This is all Antawn Jamison ever wanted. He's trying to explain that to me. Again. The look on his face is friendly, but it also conveys another message. Something along the lines of: This must be the 10th time we've had this talk.
He's happy here, even if I don't think he should be, even if I think the Mavericks keep telling him to bend over and grab his ankles. When other athletes would be irritated, Jamison remains calm, even thankful. When others would have no reservations about voicing their displeasure, he remains quiet. That's the way Jamison is--positive and upbeat.
It absolutely drives me insane.
This has been the dynamic between the two of us since I first met and interviewed him shortly after he was traded here from Golden State. He's easy to talk to, and he always makes a point of saying hello, which is why, I think, I tend to take more liberties with Jamison than most athletes (read: I know he won't try to punch me). He knows I like him--as a player, as a person--and he's willing to give me leeway. Why, I don't know. But he does, and I shamelessly exploit it. And so he's frequently forced to listen to shit-brain advice, which invariably points out that he's getting pushed around and that it's OK to be upset about that.
In this particular instance, I cite, as just cause for a meltdown, the fact that he's spent the better part of the past few weeks answering questions about whether he'd be traded to the Portland Trailblazers for one Rasheed Wallace (and all of that despite the fact that Jamison is shooting better than 50 percent from the floor). Wallace is the negative image of Jamison in temperament--a surly Philly native who's always quick with a grimace or an elbow upside his opponent's head. He's my kind of guy. I wouldn't want to see the Mavs trade Jamison for him, though, but that's beside the point. The thing here is that Jamison has fended off those trade rumors after a season in which he's done nothing but play Company Man.
Consider: After being traded to the Mavs, he was a starter for all of about a week before Antoine Walker was shipped in from Boston and took his spot, relegating Jamison to a seat on the bench, albeit a cushy, prominent one. He fully accepted that role and did his best to excel therein--which he has. The argument can be made that he has been the team's most consistent player this year, seeing more minutes than anyone on the squad save Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Walker while averaging better than 15 points and six boards per game.
"Oh, sure, he's been absolutely terrific for us," assistant coach Del Harris says. "Others--I've heard some people out there say this--they say that this guy or that one is the best sixth man in the league. That's baloney. Antawn is the best sixth man going. And he's just a terrific person."
I mention all this to Jamison. I tell him that he's done everything that the Mavs have asked of him and more. I tell him that he's been a fine player, but a better person. I tell him that a guy like that shouldn't have to hear slimy reporters whisper trade rumors in his ear while the bosses do precious little to deny it all. (Head coach Don Nelson's response wasn't much of one. When asked about the possible trade, Nellie said simply: "There's nothing to it.") I tell him that, but he doesn't budge.
"You have to realize this is a business," Jamison says, tugging on his Mavs practice jersey and kinda tapping his foot a little while looking me in the eye. "I'm definitely happy to be here. All that stuff that people say, the rumors, I let it go in one ear and out the other. I try to play hard. I try to help my teammates. That's what's important. If I do all that, and they trade me, I did what I could."
For all the posturing and appropriate, media-savvy, Mavs-sanctioned responses he gives me, I still believe that this season hasn't worked out quite the way he envisioned it. He may not admit it, but his season has lacked the serenity and ease he surely would have liked after being traded from Golden State. He deserves that, and so does his family. That's the other injustice here. He's not the only one in limbo--his kin are, too. They haven't bought a house here yet. Instead they live in a nice condo. Jamison says his living accommodations have nothing to do with his state of flux and everything to do with liking his spot. Maybe. But he can't deny that the whole situation has his family a bit worried.
"Yeah, they are, but that's why I try to keep them out of it," Jamison says. "They're more like you--they dramatize it more than it is. I tell them to go on and do their everyday activities and let me deal with basketball. It's not that big a deal."
That's what the Mavs would have you believe, too. Maybe they have an innate ability to downplay events that the rest of us think are big stories--as evidenced by the "Nellie won't get fired and replaced by Pat Riley" rumors that everyone from Mark Cuban to Jon Stefansson said were overblown.
"We don't talk about those things," Nellie says curtly. "But he's a professional. He's been great. He's perfect for sparking us off the bench."
True enough. Luckily, I tape-recorded that conversation, so if Nellie ever forgets how valuable someone like Jamison can be, I'll be sure to play it back for him.
There is the chance that all this could be behind Jamison. The rough start he's had here could give way to appreciation and smooth going. The Mavs have won more lately--a trend that, if it continues, tends to keep people happy and reluctant to switch up the roster.
"Winning cures a lot of things," Jamison says. "We've been playing a lot better lately. When you're playing well, these things don't come up as much. Hopefully we'll keep playing well. But people are always gonna talk or speculate about what might happen. That's why I try not to read the newspapers."
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Except, of course, for the Dallas Observer, right?
"Right, right, I read your stuff," Jamison says, laughing big.
He says goodbye and heads off toward the locker room. As he walks up the stairs, I remember what Jamison said about sports being a business and how it's OK for the Mavs to treat a guy like him, a guy so genuine and fun and funny, the way they have.
And, just like that, I'm mad all over again.