The cell phone crackles some as he drives down the highway, and there's a foreign beeping noise muddling the conversation at times, but that doesn't stop him from merrily rolling through an account of his post-career résumé. After a few unfortunate years away from the Mavs, Derek Harper has finally returned to these most familiar and comfortable surroundings, and damn if he doesn't want to tell someone about how wonderful that feels.

The Mavericks--the team he helped make a contender in the '80s, the team to which he helped give national recognition with his streaky shooting touch and his easy personality--recently hired him to join Matt Pinto and Bob Ortegel in the broadcast booth. The club has him honing his would-be craft, taking direction at a school called "Talent Dynamics" off of Interstate 35 near Regal Row.

"Oh, man, it's been so much fun getting ready for this," Harper says. He worked as a studio analyst last season for KTVT-Channel 11 and UPN-21. "This morning, they had me do some interviewing, and we talked about understanding my role in the booth. It's helped me get a feel for my role. The transition, I think, will be smooth."

Yeah, smooth is good. Smooth is what he probably wanted all along, because that's what he was on the court as a player, but that's not exactly how things developed in his front-office afterlife. He spent 12 years with the Mavericks, 16 in the NBA. In '99 he retired as a Mav--Harper is third on the team's all-time scoring list, second in games played and first in assists, steals and 3-pointers--and then moved into administration, becoming the club's vice president of business. The idea was to learn that side of the game and to become an NBA general manager. That's still the hope today, though the path has become less clear.

"I've always, in the back of my mind, wanted to do broadcasting, but becoming a G.M. is my main goal," Harper says. "Really, I feel like I'm ready for that now, not to say that I know everything, but I think I'm a lot closer to being able to do that job than maybe some other people think. But television gives me a voice. People can hear my opinion on the game, hear my insight on the game, and maybe that will speed up the process. I want to speed up the process to becoming a G.M. and building a championship basketball team in the NBA."

He would have liked to do it here, in Dallas, with the team that became his identity--or maybe it was the other way around. Whatever, according to Harper, two years ago, while serving as vice president of business, he had a talk with Mark Cuban about filling that role with the Mavs. What happened from there varies depending on whom you ask, but here's the gist: Cuban, then a neophyte owner, decided to stay with Don Nelson as his G.M. when everyone expected that Nellie would either retire or get fired. A short while later, before the 2000-'01 season had begun, Harper quietly resigned his post and more or less disappeared into the shadows. Oh, he was still in town--Harper frequented Hebron High's basketball games, where his son, Darius, hoops--but as far as the media were concerned, he may as well have vanished completely.

Harper contends that he left to spend more time with his family. Cuban, meanwhile, refuses to comment on what happened. (Via e-mail, in between bickering with me on an unrelated topic, he says only: "We are excited to add him to the broadcasting team. We think he will be a great asset. He gets along well with the players, the fans and the organization, plus he has a flair that rivals Charles Barkley...That's why we are hiring him.")

Now, I'm no Stephen Hawking (hell, I'm no DISD grunt, for that matter), but the math here seems awfully simple, despite how anyone wants to spin it. When you add A (Harper's transparent desire to become a G.M.) with B (Cuban telling him to forget it for the time being), you likely get C (the club's most recognizable personality fleeing from his front-office post with more than a touch of bitterness). But that's just what I come up with. You might want to check the figures yourself.

Either way, he left, which was a shame for both him and the Mavericks. And you fans.

"I don't think there's any truth to that," Harper counters, disputing my Arthur Andersen bottom line. "When I met with Mark, he asked what I wanted to do, and I told him of my wish to be a G.M., and he said Nellie was the G.M. He still is. There weren't any hard feelings. The timing just wasn't right for me. It just didn't work out. I kept a relationship with Mark. I mean, If I'm going to be a G.M., it doesn't have to be here. I just want the opportunity to be sooner rather than later. But I'm not going to get into a battle over it, not into that. I hope that's not what the story is about."

Well, didn't something have to go down? Call me a cynic for not taking them at their word, but that's the shade of gray I see here. Because if everything was fine, why would he leave? Wouldn't the ascension to G.M. be quicker from a job in pro basketball than a seat in the stands of some high school game?

Regardless, he's back now, which was really the point in the first place. Whether he and Cuban had a falling out, or whether they made amends, or whether nothing ever really happened is tangential to the big picture: the fact that he shouldn't have left under any circumstance. Because this is where he belongs, with the Mavericks.

"It's beneficial for all of us," says Ortegel, Harper's new broadcasting partner. "Having him in the booth with us, you can't deny that it brings a degree of instant credibility. He's a Maverick. That's how people think of him. I think that's how he thinks of himself."

He played with other teams, with the Lakers and the Magic and the Knicks, but it never looked natural. There was something about seeing him in lime green that And so now, for whatever reason, he's back. He's not running the point with singular poise, and he's not polishing his front-office acumen, either. No, he'll be in the booth, lending perspective, which is something new, but damn if that doesn't just fit, too.

"I'm a Maverick; that goes without saying," Harper agrees. "People leave and come back to places all the time. That's life. Some of the decisions I've made in life, some of them, I would do different. I'm not perfect. That decision, I had to do that one the way I did. I don't regret it.

"Things ended up working out. I'm with the Mavs again. This is where I reside, this is where my family and kids are, this is where my roots are and this is where I'm most comfortable..."

Harper trails off some, maybe because he's thinking about how crazy things have been in recent years; more likely because the phone is acting up again. Even through the cellular haze, his point comes through: He likes where he is, but nothing is forever, even if he'd like it to be.

"Hey, you never know where this is gonna take me," he says before saying goodbye. "If I'm here three years from now, and I enjoy doing this, then I'll be happy...but, shucks, if, I don't know, say the Golden State Warriors called me and asked me to be their G.M., would I have to think about it? Yeah..."

Pause, chuckle. "But not for long."

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez