They surround him with their cameras and tape recorders, vultures picking apart their prey. And Dallas Mavericks point guard Steve Nash--the co-captain of this team, the six-million-dollar man, the man who cost Dallas next year's first-round draft pick--sits there like a gentleman, absorbing every blow like a punch-drunk fighter against the ropes, waiting for the bell to ring. Only it never does.
The reporters and microphone jockeys keep coming with their questions, wanting to know how it felt to be so roundly booed by the home crowd. Wanting to know whether he's ever felt this bad. Wanting to know why he's playing so poorly. Wanting to know whether it could get any worse.
By the time they're done with their questions, some of the reporters feel so damned awful for the guy that they extend their best wishes, telling him it's just one game and not to worry about it, man. It's almost like a condolence call, only the corpse is alive and well and ready to get the hell out of the locker room.
Nash, already showered and dressed, says all the right things. He smiles weakly and says, yeah, he sure was surprised by how the Reunion Arena crowd booed the hell out of him. And, yeah, they had every right given his awful performance--one for 10 from the floor, his sole basket a three-pointer near the game's end.
"But I've worked hard," Nash says, not so much apologizing as trying to figure in his own mind how things have gone so wrong. "I really have. I don't know what else to do. I've never seen anything quite like that."
It began during the third quarter of the Mavericks' March 24 loss to the Houston Rockets, the very moment Steve Nash came back into the game. The boos were so loud they felt tangible, solid. You could feel them in your bones--your marrow--each time Nash even touched the ball. They rained down from the stands with such vitriol, you could taste the hate as it slid down your throat and into the pit of your stomach.
"Shoot it, Steve!" came the cries, spat out onto the floor by the sneering customers who were paying his exorbitant salary. "Shoot it!" Nash would take only two shots during the final half of the game, dishing it off every chance he got. No way was he going to give the crowd any more ammunition. Things were already out of hand.
But despite all the things written in the newspapers about that night, the boos were not aimed solely at Steve Nash.
They were aimed at Robert Pack, more fragile than a porcelain doll. At Erick Strickland. At Shawn Bradley. At Kurt Thomas. At Samaki Walker. At Dirk Nowitzki. At Chris Anstey. At Hot Rod Williams. At Don Nelson.
They were the culmination of a decade's worth of frustration, broken promises, lies, losing. Nash, heralded weeks ago by coach and general manager Don Nelson as the Future of the Franchise--at least this year's model--happened to be the poor bastard at the wrong place at the wrong time.
He's just one more poster boy for a failing organization that long ago stopped being a laughingstock, if only because there's nothing too funny about a decade spent in the NBA's basement. Nash got booed last week because Nelson told the remaining Mavericks fans that he was the answer to all that ailed this team, the point guard of the future, the man who would lead Dallas to the Promised Land--which, in the Mavericks' case, means Not Last Place. He got booed because Nelson managed to convince the locals that the 1999 lockout-shortened season would be one filled with optimism and victories.
And one more time, Don Nelson was wrong.
"I was quietly optimistic about the team's chances at the beginning of the season," says team president Terdema Ussery, the man charged by owner Ross Perot Jr. with running the team's business operations. "We didn't want to brag and boast, because we felt that we had made a lot of representations to the fans over the last seven, eight years, and the last thing we wanted to do was start bragging about what we were going to do this year. But there has definitely been disappointment."
If Ussery was quietly optimistic, then Don Nelson was just the opposite, telling anyone who would listen that the Mavericks were ready to contend for a playoff spot, especially with forward Cedric Ceballos on board. Ironists might note that Nelson didn't even want to sign Ceballos before the season began, and that he wound up with him, at bargain-basement prices no less, only when the former All-Star couldn't find any other takers. For a while, Nelson stopped talking playoffs when Ceballos fractured both of his wrists in a February 25 game against Denver, benching him for the season.
And it was Nelson who insisted that young, unproven German Dirk Nowitzki was going to start, because he was a bona fide star ready to go now, not tomorrow. That same young, unproven German--whose offense, his one selling point, has gone the way of the Berlin Wall--is now a bench player, averaging 15 minutes per game. And most of those minutes came early in the season, before Nelson lost faith in him; now, Dirk sweats so little during games, he doesn't even need to shower. Nowitzki claims that he's not frustrated, that he's still learning, that he's merely in a "shooting slump" and content to play five to 10 minutes per night.
And to think, grand old man A.C. Green is getting almost 23 minutes per game, and he won't even be here next season to contribute his breathtaking average 6.3 points.
And forget about Chris Anstey and Samaki Walker. Nelson has: Walker (1996's top draft pick) and Anstey (1997's No. 1) spend more time every night putting on and taking off their uniforms than they do on the hardwood. Only time will tell if their names should be added to the Mavericks' legendary roster of first-round picks: Randy White, Doug Smith, Cherokee Parks, Jim Farmer. Um, sprechen Sie bust?
Oh, yeah. And how do you spell debacle? Try: H-O-T-R-O-D-W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S. You know things are bad when one of your best, most consistent players is Shawn Bradley.
And to think, this is pretty much the same team Dallas will put on the floor next season--give or take the overachieving Gary Trent, who will likely go to a team that can pay him more than the $2.5 million Dallas can afford under league rules next year. The Mavericks need a star player. They do not have one. They might never.
During an interview with the Dallas Observer, Nelson insists A.C. Green is not getting too much playing time. He says Green's on the floor so much simply because "he's playing as well as anyone on the team," which is hardly a ringing endorsement considering this team. Indeed, last year's Star of Tomorrow, Michael Finley, has become the Disappointment of Today, posting his worst shooting percentage since coming into the NBA in 1995.
Nelson also says that he's neither frustrated nor disappointed with Nowitzki, simply that he "decided to bring him along slower." Nelson will admit that he's "surprised" Nowitzki, averaging 6 points, can't "at least" score. "We thought he'd have trouble with the physicalness and the rebounding and the defense," Nelson says, "but I never thought he would struggle shooting."
If nothing else, one more season of futility has softened the I-can-do-no-wrong arrogance in Nelson's voice. Where once he roared, insisting his way was The Right Way, Nelson now speaks in measured, thoughtful, calmer tones. Losing 21 games out of 31 (at press time)--in a lockout-shortened 50-game season, no less--will do that to a man. Discovering that the guy he predicted would be the Rookie of the Year is nothing more than a soft-in-the-middle 20-year-old will do that to a man. Finding out that the city that once embraced you, apologized for you, has finally turned on you--calling for your head every 14 minutes on sports-talk radio--will do that to a man.
There has long existed the theory among local media types that Nelson took the general manager job with Dallas in February 1997 as a lark, that he's got nothing to lose by playing mad scientist with this team. Hey, trade 1999's No. 1 draft pick for Steve Nash, a bench player with the Phoenix Suns? Sure, what the hell. Take Nowitzki in this year's draft instead of a proven commodity like Paul Pierce, who's currently averaging 32 minutes and 14 points per game with the Boston Celtics? C'mon, it'll be fun. And should it all collapse around Nelson, well, he's always got his home in Hawaii to return to and those golf dates with neighbor Willie Nelson to keep him happy.
But Nelson has a lot riding on this year--not to mention the 2000-2001 season, when son Donnie's supposed to take over. Should Junior Perot eventually get tired of losing, he could well get rid of both Nelsons--let's call 'em "Don and Donner"--long before moving the Mavericks into the American Airlines Center.
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During games, the senior Nelson looks weary, tired, downright baffled. He can be seen strolling the sidelines with his eyes closed, his enormous hands rubbing his temples. There is no doubt that at the beginning of the season, he genuinely believed that he had a better team than the Mavericks' record indicates--more depth, more hustle, more hope. Between last year's highlights, including a March win over the world-champion Chicago Bulls, and this year's additions, Nelson was convinced his boys would challenge for a playoff spot.
But the dream has collapsed once more. The Mavericks stink. Again.
When asked whether he's sorry for predicting that the Mavericks would compete for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, Nelson says, yeah, sort of. When asked whether he regrets offering Nowitzki as the pre-season favorite to take home the Rookie of the Year award, Nelson says, yup, sure am.
"I'll admit that was a mistake," he says. "I was enthusiastic about him. But I never counted on the growing pains. Yeah, I really should be more careful about what I say. I say what I feel, and it's held against me to the point that you probably shouldn't say anything at all. But I don't feel different about the team just because some people are getting frustrated. I was wrong in assessing the success of Dirk and the team. I hate losing more than anybody I know. It's hard for anybody to go through a lot of losses. But I've prepared myself for it."
Unfortunately, so have the Dallas Mavericks' fans, year in and year out. Good work, coach.