Net gain

The round little boy wears a green plastic cowboy hat adorned with the Dallas Mavericks logo. The hat is a thousand sizes too small for his large blond head; it looks like a thimble resting atop a basketball. The boy sits next to Steve Nash, among the newest and richest Mavericks, on a couch in the den of a rather stately home near downtown. The room is decorated for a child's birthday party, banners and balloons strung everywhere. Nash wears his Mavericks white warm-ups, and the smile on his face is genuine.

But Nash's grin disappears altogether when another child literally leaps on top of him, attacking him with arms and legs going every which way. Then another child comes in for an attack; then another, while even more children run amok in the room, yelling and screaming at the top of their puny lungs. Nash looks as though all the air has left his body, even more so when a kid throws a green-and-blue mini-Mavericks basketball directly at the point guard's groin, scoring two very painful points.

"Wait, wait, wait, wait! Everybody calm down!"
The director finally begins to lose patience with the kids, telling them this is "only a pretend birthday party." Nash's makeup begins to run a bit as sweat falls from his forehead the way pouring rain drops from a tiny leaf. A few feet away, three more children hang from the arms of Mavericks forward Samaki Walker; he's a jungle gym with legs.

Finally, the director calls action! and the cameras begin rolling on a commercial that will air as part of the Mavericks' "One Fan at a Time" ad campaign--the team's tongue-in-cheek-desperate way of wooing back a crowd beaten down by eight years of humiliating "pro" basketball and a lockout that turned apathy into whogivesacrap.

Just 10 minutes earlier, Nash was talking about how he never imagined that playing in the NBA meant having his personal basketballs trounced upon by child actors. "But we all have a responsibility to the fans this year to make the fans feel appreciated and welcome," Nash was saying, and if that means shooting a commercial at a fake birthday party, then so be it. Anything for the team.

Nash, who turns 25 on Sunday, hasn't played a single official second in a Mavericks uniform, and already he is being held aloft as the poster boy for the new-look Mavs--the young Mavs, the playoff-competitive Mavs, the born-again Mavs, or whatever else Nelson likes to say of a team that features a 20-year-old German rookie without a second's worth of NBA regular-season experience, a power forward who punched his pregnant girlfriend in the ribs and face in 1997, and a God-fearing stick figure at backup center who does more good on the bench than on the floor.

Twenty-four hours before the commercial shoot, Nash sat at a table with Nelson and guard Michael Finley, the closest thing Dallas has to a would-be-should-be star, and was introduced as co-captain of this team. Nash was also being given a six-year contract worth nearly $36 million--all this, before Nash ever suited up in Dallas whites.

"I didn't ask for this," Nash says. "But I'm willing to take on the responsibility of being a focal part of an organization trying to mend its wounds and rise up and stand on its own two feet. I look forward to it."

Last season, Nash was a backup point guard for the Phoenix Suns, seeing limited playing time behind Kevin Johnson and ex-Maverick Jason Kidd. Now, Don Nelson talks about Nash as one of the "cornerstones" of this relatively young team. Don's son, assistant coach Donnie Nelson, insists he's the next John Stockton, the Utah Jazz guard destined for Hall of Fame immortality. In other words, Nash is the great white hope who could lead Dallas into the promised land--or, at least, fifth place in the Midwest Division.

The senior Nelson also keeps talking about how Dirk Nowitzki is a shoo-in to win the Rookie of the Year Award--even though the young German has never faced real players.

And, of course, Nelson once more talks about how the playoffs aren't out of reach once the season begins February 5. This, despite the fact that Dallas lost a staggering 62 games last season.

Of course, the man called Nellie has promised as much in the past. He has ordained myriad players the future of the franchise, the answer to the prayers of lost generations: Robert Pack, Shawn Bradley, Chris Anstey, Dennis Scott, Erick Strickland, Kurt Thomas. And he has been wrong every single time.

Yet in the days before the lockout-shortened season is to begin, this is the most optimistic this franchise has been since the promise of the Three J's--Jason Kidd, Jimmy Jackson, and Jamal Mashburn--turned into a threat that destroyed the Mavericks one more time. But around the Mavericks' offices or Reunion Arena during the sole pre-season game last weekend against the Suns, there has been little evidence of a lockout hangover. Though how could one tell in a city where, for the past eight years, the National Basketball Association has appeared only when another team came to town?  

"I don't believe it's necessary to overcome the past," Nelson says as he sits in his office at the Baylor-Tom Landry Center, puffing on one of his ubiquitous cigars. "We had a bad team, they hired me to make it a good team, and that's what I'm trying to do. There are a lot of times one team will play another, and they'll go into the history of the franchises. All of a sudden you're comparing Golden State, which is a bad team now, with the Lakers. What does that have to do with anything? It's where are you now? We haven't played a game yet, but we feel that we've done a good job assembling this great young team, and we'll see."

There is no doubt that Nelson's optimism is sincere, more than just an exhalation of stale cigar smoke. No one believes in Don Nelson like Don Nelson, a man who hired his own son to take over for him at the beginning of the 2000-'01 season. He's lauded as a genius for running a blacktop offense (well, it sure looks made-up on the spot) and hailed as one of basketball's greatest bosses even though no team he's coached has ever reached the NBA Finals, much less won a championship. He has made so many poor decisions as general manager of this team that the coach side of him ought to complain to owner Ross Perot Jr., who is so awed by Nelson he even allowed him to sign Gary Trent--despite Trent's violent past that includes assaulting his girlfriend and attacking a man who had been staying in his home.

"At the end of the season, I'll be happy if they're a real good team, and I think they are," Nelson says, repeating his mantra. "And if they are a good team, then the playoffs are not out of the realm of possibility."

See. There he goes again, God love him.
A few days later, during the January 30 preseason game against the Suns, the Mavericks look very much like the team that has played in Reunion throughout the 1990s. One of the referees even wonders aloud, "Is this the longest game in the history of the world?" as the fourth quarter draws to its numbing close, with the Suns beating Dallas by something to something.

This is less a basketball game than a basketball camp, especially with Nowitzki in there looking at times like a child in over his head--not too much older than those kids at the birthday party jumping all over Steve Nash. Nelson yells to Nowitzki to rotate on defense, while the forward thinks he's talking about offense. "Damn it, that's you," Nellie yells at the kid, pointing one of his enormous fingers at him. "Goddammit! Dirk, he's got to feel your body!" Later, dressing in front of his locker, Nowitzki will explain that there is still a language barrier separating coach and player.

Throughout the game, Nowitzki is brutalized by the Suns, pounded like raw steak being prepared for carpaccio. And the refs let Phoenix get away with it, refusing to call fouls even when the German is triple-teamed beneath his own basket: Welcome to the NBA, rookie. And there are times when Nowitzki looks lost, throwing up the ball with reckless abandon. Sometimes the boy's got more bricks than the Berlin Wall.

Common sense would dictate that Nelson should start former All-Star Cedric Ceballos over Nowitzki at the small forward position. But by the time Ceballos was signed last week, Nelson had already told the local media that Nowitzki was a starter, the star of tomorrow delivered today. By then, Nelson was sure he had lost Ceballos, who had turned down a three-year, $16.5-million deal. But when Ceballos found no takers, he came back to Dallas with hat in hand, agreeing to a league-minimum contract worth only $725,000.

To the Mavericks, he is priceless, the possible difference between a short season of hope and another forever-seeming year of ridicule and disaster.

"I like Ced off the bench," Nelson insists. Starting Nowitzki is a "good way to bring Dirk along. He's a sensational player. It's not a lot of pressure. He's used to starting." Yeah--in a league where he was the best player on the floor at any given time. "Look," Nelson says, a bit aggravated with the line of questioning, "what's the difference if Ced starts or comes off the bench? It's no big deal."  

But Ceballos and Finley--and perhaps Nash, though that remains to be seen--will carry this team, will define whatever success it has. When they're on the floor together during the Suns game at Reunion Arena, the Mavericks look almost like a professional basketball team--even with that hapless freak of nature Shawn Bradley wasting space in the middle. Their fast break is actually fast; they find the basket without a map and compass.

Maybe there is hope yet. There has to be after all these years. Hating the Mavericks has become a tiresome pursuit, like listening to talk radio for more than 15 minutes.

"Who cares about history, anyway?" Ceballos wonders. "The great thing about the word history is that it's his story." He points his finger into the distance. "Don't let it be your story. Make your own story up."

Chapter One goes down in permanent ink Friday.

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