"People think that just because I'm soft-spoken that I'm going to take it easy on the court. That will be their mistake."
"People think that just because I'm soft-spoken that I'm going to take it easy on the court. That will be their mistake."
Mark Graham

Mr. Nice Guy

It is midafternoon, and another day of Mavericks training camp has wrapped up, sending the players scurrying from the practice court in the lower reaches of the American Airlines Center. Some head to the ornate locker room and gorge themselves on chicken and fish and warm, fresh breads; some camp in the weight room and attack dumbbells or walk/run themselves tired on the treadmills; others cloak their massive bodies in the posh comfort of heavy white robes embroidered with the team logo, looking important and relaxed.

There is no rest for Antawn Jamison. The newcomer is about to be ass-deep in a vicious fight, his first imbroglio since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to Dallas a few months ago. Until now, the man has been polite and gregarious, eager to help everyone he meets, always flashing an enormous smile. For nearly two weeks, I tried to get Jamison's guard down, to make him snarl or at least curl his lip in defiance, to show some sort of emotion that wasn't sugary. He remained affable; I remained frustrated. I mean, a professional athlete posing as a nice guy? Come on. We've seen this story before, and we know how it ends--on a depraved, vapid TV show like Inside Edition or, worse, in a courtroom, and almost always with the player crying and begging the world to forgive the transgression the rest of us never saw coming.

"Not even you can find something negative about him," a Mavericks PR staffer chortles. "He really is a good person."

I'm just not buying it. And this is where the charade ends, because I'm close to exposing the man for a fraud. Jamison is sitting on a plush leather couch in front of an enormous television in a back corner of the Mavs clubhouse. He's an avid gamer and has agreed to play some journos in NBA Live 2004. I plop down next to him and grab the other PlayStation 2 controller, positive that this will be Jamison's unmasking. If there's a human alive who can play me in a video game and sit idly while I talk ridiculous trash, I've yet to meet him.

Both of us play the Dallas Mavericks--not my choice, but when in Rome. His team wears the old-school green uniforms. Mine is clad in the jazzy white numbers. At first, there's not much opportunity for me to infuriate him, because Jamison thoroughly whips me, manipulating his controller deftly like a giant pinball wizard. He nails jumpers with video Dirk Nowitzki and throws down ferocious dunks again and again with--predictably--video Antawn Jamison. Suddenly, I'm the one who's getting mad. This isn't going well.

Just when I'm about to abandon the fight, an occasion presents itself. I kick the ball inside to Shawn Bradley. (I hate to do it, but he's open.) For the first time maybe ever, Bradley rises to the occasion and hammers home a monster windmill dunk, sending me into a frenzy of gesticulation and verbal harassment.

"Shawn Bradley just dunked on you," I say, taunting Jamison with words that must burn an NBA player. His only reaction is a good-natured chuckle. I decide to kick it up a notch. "Oooh, I just dunked on you," I say, resorting to the always-effective childish sing-song voice. He laughs again. I push him on the shoulder. Take that, I think, waiting for him to smack me with the back of his big manhand. As he turns, I brace for the collision, fortified by the knowledge that I'm about to be proven right; he's not a nice guy, he's merely a guy; he's about to unleash all that pent-up rage, and I'll finally have something to write about. Except he doesn't bite. Jamison only laughs harder, looking at me with amiable, cut-that-out curiosity. The bastard is enjoying this. He's enjoying his time playing video games with a bunch of media asses. How can that be? Doesn't he know he's screwing my story?

When the game ends, Jamison says goodbye and tells me to let him know if I need anything else for the feature. He actually means it.

I find myself trying to rework the image of the professional athlete in the cramped quarters of my small brain. Jamison, for whom the Mavs traded their best playoff performer and the city's favorite scrapper, Nick Van Exel, has been in town for only a few months, but he's already managed to ingratiate himself with nearly everyone by doing nothing more than being his jovial self.

And he's no phony. I suppose I had better get used to that notion. We had all better get used to it. Because this is what you get from Antawn Jamison--grins and giggles, well-wishes and claps on the back. Bend your head around that, come to terms with it, because he's not changing, and he's not going anywhere. If the Mavs want to improve on last season's brilliance, if they want to advance beyond the Western Conference Finals and win a championship instead of backsliding into the pack, they'll need everything Jamison can give them. He'll have to excel where other imports like Juwan Howard and Raef LaFrentz have failed--in the post, rebounding and doing the dirty work.

On this team, primacy has always fallen to the Three Amigos. But, more often than not, it is the supporting cast that determines your playoff fortunes. That's why the Mavs decided to ship Van Exel off for Jamison and banger Danny Fortson. That's why they unloaded LaFrentz and his unholy contract in exchange for Antoine Walker and Tony Delk. That's why they imported Travis Best to serve as Steve Nash's understudy. Good or bad, Dallas has decided to rework its basketball paradigm--to supplement the Big Three by breaking up the Terrible Two (LaFrentz and Bradley) and adding all these new faces. On paper, they look deep and fearsome. But there are still questions, chief among them whether this team will coalesce--something the last few squads did organically. Even if the squad melds, it's not clear how easily it can navigate the Western Conference, which now has more quality players than the politicos in Washington have excuses.

With all the variables, there can't really be one fulcrum for the season. That said, whether the Mavs teeter toward a title or tilt ominously to final defeat will have a great deal to do with Carolina's favorite son. He was the star in Golden State. Here he'll be a sidekick, another option on a team full of them. With the addition of Walker, he'll now be asked to come off the bench, to be the sixth man--the team's primary reserve. How he copes with all that will determine a large part of the postseason's direction. More vexing than that: Can a self-avowed mama's boy be the inside enforcer for whom the Mavs have searched?

So you've got work to do. You'd better start hoping that the old adage is wrong. You'd better pray to whatever god you hold dear that nice guys don't finish last after all.

Calling the University of North Carolina and asking to speak with Dean Smith is a lot like ringing the Vatican and demanding they get Pope John Paul II on the line posthaste. He's that revered.

A nice woman named Linda picks up. She's Smith's secretary. She's not overly thrilled about the idea of bothering a Hall of Fame coach for some reporter from Dallas. When told it's for a piece on Antawn Jamison, class of '99, Linda falls all to pieces, cooing with the distinctive, smoky Southern accent of someone who's spent a lifetime on Tobacco Road.

"How is that dear, dear boy?" Linda asks. "He is such a sweetheart. Let me go get Coach Smith right now, and you tell Antawn that Linda from Coach Smith's office was asking about him...that dear boy."

That's all it takes. Without prompting, Smith, who won more games than any coach in college basketball history, does exactly what everyone else has done when told the topic is Jamison--he immediately launches into public relations, extolling his former player's virtues.

"I know they're gonna love him in Dallas," Smith says, sounding more like a proud father than a proud coach. "He's such a wonderful person. Don Nelson will use him in many ways. Inside, outside, defensively. He's not a real big guy, no, but his quickness is remarkable. On offensive rebounds, you can really see that. If he's there, if he's around the ball, he has a good chance to get it. His confidence level should be very high now.

"And he really is a great young man. He was raised in a loving family. He's a caring person who can also play basketball. What you see is what you get there. He's never going to get into trouble, and he's always going to work hard. I think that has a lot to do with his upbringing and his parents."

Early on, until Antawn was about 12, the Jamisons lived in Shreveport, Louisiana. But his parents, Albert and Kathy, knew all too well how hard it would be to rear one child, let alone three (Antawn has two younger siblings), in a run-down casino town populated by degenerates and drunks. (I know. I gamble there.) Still, it was hard to leave. Albert was the oldest of seven children; Kathy was the second youngest of four. Both extended families lived in the Shreveport area. Grandmothers, nieces, cousins, aunts and uncles, they were all there.

"My parents mean everything to me," Jamison says. Even though by NBA standards he's not a "big man," he is large and chiseled--6-foot-9, 225 pounds with oversized hands and a bulbous noggin--but he becomes soft now. He is folded onto a tiny, high-backed bar stool in the Mavericks office. As he talks about his parents, his voice gets softer, and he begins to shift as he tries to get comfortable, like a big cat wedging himself onto a small perch. "I talk to them almost every day. They moved all of us for a better situation for the family. Job opportunities, education, all of it. They sacrificed for their kids. They wanted to make sure that their kids had all the things that they didn't."

They moved to Charlotte, where Albert Jamison worked primarily in construction; Kathy as a nurse's aide. When Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, both had lots of work, so they weren't home much. But the family would try to eat together each night, and every weekend they made time for each other, walking around the corner to the local park. After church, they'd head over there, all five of them, and waste the day away in the soothing Carolina sun. Albert and Kathy would sit and watch the children or engage in a friendly game of tennis while the younger kids would play gaily on the monkey bars.

"I wouldn't be in this situation if it wasn't for my upbringing," Jamison says. "My work ethic, I get it from my mother and father. Seeing them come home after one job, and they're tired, and they gotta go back to work. They didn't really have to do it, but they did. Sometimes, I go out to work out, and I might feel like I'm tired or I might feel like I can't go on, and I think about that and I remember that I got it easy compared to a lot of people. I'm out here fulfilling my dream and doing things that I love."

Jamison has been working on that dream for a long while. He could dunk a basketball on a regulation goal by the fifth or sixth grade. He played organized football, too, and he was a good quarterback for a time. But he loved basketball most. He played after school each day until dusk. "It was something that I loved to do, and it made my parents happy to know that I wasn't out running the streets or getting into trouble," he says.

He stayed close to home for college, choosing to wear Carolina blue. He was wildly successful in three seasons as a Tar Heel. As a junior, his last year playing hoops at Chapel Hill, he was named Player of the Year by nearly every media outlet that handed out such an award. He was just the second North Carolina player to be so honored by The Associated Press. The first was Michael Jordan.

Jamison never won a title with the Tar Heels, but his career was brilliant, and by 1998, most of his college teammates, including Vince Carter, were ready to make the jump to the pro ranks. He was, too, so he declared for early entry into the NBA. His future seemed bright.

"That's why I was so sad for him at first," Dean Smith says, his voice trailing off.

He was taken by Toronto with the fourth pick in the 1998 NBA draft and traded to Golden State--a dream come true, as much for the riches that would afford his family an untroubled life as the chance to play against the best ballers in the world. Jamison may be reticent at times, but on the basketball court he was every bit 22 years old, cocksure and ready.

As an organization, the Warriors had been wretched for years. Really, they hadn't been good at all since Don Nelson left Oakland way back in the early '90s and the extraordinary triumvirate of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin was disbanded. But that was all going to change with the addition of Jamison. He was going to be the team's savior. On that, both Golden State and Jamison agreed. Where they differed was in how they might achieve that goal.

"It was tough there, especially my first year," Jamison says. What you usually notice about him are the thick, ink-black eyebrows and, more than that, the handsome, gleaming white teeth that are constantly on display. But here, for the first time, the smile vanishes. He's not exactly frowning--more like his face has slackened, like the emotion has been drained from him somehow, left behind in a place he'd just as soon forget. "Coming from North Carolina, being the Player of the Year, and then not playing, that was tough. You're so used to the ball running through you and you being able to show what you can do. That first year, not getting the opportunity to play and showing that you deserved to be a high pick, that was the hardest thing. My rookie year I doubted myself. I never thought I didn't belong, but I wondered if I was just gonna be a guy coming off the bench getting eight or nine minutes."

The biggest humiliation came right away, in public, with nowhere to hide. In his first game as a pro, the Houston Rockets came to town. It was a team full of future Hall of Famers--Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley--and Jamison was eager to prove his worth. He'd flown his family into town and gotten them great seats just a few rows off the court and close enough to the Warriors bench that they could all steal looks at one another. They really were great seats, maybe even better than Jamison's, whose ass, not to mention pride, began to get sore quickly that night. The first quarter went by without him playing a minute. Same for the second. In the third quarter, then-coach P.J. Carlesimo saw fit to play him over the last few minutes. He got a couple more minutes in the fourth quarter, and that was it. A grand total of 10 minutes for the fourth pick in the draft. The kids who mop up sweat before free throws see more floor time. Jamison finished with the oh-so-impressive line of zero points and one rebound. Ugh.

It got worse. He was criticized by the media for being a failure, for not being able to single-handedly rescue the Warriors. He caught flak for developing slowly while former teammate Vince Carter--who was selected behind him and traded from Golden State to Toronto--caught everyone's eye with absurd, showy dunks. As one Bay Area writer noted during Jamison's rookie year: "Jamison over Vince Carter--were they nuts?"

Very few people gave Jamison slack for being a post-up player in college who was asked to play face-up in the NBA. Not at all an easy transition. Not that the journos cared any. What mattered were the numbers, and he wasn't putting them up.

"Just imagine in college you've got your back to the basket and you're playing against 4s and 5s, then you come into the league and you're playing Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston and they're blowing by you," Jamison says. "That's another world. Mentally, you have to have a mind frame to play a different position like that. Not just defensively, but offensively, too. I was used to backing people down and throwing the hook, and now I'm on the perimeter and I'm like, 'What the hell am I doing?' I'm trying to cross over Doug Christie, who's one of the great perimeter defenders in the game? Or I'm going against Kobe and those guys? That was just very, very difficult. I didn't know what to do. That was the toughest thing I've had to do in basketball."

Not until his second season did he begin to realize the potential that he and everyone else believed he possessed. Through 43 games that year, he was one of the best small forwards in the league, averaging more than 19 points and eight rebounds per game. Naturally, something had to go wrong--it always does in Golden State. Jamison strained his left knee against Miami and missed the rest of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery.

He came back from that injury and played well, but problems kept arising. A never-ending stream of coaches (five in five years), a lack of organizational direction and an open door that he watched countless qualified teammates walk out of on their way to better clubs. Perhaps it hardened him--if not his resolve, then his game. The rotating cast of coaches and players forced Jamison to become more well-rounded. He went from a player in college who played almost exclusively with his back to the basket, to a guy who can put the ball on the floor, hit a 15-foot jumper or bang down low. His is a unique skill set, forged in the fires of Golden State's ineptitude. He fought through all of it, averaging more than 20 points and seven rebounds during his five-year career in Golden State.

Jamison could have given up, but that's not his style. Even in the off-season, he's not the type to sit around and let his waistline expand or cry about how hard things have become. Instead, he got up every morning and headed to the Warriors workout facility. He'd get there by 9 or 10 a.m. and go through a bitch of a routine--weight lifting, running, a few thousand jumpers.

He was always there, as much a part of the landscape as the balls and hoops. That's partly why it was so easy for the Warriors to find him when everything went down this past summer. In August, on a day like any other, a Golden State secretary came looking for him, breathlessly telling him to call his agent, who then told him that the Warriors general manager, Garry St. Jean, was thinking about trading him and to make sure he stayed by the phone. And when a G.M. says he might trade you, he's going to trade you.

The deal was eventually finalized, and he was shipped to Dallas, along with Fortson, Chris Mills and Jiri Welsch, in exchange for Van Exel and a bunch of spares. For the Mavs, it was an unqualified coup. "[Mark] Cuban needed a sucker to agree to a deal this bad, and he found one in the Warriors owner," ESPN.com's Chad Ford wrote.

For Jamison, it was his deliverance, and for a good while no one could suppress his joy. He practically bounded into town, agreeing to just about anything anyone asked because he was so damn happy to be with the Mavericks (and not with the Warriors). He even popped off a little, uncharacteristically telling one Bay Area newspaper that his time in Golden State was like being in jail.

"When I said that, that I felt that I was in jail, it wasn't that I was unhappy," Jamison says, backpedaling some. "It felt that I was in jail because we could never get anything right. It felt like I was in jail because I was hurt that first year. It felt like I was in jail because when we had a good team, all my teammates would get injured. It felt like I was in jail because we had a great year last year, and then we lost players in free agency. It was one thing after another. It wasn't like I was in jail because I wasn't happy; it was because things never got right. Things never got right to the point where it didn't feel like we could get into the playoffs and make some noise. That's why I felt like we were in jail, because we couldn't get shit right. That's why I feel now like I got a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's like someone handed me the keys, and I got to open the gate and walk out the front door a free man."

The memory is indelible, if you're a Mavs fan or just someone who enjoys watching a good, violent wreck. The Mavs were up 13 in the fourth quarter in Game 6 of last year's Western Conference Finals. It stood to reason that they would force San Antonio into a Game 7. Then they imploded, absolutely destroyed themselves without provocation or warning, and watched the Spurs not only come back to win that game and the series, but also the NBA Championship. It was a bitter, depressing loss for Dallas, for the team and the city, and it still lingers. Because you need only ask Cubs fans or Red Sox fans to know that you get precious few opportunities in sports, and you had better make the most of them.

Cuban, like him or loathe him, had no intention of letting the depression consume him or arrest his desire to improve. While all of us, especially me, were criticizing him and the Mavs for sitting idly while the rest of the Western Conference loaded up on all-stars and Hall of Famers (e.g., Karl Malone and Gary Payton both going to the Los Angeles Lakers), Cuban remained patient, and so did Donn Nelson, the Mavs' president of basketball operations. They waited quietly in the brush, and when the wounded Warriors strolled by, they pounced. Then they pounced again when the Celtics stumbled past.

But the deals weren't just unparalleled successes for the team--they were also an admission of failure. Last year's playoffs exposed the team's weaknesses--the lack of toughness and rebounding first and foremost. Though Van Exel played with incredible heart, they saw that system for what it was--a loser in the long run. And bully for them. Because if there's been a constant failing in Cuban's administration, it's been obstinacy--the maddening reluctance to indict "their guys" when it was so plain to everyone else that they weren't getting the job done.

"We went through this whole thing last year," Cuban says. "Other teams made trades. Other teams added rookies or signed free agents. That's just the nature of the industry. We feel we've done just as good a job, if not better. The grass is always greener. The other girls are always prettier. That's just the way the business is.

"Either you're the champion, or you finish in last place. That's what it comes down to. It was exciting. The atmosphere last year in the arena and throughout Dallas was amazing as we got further. The bottom line is, we had fun, it was a great journey, but we didn't get all the way. To me, either you win it all or you don't win it all. That's why we have a $70 million-plus payroll."

Like the rest of the Western Conference, the Mavs grabbed a new deck and shuffled. Of the 15 players Dallas invited to training camp, only seven wore a Mavericks uniform last year. (And one of them, LaFrentz, is gone.) There is no question that the Mavs did the right thing by making moves, but you still have to wonder if this team will be a team at all. Because the last few clubs were a rare combination of ability and understanding--a group that acted as one.

"There are so many new guys, no one knows what to expect," point guard Steve Nash admits. "It's hard to compare this team to years past because we have so many new faces. There are a lot of uncertains right now, but I'm confident that we'll come together."

If they can come together, this team will be scary good, because it's far deeper than it has been in recent memory. Travis Best, a veteran point guard who plays smothering defense, was signed as a free agent, and the Mavs drafted Josh Howard from Wake Forest, another fine defender who can also score. Assuming that the Mavs don't have more deals in the works, Antoine Walker will provide serious points and some rebounds, too. And Tony Delk? Well, as the third point guard, he's bound to be a winner. But they are all relatively little guys, and the Mavs have never needed little guys. Say what you will about LaFrentz (and I said plenty in the past, none of it good), but he stands 6-11. Now the only guy they have who's that tall and who plays exclusively in the post on offense and defense is Shawn Bradley. Uh-oh. Which means, in turn, that Dirk Nowitzki will have to play some center. Uh-oh, again. So what they need is what they've always needed: big guys who are also tough. In the meantime, Nellie needs to figure out a way to take a gentle small forward like Jamison and transform him into a snarling beast who can rebound around 7-footers.

"I know Dallas was trying to get bigger in the off-season, but you don't really get bigger with Jamison," one NBA Western Conference scout says. "He will score for you in the paint--he likes those little floaters--and he's tougher than people give him credit for being. I guess Nellie's approach was to be even more of a prolific scoring team. I still really like the trade for Dallas."

Apart from Jamison and Walker, Danny Fortson might be the most important acquisition of the off-season. He was lost in Golden State (surprising, no?), written off as a malcontent and an underachiever. With LaFrentz gone, Bradley and Fortson are the team's only true centers. Which means that Fortson is going to have to contribute, if only to keep Nellie from playing Bradley too much (and by that I mean playing him at all) or putting Nowitzki down low. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, Fortson is exactly the kind of brute the Mavs need. He is unrepentant, ready at a moment's notice to throw a few elbows. If he does nothing more than suck up space in the interior and rebound, he'll be a fan favorite and an invaluable piece to Nellie's puzzle.

"We didn't have anybody who could put his big old butt up against Shaq last year, or at least annoy him," Cuban offers. "You talk to Danny, and he'll say that he can't stop Shaq. But Shaq's certainly not going to push him around and just have his way, either. As much as the Lakers have improved offensively or with their Hall of Famers, they're going to have a tough time guarding us. People are going to have a hard time matching up against us. I really think, when you put all these pieces together, that Danny is going to be in a position to help us."

OK, so the Mavs are deeper, and maybe even tougher. Still, you have to wonder how in the hell Don Nelson is going to manage all these players. Not that they're bad guys, because they're not. Mostly, they're good guys. But they're also mostly outstanding players. From Michael Finley to Eduardo Najera, the Mavs have a lot of extremely able bodies. How do you mold all those egos into one like-minded unit? Again, how do you take a star like Antawn Jamison, a guy who got the ball without having to ask for it, and tell him to sit on the bench with his mouth shut until someone beckons?

"I've been in a situation where I got all the touches in the world, and we only won 17 to 20-some games," Jamison says. "So for me to come in and--there's gonna be certain nights where I get the ball the way I'm used to, and other nights where Dirk is feeling it, or Mike is hot and I don't get the ball. That's fine with me. That's what I did at Carolina. We didn't care about who scored the most points or who got the most publicity. We only cared about the name on our chest. It's the same mind frame. It's like Carolina all over again. You have guys, talent-wise, who are on the same level as you, or better. There's nothing wrong with that."

Fine. Works for me. He's anything but disingenuous. But it's also very early, and stranger things have been known to happen than an athlete getting pissy about the way a coach is using him. I'm not saying that it would have to be Jamison, either. There are plenty of candidates here to choose from--a lot of players and not enough chairs when the music stops.

"I think the question everyone is asking is where are we gonna find playing time for all these guys?" Don Nelson says. "We're not. Some of them are gonna be in, and some are gonna be out. What I tell these guys is to make sure you're one of the guys who's in. We need to establish a substitution pattern--eight or nine guys. With this team, we might even go 10 guys. But we're not gonna play 12. We're just not."

There are questions then, some that might not be answered until the season is well under way, others that might not be answered until the playoffs. But even with the doubt, even with all those Western Conference bullies, you have to feel good about the direction of this club. The Mavs cast their lot exactly the way we've all been screaming for them to--with a bunch of guys who swear they'll take the heat and the grunt work in exchange for a shot at a title. For now, that's good enough.

Antawn Jamison doesn't entertain the downsides or the negativity. He's no fun that way. He is who he is--laid-back and amenable, a married man with a sweet little daughter, a guy who remains stunned and thankful that he gets to put on a Mavericks jersey every day. He understands all too well that he'll be one of the principal fall guys if this thing comes crashing down on everyone's head. But he's also acutely aware of the grand opportunity they all have now, and he prefers to dwell on that; he's one of those glass-half-full types.

At the news conference that introduced him as one of the newest Mavericks, Jamison sat quietly, hands folded, while Don and Donnie and Cuban absorbed endless praise from the gathered media. Jamison looked removed, like he was watching all the commotion unfold around him through your eyes or mine. I wondered for a moment if he was breathing, not because he's a bore, but because he seemed cool beyond calculation--Steve McQueen, only bald and without the motorcycle. And then someone asked him about the trade, and whether it can end the way everyone wants it to--with a parade through downtown Dallas. Jamison sat upright and beamed. He told a story next that was campy and clichéd, but it also served as his first endearing moment, one that made me and everyone else in that room wish him nothing but luck because, sappy as it was, you could tell he truly wanted to make it a reality.

"I had a dream the other night," Jamison began. "Nash was on the point, me and Finley were on the wing, and Dirk was trailing. Amazing. I can't believe it. It's a great fit. I can't wait to get out there with those guys." He stopped and (you guessed it) smiled so wide I wondered if he had been sucking down nitrous oxide. So how did the dream end, someone wondered aloud, putting the ball on the tee for Jamison.

"Oh, that's easy," he said, looking down at his ring finger and pointing.


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