way the team has imploded after other "promising" drafts, you can hardly fault their reveling.

After all, 'tis the season.


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