Fire at will

Downstairs, the beat writers were scrambling for quotes. Just moments earlier in the bowels of Reunion Arena, Ross Perot Jr.--the man who owns the Dallas Mavericks and, it seems, a good hunk of the Dallas City Council--had introduced Don Nelson, Mavericks general manager, as the team's new head coach. Junior then ran out of the building--he had a banquet to attend--and let Nelson field all the questions about the hows and whys of coach Jim Cleamons' firing earlier that morning on December 5. Next to him, a handful of Mavericks executives stood with hands clasped in front of them and just nodded their heads.

Nelson, wearing a suit and a solemn look on his face, said he suggested firing Cleamons a week earlier but didn't like doing it. "These things are never very pleasant," he said with a shrug. He spoke no ill of the deposed coach. "I respect Jim Cleamons," he said, and some in the crowded room tried to keep from laughing.

He promised better basketball at Reunion: "Entertaining," he called it. And that was pretty much that.

A few local radio stations broadcast the press conference live, the TV reporters watched in silence, and the newspaper beat writers wrote down every word, perhaps even before Nelson spoke them. After all, this moment had been anticipated for days, weeks--really, since Nelson came to Dallas in February as general manager of this floundering franchise. This moment was about as surprising as a sunrise.

Upstairs, just as the Nelson press conference was ending, a very different gathering of the media began unfolding. Oh, happy coincidence: On the very night Nelson replaced Cleamons, on the very night the Mavericks were to face the New York Knicks (which fired Nelson as coach only a year ago), and on the very night the planets were perfectly aligned in the night sky, Mayor Ron Kirk had scheduled an appearance at Reunion to kick off a voter registration drive timed to the January 17 vote on the proposed new arena.

Before the cameras and microphones and tape recorders, the mayor glad-handed the crowd. "You signed up?" he asked the shocked throngs as they walked through the Reunion doors. "Vote yes on the arena January 17!"

B-boys dressed in knit hats and eternal frat boys in Dockers were eager to meet Kirk, to shake his hand, to find out what the hell he was doing there. They stared dumbly into the camera lights as they watched the mayor shake hands and pose with Mavericks president and CEO Terdema Ussery.

The Mayor and The Maverick.
Do not for a moment think the events going on upstairs and downstairs had nothing to do with each other. Oh, there's no doubt Cleamons needed to go, but not only was his firing a good basketball move, it was also a great business decision.

Under Cleamons this season, the Mavericks had won a mere four games and lost an ugly dozen. And for their efforts, the team was rewarded with the boos and boisterous screw-yous of the meager 10,000 or so who turned out to witness the gore on the floor. Business was down; no-shows were up. The team rebelled against the coach, and fans turned on the team.

When cornered by the Dallas Observer, Kirk insisted that the increasingly poor turnout for Mavericks games and the impending arena vote are "whole different" deals. He said that no matter how poorly this team played, that Dallasites would still turn out for a new arena "because they want to see Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal, they want to see the rising stars of the NBA, they want to come and see Barry Manilow, Paul Simon, Anita Baker, and the Ice Capades."

"The Mavericks clearly have to put a more competitive product on the floor, but they know that," he said between handshakes and head bobs. "Obviously, today's not one of their best days. They just released Jim Cleamons, but they want to win. There is no joy in putting an average product on the floor. Troy Aikman said something the other day, and it's true: Dallas is probably more of a winner's town than it is a sports town. We're a tough audience...But I think people understand the value of this [proposed] facility, whether they come or not."

Only a fool would think the firing of Jim Cleamons and the arena vote sleep in different beds. They are, in fact, connected like mother and child by the umbilical cord that stretches from Ross Perot Jr. all the way to Ron Kirk.

"I don't know about no head coach," says one lonely, exasperated hot-dog vendor standing behind an empty counter in the Reunion Arena concourse. "But anything's got to be better for business."  

Which is, of course, the point.
Don Nelson tried to get Cleamons fired after last season, when he won 24 out of 82 games, but the owner said no. Back then, Perot didn't think the rookie coach had been given a fair shot, especially in light of the two mammoth trades Nelson made last year that dismantled an already fragile team.

Yet when Nelson approached the owner about "making a change" last week--if indeed these talks began only last week, and nobody in the world believes that--Perot was only more than happy to consider firing Cleamons. But Perot stipulated he would cut loose Cleamons only if Nelson would take over, which he did, even though Nellie always said he wouldn't.

Ussery and Perot insist the impending arena vote didn't necessarily play into their decision to oust Cleamons. They knew a change had to be made--but they also should have known that at the end of last season, when Cleamons ran off his sole superstar, that expendable nobody named Jason Kidd. Cleamons, who repeatedly insisted he had to turn a bunch of millionaire "babies" into a team of men, was the wrong man to coach a team that has been rebuilding since the middle of the Bush presidency.

And nobody can say, with a straight face, they just realized that last week.
"The arena vote is clearly important," the affable Ussery said during a half-time interview. "We'd like to stay in Dallas--we hope on January 17 everyone supports this thing--but [the Cleamons firing] was a bigger issue than that, quite frankly. Whether we're in Dallas or we're somewhere else..."

Whoops. The former Nike executive paused, then began again.
"We ask people to partner with us, if you will," he continued. "And our obligation is to put a great product on the court, as best we can. Well, whether or not there's a vote, I can look you in the eye and tell you the result that came about today would have come about anyway."

A few Mavericks officials joke about the new arena-Jim Cleamons firing "conspiracy theory," and maybe it is just that. After all, a coaching change was an absolute necessity. Cleamons publicly committed hara-kiri during his brief tenure as Mavs head coach. He allowed Perot and partner Frank Zaccanelli to give away the future when he nudge-nudge-wink-wink OK'd the Kidd trade with the Phoenix Suns, distanced himself from his players by forcing a philosophy down their throats instead of a workable gameplan, and then treated Nelson like an interloper instead of his boss.

Players say Cleamons, who's so fond of the Triangle offense that favors passing instead of shooting, went out of his way to ignore Nelson's pleas to turn the Mavericks into a fast-break, uptempo team that would run the ball instead of hide in the corners. Cleamons was too stubborn, too arrogant for his own good, and he paid the inevitable price. Ussery says that when informed of his firing, Cleamons was "resigned" to the news.

It's far too soon to tell whether the Nelson era will bring better results to Reunion. The crowd for the Knicks game was a paltry 12,600--still far below last season's average of more than 15,000; Mavericks officials had expected walk-up business to be much higher on this most special of nights, when one of the greatest coaches in NBA history took to the Reunion sidelines against Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley. No such luck.

Still, it's hard not to revel in such moments as these for a team that would rather forget the past eight years. The Mavericks that faced--and soundly defeated--Patrick Ewing and the Knicks, then nearly beat the Houston Rockets two nights later, was a born-again team, free to run and shoot and rebound and play basketball again. No more standing around; no more talk of triangles, only of round balls and round hoops and scores of more than 100 points. The Mavericks were a joy to watch last Thursday night, hustling for rebounds and turnovers, shooting three-pointers and dunking for power, outplaying the hell out of a Knicks team that seemed baffled and distracted. Nelson threw his team on the floor, and they threw everything they had at New York.

Cleamons' departure is what the players always wanted, what they begged for at first privately, then very publicly. Dennis Scott and Erick Strickland, among the most vocal of those insisting Cleamons had to go, played with particular fire against the Knicks. Strickland, among Nelson's favorites and Cleamons' least, started for the first time all season; Scott played at power forward and scored 12 second-half points.

After the game, Scott was especially elated by the coaching change. As dozens of reporters (far more than the handful usually around after games) piled into the locker room, Scott scurried around clad only in a loose-hanging towel. On his way to and from the showers, he shouted things like "The NBA is back, baby!"  

"With Cleamons, it's just we weren't having any fun, and you could see the difference," Scott said later. "We played hard with him; it's just that when you feel like a robot, you can play as hard as you want and it doesn't make a difference."

An hour after the game, after the players and media had exited the locker room, Nelson was left in the weight room with some Mavericks employees. He had a tall-boy can of Budweiser in his hand and a slight smile across his face.

Nelson, till just last week, always said he would have taken the position with the San Antonio Spurs if he truly wanted to coach again. During an interview with the Observer only two months ago, he exploded at the mere hint of suggestion that he was dissatisfied with Cleamons' coaching style.

Two months later, Nelson called Cleamons, fired him over the phone, then took his job--all in the span of 12 hours.

He seems genuinely happy to be a coach in the NBA again. He jokes that it's a harder job than being GM, but nothing a few beers--and a few wins--can't fix.

"This is the worst time to make a change, when you're this far into the season," Nelson said, taking a swig of cold Bud. "We made it at a bad time, and how you going to get another quality guy to come in here? It's just a hard job to come in at mid-season. Some schmuck's gotta do it, and it might as well be me."

Especially when Perot, the man who signs your $1.4 million paycheck, asks real nice.

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