Proud Papa

Do it for Don.

And I don't mean Nelson.

Since he practically invented smallball and had an appreciation of Steve Nash way before the MVPs, it wouldn't be shocking if, deep down, part of former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson is rooting for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Western Conference Finals. There's no doubting, however, the unconditional allegiance of the Mavericks' original Don--former owner Don Carter.

Sure, Mark Cuban is passionate, and Avery Johnson is committed, and Dirk Nowitzki is fantastic, and we're pretty sure Keith Van Horn is trying. But Carter is the one most deserving of an NBA Championship. Without him, for crying out loud, Dallas might still be without a professional basketball team.

Cuban might still be an anonymous billionaire, Dirk might still be playing handball in Germany and you might not be dumping your 401(k) onto eBay in hopes of landing tickets to Game 5.

As the Mavs host Phoenix Thursday night at American Airlines Center, trying to inch closer to the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals, an entire city is cultivating a basketball jones. Well, welcome aboard the bandwagon. Carter's been riding atop it--and sometimes dragged behind it--since 1980.

Carter's 10-gallon Stetson is as synonymous with the Mavericks as Tom Landry's fedora is to the Dallas Cowboys. Or at least it should be. Not crediting Carter's past perseverance for the team's success would be as criminal as, oh, I dunno, Barry Bonds not giving props to Babe Ruth.

The team's original logo featured his hat. The name Mavericks arrived because Carter, though these days a straight-shootin' Bible Belter, grew up an oft-troubled rebel making and breaking his own rules. Since he begat them 26 seasons ago, Carter has likely attended more Mavs games than anyone on the planet.

As the Mavs' founding father, he petitioned the NBA for a team in Dallas before he'd ever seen a league game in person. With help from partner Norm Sonju and a motivating nudge from wife Linda, Carter invested $12 million in '80. In return, he received 16 years of headaches, heartbreaks and more rebuilding programs than downtown New Orleans. (That, and $125 million when he sold the team to Ross Perot Jr. 10 years ago. So chill down the tinkling piano, he's done OK.)

As a hands-on owner, front-row spectator and impassioned fan, he has suffered through the Three J's, the Big Three and a season in which Quinn Buckner struggled to reach three wins. Sooner than later, you hope Cuban's creative light bulb blinks on and he raises a commemorative Carter banner alongside franchise icons Brad Davis and Rolando Blackman. (The team's one and only banner for a division championship--in 1986--belongs to Carter.)

Of the 2,247 games in Mavericks history, Thursday will be just No. 3 played in June. The previous two--on June 2 and 4, 1988--took the Mavs to the brink of the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. He got within 12 minutes of the Finals before the Lakers took control of Game 7 in the fourth quarter and turned a close game into a 15-point rout.

But sandwiched around that high were remarkable, laughable, despicable lows.

The first player Carter ever drafted--Kiki Vandeweghe--refused to play in Dallas, balked at signing a contract and was traded to the Denver Nuggets without playing one Maverick minute (and you think Nash gets booed?). In the expansion draft Carter passed over a veteran named Pete Maravich for a youngster named Jim Spanarkel. Carter's teams practiced at his Home Furnishings company's warehouse gym just off the Tollway and Spring Valley, often eating post-workout cookies baked by Linda.

On Carter's ownership tombstone are two words we should all aspire to die by: Too Nice.

Familial to a fault, country-fried Carter treated employees more like sons. He put up with Mark Aguirre's pouting, extended multiple pardons to drug addict, morale killer and public embarrassment Roy Tarpley and signed coach Dick Motta not with a contract but a handshake consummated in the back of a pickup on a dusty road in Fish Haven, Idaho.

With Carter as your owner, Nash would still be a Maverick. Of course, Motta would still be your coach, Shawn Bradley still your backup center and The Flying Nun still the featured girl on the team's calendar.

Devoted to church, charity and cha-ching, Carter got out in '96, just in time. He had trouble relating to players who grew less loyal and more greedy. Guaranteed contracts were spiraling out of control. And mostly, the losing got old about the time Carter did.

The game hasn't passed him by as much as the game's culture. His hat has been replaced on the logo by a horse head, his beloved "God Bless America" isn't played before games anymore, and a team that once played in quaint but electric Reunion Arena now sometimes feels like a sideshow amongst the artificial ambience of expansive AAC. Where Carter preferred the understated Kevin McCarthy on the public address at Reunion, Cuban prods "Humble" Billy Hayes into incessant screaming. A sign of their respective times, Carter's Mavs presented pee-wee clinics or mascot games at halftime while Cuban titillates fans with seductive dancers in skimpy outfits writhing to rap music.

Likewise, the road to the Finals has changed. Then: The Mavs had to beat Showtime. Now: To beat the Suns, the Mavs must play Slowtime.

"This year feels special," Carter says after a raucous win over the San Antonio Spurs. "You have to go all the way back to Moody Madness (1984) to find a time when our city was this excited about the Mavericks."

These days the 73-year-old Carter is retired but not reserved. He's usually courtside, sitting across from the Mavs' bench in his trademark jeans, boots, starched white shirt and, of course, the hat. Now a minority (4 percent) owner, he still pumps his fist when they win. Still tries to hide his disappointment with that genteel smile when they lose. And after all these years still bleeds Mavericks blue. Though now a different shade.

"He's just as emotional as I am," Cuban says. "Every time we win a game I get to go over and shake his hand and share a big smile. It's one of the many important rewards of owning the team."

Fitting it would be, then, if Cuban were able to hand--if only for a moment--the Larry O'Brien Trophy over to Carter. He is, after all, one of the few Mavericks who actually had a relationship with the championship award's late namesake.

Dallas desires a championship.

Don deserves one.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt