Olden Throat

It took awhile to register--and not because of my holiday hangover. There, on the Dallas Mavericks site, the team announced the members of its television and radio broadcast team for the 2001-02 season. They weren't trying to hide it. They even sent me the press release via e-mail. This is what it said: "The Mavericks' television announcers for the upcoming season on UPN 21, KTVT Channel 11 and Fox Sports Net will be Matt Pinto (play-by-play), Bob Ortegel (color) and Chris Arnold and Christine Friedel (sideline reporters). Mark Followill is the new radio play-by-play voice of the Mavericks radio broadcasts on ESPN 103.3 while Brad Davis joins him..."

Fine. Now, did you notice what it didn't say? Me neither, until I shook some of the liquor fog from my brain. What it didn't say surprised me. What it didn't say was this: Jim Durham.

He's been a broadcaster for various NBA teams for 28 years, the last seven with the Mavericks as TV play-by-play man. He's won awards and garnered a reputation and respect. Has this pacing to his style that just pulls you in, as though his voice were doing its best to swallow your recliner whole. I thought, nah, can't be. They must have omitted him by mistake. Only there was no mistake.

Durham has signed a new contract--he works for ESPN full time now (he'd done some games for the network for years), doing some television and radio for the WNBA, NBA and Major League Baseball. The deal is for a minimum of two years, a maximum of four (the network's option). Gets more money for less work. Sounds good, and it is. But if he's going to move on, why not say so? Why not wish him well in the release and sing his praises and quash curiosity? That was Red Flag No. 1.

"Yes, I wanted to be back and expected to be back," says Durham, without bitterness, from his home near Houston. "It would have been fine if I could have. This [ESPN deal] is also fine. This has a lot of potential."

The Mavs indeed were distraught to see him go. Why wouldn't they be? Considering the 54-year-old's pre-eminence in his field, this should come as a major blow.

"Absolutely, we're sorry to see him go," says Matt Fitzgerald, the Mavs' senior vice president of marketing and communications. Along with Mark Cuban and President/CEO Terdema Ussery, Fitzgerald helped determine who will be in--or out of, as it happens--the booth. "He's one of the best in the business. It's a wonderful opportunity for Jim. Absolutely. I don't know if 'surprised' about him leaving is the best word. Are we disappointed? Sure. Look, he's one of the best. He has a national reputation. But we're moving on."

I'm a bit confused. Let's dumb this down so I can understand. Durham says he wanted to come back. Fitzgerald says the team was "disappointed" he didn't come back. Now, I'm no Jim Schutze here, but doesn't that strike you as a little odd that he's not back? Red Flag No. 2.

So I ask Fitzgerald, did the team counter-offer? Did it make another effort to keep Durham, whom the club is "absolutely" sorry to see leave?

"Um," there's a pause on the line before Fitzgerald continues, "no."

Why? Because they lowballed Durham and the rest. Each of the names on the list of this year's broadcast team agreed to a one-year deal. No exceptions.

"I really don't want to talk about the deals," Fitzgerald says. "It's just the way our organization decided to go. We're not doing any multiyear deals with our talent. We decided that as an organization. It gives us flexibility."

That's the Mavericks' prerogative. If they only feel comfortable doling out one-year pacts, it's up to them. Though it stinks something fierce, and the wind is kicking up.

"When I initially heard about the one-year deals, it caught me a little off-guard," admits longtime Mavericks television analyst Bob Ortegel. "Then, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I have to be honest and say it took me a little off-guard. I said, what are we doing? The directive from Mark [Cuban] was that everyone will be on a one-year deal. You have to trust the people you work for and work with. Sure, I believe them. I have to believe them. I trust them as I hope they trust me."

Ortegel is a good man. Likes his job. Works hard. And, although he won't say it, I think he's worried. And he should be. Everyone should. There's more to this than a simple mandate. What this is really about is what Fitzgerald ambiguously called "flexibility."

"All that means is they don't want to eat a multiyear deal next season," says a Mavericks source. "They're thinking that they're going to be that good, that anybody is going to want to work for them. They would have made a change this year if a Doug Collins were available. I'm telling you, they've been talking about making a change for a year. Every game last year Ortegel was concerned if he'd be there for the next one. No one is safe. It has nothing to do with loyalty anymore. We're not the bad Mavericks anymore, we're the good Mavericks. We have juice now. Jim [Durham] is good. They want huge. They want a new look, somebody with punch. I mean, they like Michael Finley, but if Shaq came along, that would just be too bad for Mike. That's the way they think."

Jim Durham doesn't play hoops. Jim Durham broadcasts hoops, just not with all that jazz. Apparently a stellar career isn't enough. If he hadn't taken the ESPN gig, they would have surely tried to faze him out after the upcoming season.

The Mavericks, predictably, deny any sinister premeditation. Fitzgerald maintains that it had everything to do with "policy" and nothing to do with finding bigger, badder asses to sit in the booth.

"The Mavericks are the first company where I have ever even had contracts with an employee," Cuban says by e-mail. "I hate them. I like the old-fashioned concept that if you like working here, you stay. If you don't get the job done, you leave. There are rules in the NBA regarding players and coaches when it comes to contracts. Fortunately, for our salespeople, marketing people, broadcasters and everyone else, forget about it. I will walk away from someone who wants a long-term contract before I would sign one."

So, Durham is gone, and the Mavericks have their flexibility. Convenient.

"If given the choice, I would rather go for the security," Durham says. "And I was given the choice. Everything is gonna work out for the best. I'm not bitter. I'm the one who made the choice."

Because there was no other suitable option. This from an organization prone to preach about "its own," about how everyone is family and treated accordingly.

I wonder if somewhere Michael Finley has a bag packed--you know, just in case someone huge comes along.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez