Making the Point

This is Jason Terry--everything you need to know about his personality encapsulated in one brief moment. Practice has just ended, and he walks off the court, leaving the free-throw line and a good sweat behind him. He could shoot past the gathered media, brush off the pack the way other athletes frequently do. But he takes a different approach, offers to speak before one journo can finish the perfunctory "do you have a second, JT?" question.

"Sure," JT says, "whatever you guys want."

For whatever reason, and strangely enough, he means it. He gives us all the time we need, answers a bunch of questions ranging from how the team is playing to how he's playing to what he thinks about the Mavs selling diamonds up on the Platinum level at the American Airlines Center. (Seriously, they do that now.) That last one isn't a particularly important question, but JT fields it expertly, delivering exactly what the TV guy wants--a quick sound bite, an easy laugh.

"I think it's a great idea," Terry says, flashing a grin as bright and brilliant as the jewelry he's discussing. He pronounces it jew-ellls for kicks. "Basketball players gotta have their ice."

Everyone leaves happy. Jason Terry, too. To his credit, this is not the new incarnation of the Mavericks point guard. He didn't suddenly develop this disposition when he was promoted to starter and the team began winning regularly under his stewardship. He didn't become pleasant after things got better and the heat was turned down to a level he could accept and manage. No, there was never a time when Terry wasn't publicly affable, when he didn't at least offer a cursory smile. Even when things weren't going well, when it seemed everyone was against him and there were so few places for him to retreat, he remained agreeable. How hard that must have been, though. How hard it must have been to be so pleasant on the outside when, despite what he says, it must have been hell on the inside.

Before the season began, the Mavs said goodbye to everyone's favorite point guard, Steve Nash. Then they traded dyspeptic baller Antoine Walker and Tony Delk to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Alan Henderson and Jason Terry. That's when the pressure began to mount and the critics began to holler--right away. Right from the beginning. Before Terry could breathe, before he could enjoy the idea of being traded from a garbage franchise to a team that's been part of the Western Conference hierarchy for the last few years, people started saying that he was a bad fit for the Mavericks. He'd never be able to fill in for Nash--that was the abridged, clean version of the knocks against him. It didn't matter to anyone that he's a different player than Nash, that he's longer and quicker and a better defender. He's not as good a shooter, or as flashy (or adept) a passer. Then, Nash is nearly without equal. But that didn't matter either.

When Nash went off to Phoenix and started the season hotter than the Texas summer, that only made things worse. People compared Terry with Nash and said he didn't measure up. They pointed that out even though Terry was, at first, asked to come off the bench while learning what, exactly, head coach Don Nelson expected from his point guard. It was a lot to ask, and he struggled for a while.

"He sucks," one basketball reporter told me bluntly in the opening few weeks of the season. And that reporter wasn't alone. Terry was criticized harshly in this space for being a disappointment, which was undoubtedly premature considering he hadn't played much.

"It took time to pick up on the system, especially considering I came from a place that didn't really have much of a system at all," Terry says. It is as close as he comes to admitting that his first few months in Dallas weren't as cheery as he would have liked. "In Atlanta, it was like playground basketball. There wasn't much structure. It was pretty much all freelancing. So when you come to a place like this, where Nellie has defined roles and an idea of exactly what he wants from you, that takes some time."

For the first two months or so of the season, Terry had to watch while Nellie started rookie Devin Harris. And then, when that didn't work out as planned, the Mavs traded for itinerant guard Darrell Armstrong. The music played for a while, and everyone got a chance to sit down in the big-boy chair except Terry. Until, finally, Nellie decided that his club, which had languished at the bottom of the pack in team assists, couldn't do any worse at the point and that he'd better keep switching things around until he found the right guy. So Terry finally got his shot--after two other guys, a rookie and a journeyman, had failed.

If he was frustrated (and how couldn't he have been?), Terry didn't let that paralyze him, and he didn't let it show. As a starter, Terry has been everything the Mavs have looked for since Nash left town--a capable shooter and a deft ball handler who's worked the offense smartly. Suddenly, he was having 9-for-10 shooting nights against the Lakers or dropping 14 assists against the Celtics or hitting game-winners against the Kings. Suddenly the Mavs had found the point guard they were looking for all along, and they began winning, too, moving ahead of Minnesota and Sacramento in the standings (two teams everyone considered to be better than the Mavs when the season began).

"By inserting him into the starting lineup, I think it really gave him some confidence," Michael Finley says about Terry, who is averaging 11.6 points and five assists. "I think it said to him that the coaching staff believed he could do the job. When he was coming off the bench, maybe he lost a little of that confidence. Now that he's starting, he has more of that confidence in himself back, and that's important. Now he can do what the coaching staff asks of him. He shoots when we need him to shoot, or he passes it. He's playing the way we need him to play. This is exactly what we need from him."

Despite the winning and the praise from teammates, there's no guarantee that Terry will keep his starting role. With Nellie, anything is possible--a shift in the lineup or a trade, anything he deems necessary. When asked how much of the team's season-high five-game winning streak was the result of Terry's emergence, Nellie offered a tepid testimonial, saying that the point guards in general had played well, but that no one man was responsible. That's Nellie.

"You know, coming in, I didn't expect anything except to play for a good team," Terry says without rancor. "That's the way it goes. Whatever they want me to do, I have to do. [Nellie] sees this team the way it is--we're a work in progress. I just have to understand that, do what they ask and go from there.

"I mean, hey, no one has ever handed me anything. Even when I played [in college] at Arizona, people doubted me. But that's OK. I just have to find a way to prove them wrong."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez