I want this NBA championship.
Selfishly? You bet.
As a shaggy-haired 16-year-old who wanted to grow up to be Pete Maravich, I attended the Mavericks' first game back at old Reunion Arena. Not the regular-season debut victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Oct. 11, 1980, but the inaugural preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers two weeks earlier. Still have the program from that night, the cover caricatures pitting high-flying Sixers All-Star Julius Erving versus some white dude with permy hair and a mustache named Brad Davis. I was a part of the Reunion Rowdies. I had the Mark Aguirre life-sized poster from McDonald's in the mid-1980s. I grew up with pay-per-view games on Home Sports Entertainment. I endured Quinn Buckner, Richie Adubato, Jim Cleamons, Roy Tarpley, Chris Anstey and the departure of Steve Nash.
So, do I and the thousands of Mavericks supporters who died more than we lived with this team before Mark Cuban arrived, and who turned cheering for his team into an acronym (MFFL—Mavs Fan For Life), deserve the joy of a championship? Absolutely.
On the contrary, Miami Heat fans have been suffering with their current group of players for all of 11 months. Besides, they already have a trophy. From 2006. Perhaps you have scars.
When Dirk Nowitzki's foul-line Flamingo Fadeaway caromed off the back rim at the buzzer Sunday night at American Airlines Center, the Mavs lost 88-86 and trailed the NBA Finals, 2-1. In what has been a surreal spin through the playoffs for going on two months, Dallas in a big hole is nothing new. Or anything insurmountable.
"We've been down in the playoffs seemingly every game," Mavs' sixth man Jason Terry said in a downtrodden but certainly not dead locker room after the Game 3 loss. "We'll keep fighting. Until there are no seconds left on the clock and we've lost four games, we'll keep fighting. We're not done. Not by a long shot."
The Mavericks have made inexplicable rallies routine in the postseason. Despite the results of last Tuesday night's Game 4 and Thursday's Game 5, Dallas is destined. Right?
They've produced double-digit comebacks against every playoff opponent. They won Game 6 in Portland after trailing by 12. In Game 1 against the Lakers, they were down 16. Against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, they trailed Game 4 by 15 points with five minutes left. And in The Finals' Game 2 in Miami, after falling behind 88-73 with less than seven minutes on the clock, they authored one of the greatest rallies in NBA playoff history.
That game—won by a Nowitzki lefty layup with 3.6 seconds remaining—changed the series and altered reputations forever. Win or lose, these will never again be your same ol', soft ol' Mavericks.
After another rally from another 14-point deficit, Nowitzki missed his chance to force overtime in Game 3. But instead of a terminal detour, the loss merely felt like a further touch of drama. Because it's not just me and you and them that the Mavs are playing for.
The try-over-talent point guard of the '80s overachieved so much during his career that his No. 15 hangs from the rafters. A member of the original expansion lineup, he's still with the club as a director of player development and analyst on the team's radio and TV broadcasts.
"You don't get these chances too often," Davis said last week. "One of these days we're going to cash one in."
It's Don Carter.
The team's original owner and founding father—that's his hat on the old logo—still shows up in his Stetson to almost every game despite selling the team to Ross Perot Jr. in 1996. He and wife, Linda, were in Miami for Game 2 and I'm pretty sure they toasted the historic win with tears.
"That one was special, one for all-time," said the 77-year-old Carter.
It's Keith Grant.
The kid who began as a Mavericks ball boy in 1980 has served 31 years with the organization, most of it as anonymously as diligently. These days he's the assistant general manager to Donnie Nelson, but in the '90s it was Grant who had to deal with the second coming—and eventual lifetime banning—of Tarpley, and who was briefly excused from the only franchise he's ever loved by interim general manager Frank Zaccanelli. After the improbable Game 4 comeback in Oklahoma City, Grant called it "maybe the best win of my 31 years." And after Game 2 in Miami? "This one was even better."
Once the heir apparent head coach to his father, Don, he has comfortably conformed to the GM role despite his boss (Mark Cuban) and his dad having, at best, an uncomfortable relationship. And it is Donnie, after all, who discovered and identified as a potential superstar a German teenager named Dirk Nowitzki. For years, almost exclusively without the use of high draft picks, Nelson has continually tweaked the complementary parts to his franchise player.
"You never know about these things," Nelson said. "There were times this year when we didn't look real good and imagining us getting this far was pretty difficult. But when you get this close, it's special."
Out of superstition and stubbornness, he's somehow changed his DNA on the fly and is biting his lip during an NBA Finals that cries for his quotes. As much as he'd like to rip some refs and command the national spotlight with daily press conferences, Cuban is making a strong statement with his silence.
He's accomplished everything in the NBA short of a ring. A win would put him in an elite class of players who won MVPs and championships. A loss in The Finals would reluctantly shove him to the head of the class of superstars without a ring. Despite the Game 3 miss, he's been superb in The Finals. After scoring Dallas' final nine points in the Game 2 rally, he scored the team's final 12 on Sunday night but received zero help from his supporting cast.
"I really don't care about my legacy at this point," Nowitzki has said repeatedly throughout the playoffs. "Anything other than a championship now is a disappointment and a failure to me. That's just the way it is."
It's Jason Kidd.
Drafted by the Mavericks in '94, he's come full circle, back to Dallas and once again on the cusp of his first title. He's already a first-ballot Hall of Famer and the oldest guard (38) to ever play in The Finals, but he's been here twice before and failed. He's a step slower now, but his basketball IQ is maxed out. He's another Maverick who—at this point—has poured heart and soul into basketball without any significant jewelry to show for it.
"I came back to Dallas to win a championship," Kidd said. "It's a harsh reality, but we need to win one for all of these years and these moves to make sense. There needs to be a payoff at the end of this thing. A lot of people in Dallas are long overdue for a championship."
In other words: It's you.