It's a strange sight because, really, Raja Bell shouldn't even be here. If he were someone else, someone not quite as lucky--if he were me--he would be across the Atlantic Ocean, shaking his head over a decision he made that proved rash.
Instead, he's walking around the practice court with Mavericks assistant coach Rolando Blackman. They have their arms around each other. They're smiling. They're laughing. With another backdrop, it would look like two old friends chumming and catching up. All that's missing in this sappy scene is teary music. Some Bette Midler, maybe.
Bell is new to these parts; he signed with the Mavs on October 1. No one expected much from him. Some didn't expect anything at all. Yet here he is, an integral part of one of the NBA's best teams, a guy who managed to crack the regular rotation and is widely regarded as the club's best on-ball defender. Here he is, living the life after so many difficulties in his career.
"Man, look around," he says, sipping a cup of water and waving his arm. "This couldn't get any better. This is all great.
"But, man, I've seen ups and downs. I've played in the CBA. I've played in the USBL. You know, I've been cut from teams before. It's tough, it is. But I've been there, and what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
Before you can understand his current situation, before you can fully appreciate how well things have worked out for Bell, you have to consider the path he took. It was hard and unsure. Forget that he didn't make the NBA until he was 24--ancient by the league's standards. Forget his hiccups in the CBA or USBL. Those minor-league horrors, that uncertainty, were behind him when he made the Sixers roster two-plus years ago. Or so he thought.
The man was playing for Philly through last summer. He was part of a squad that advanced to the 2001 NBA Finals before getting bounced by the Lakers. Bell was a rookie then and had played sparingly during the season, but he sparkled in the playoffs. Philly lost the series, but ultimately it was a victory for Bell's career.
He worked hard in the off-season to improve his offense, and went into last year under the impression that he'd pick right up and play serious minutes. Not quite. Being a guard for the Sixers--who employ Allen Iverson, Aaron McKie and Eric Snow--is like being an aspiring actor in Hollywood: too many hopefuls, not enough shots to go around. Rather than playing tough defense the way he had against the Lakers, he went back to the bench. His game suffered as a result. So, too, did his psyche.
"I felt really good about my situation after the playoff run," Bell says. "That was awesome. But unfortunately, it didn't continue. They didn't need any more shots taken up there, and there just wasn't a lot of room for me. I was confused, you know, maybe a little hurt. Coach [Larry] Brown tried to explain it to me, and, as a professional, I should have done a better job adjusting to my role."
Shoulda. Woulda. Didn't.
By the end of last year, the Sixers were adopting a familiar refrain, telling Bell they were ready to go "in a different direction." It was the middle of the summer and, like most free agents, he was forced to play the waiting game. Unlike most free agents, he wasn't sure if that game would eventually yield a job. Remember, he had only two years in the league and most of it was spent on the bench watching A.I. hoist shots from every spot on the floor.
When things looked most bleak, a European league called and promised Bell (even more) riches. He didn't say how much, only that it was significantly more than the one-year, $612,000 deal the Mavs would later ink him to. (At the time, only Adam Harrington, a rookie who has since been cut, made less.) With nothing concrete on the NBA horizon, Bell jumped. And boy did he land in it.
"Yeah, I took it; looking back, it was the wrong thing to do," admits Bell, who has appeared in more games than any other Mavs bench player. "But this is a business, man, bottom line. I've gotta eat. My family's gotta eat. When I left, that's all I was thinking because, financially, it was too good to pass up.
"When I got over to Spain, I didn't particularly like my situation. I told my agent to keep on the horn and see what was out there. I was over there for a month and a half, which was about a month too long."
He ought to be in Spain right now, lamenting his decision to play in Europe and frantically trying to pick up the language and the country's charming lisp. He's not. On his birthday, September 19, his agent called. The Mavs are interested, he was told. But there was a catch: He might not make the roster and, if he did, he might spend the year on the injured reserve list (a nifty little wink-wink ruse used by teams who want to keep more than the league-allotted 12).
"I didn't care at that point what the playing time was going to be," Bell says. "I just wanted to come back. Having been over in Europe, I realized that's not exactly where I wanted to be. I told my agent I didn't care if I was on IR all year. I didn't care. I just figured I'd go in there and fight to make the roster. I would fight to get some playing time. That was my mind-set, that I would do whatever I had to do."
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And so he has. Somehow he's managed to find a regular spot in the rotation--no small feat considering the Mavs' scorers get the bulk of the minutes. A large part of that, no doubt, is the result of Bell being a sort of anti-Maverick. That is, he's more concerned with passing and defense and the game's nuances, even with fitting in, than he is with dropping buckets. He is that rare role player who understands his bit part, the kind of guy the Bulls surrounded Jordan with during their six championship runs.
"Oh, yeah, he's been a good player for us, no question," Dirk Nowitzki says. "He's probably our best defender--we stick him on all the best offensive players. For his size, he's a good rebounder. And he's a full-speed guy. He picks us up."
That, too, is by design. With Eduardo Najera--the incumbent energizer--laid up for much of the year, Bell has been more than willing to assume that duty. Therein lies the irony. Because toiling in Spain wasn't his idea of a good time, or even a career, but it served a purpose, and maybe it even helped him stick here in Dallas.
"You know what?" he asks rhetorically. "Spain was actually a blessing. I came into camp in great shape, right? And now that's part of my role. That's part of the reason why I'm here. Defense was our big focus back in camp, and that played right into my hands. It just kinda worked out for me. I couldn't be happier. This is the best possible situation for me. But I'm never surprised anymore. When things go really bad, I'm not surprised, and when things go great, like this, I'm not surprised. Such is life, you know?"