Longform

The Mavericks Finally Fought Back, and They Have the Title to Prove It

So when exactly did you give up on these Mavericks?

There are those at Thursday's championship parade through downtown Dallas who might have claimed, above the cheering and through the confetti, to have believed all along. But this is a safe space. Let's lay it out there: Unless you're named Cuban or Chandler or Carlisle or Charles, or you're a floppy-haired German who has perfected the Flamingo Fadeaway for even the most stressful of situations, there was a moment—or, more likely, multiple moments—when you lost faith that this team, along with the 30 versions before it, could win an NBA championship, and grant you the right to blow off work and toast that title.

More than the franchise's history of misery, perhaps it was the present-day reality that seemed destined to ruin 2011. Star Dirk Nowitzki was back, but not visibly different or better than the great player who never seemed good enough. Jason Kidd, at 38, was being counted on as the prime distributor. Head coach Rick Carlisle was still in charge and still defending himself for misusing Roddy Beaubois in last year's first-round playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Caron Butler, penciled in as Nowitzki's long-coveted sidekick, went down early, and Beaubois, the projected sparkplug, never fired up. Plan B replacements Peja Stojakovic and Corey Brewer flamed out, and backup center Brendan Haywood was injured early in the Finals against the favored Miami Heat, forcing into action seldom-used afterthoughts Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahinmi—players who, until they started flying across flat-screens, many casual fans had no clue were even on the roster.

"Hollywood couldn't write a more remarkable script," Mavericks long-time general manager Donnie Nelson said Monday, not long after landing in Dallas in a plane weighed down by two ample pieces of hardware."Given those facts, heck, I don't think I would've believed in us. For all those things to have happened and for us to have finally won this thing...it's crazy."

Karma is, indeed, a bitch. Fortunately, she's also a basketball fan. How else can you explain the Mavericks simultaneously erasing 31 years of frustration and exorcising those infamous 2006 demons by punctuating an unlikely playoff run with a titanic, terrific upset of the infinitely more rich, famous and talented Heat, and doing it on the exact spot where they commenced their most humiliating collapse five years ago?

"It's not always easy, but you can't worry about the big picture and legacies and things like that," Nowitzki said after Sunday night's Game 6 win, carefully cradling his NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy like a precious newborn. "You just have to stay in the moment. You have to believe."

When the Mavs paraded through the streets Thursday morning, they did it as the most unlikely champions in the history of Dallas-Fort Worth professional sports. Sure, they authored their 11th consecutive 50-plus-win, playoff-qualifying season. But they were seeded third in the Western Conference playoffs behind the champion-pedigree Spurs and the two-time defending title-holding Los Angeles Lakers. Of the Cowboys' five Super Bowls and the Stars' lone Stanley Cup in 1999, none were sprung on fans quite like this triumph. The 1971 Cowboys were coming off a Super Bowl loss the previous year, and the 1977 team went 12-2 in the regular season. The 1992 team went 13-3 and won its division, and the '93 and '95 squads were two of the most talented in NFL history. The 1999 Stars easily won the NHL's President's Cup as the best regular-season team.

The Mavs? Two months ago they began the playoffs with a same ol', same ol' yawn and a shrug of indifference. Six of ESPN.com's 12 NBA experts picked Dallas to be upset by the Portland Trailblazers in the first round. Denver Nuggets coach George Karl openly lamented that his team didn't land what he thought would be a favorable matchup against Dallas. And the Lakers' Matt Barnes dismissed the Mavs as a disarmed team for which a blueprint had already been unveiled. While TNT analyst Charles Barkley trumpeted the Mavs' long-shot chances, KTCK-AM 1310 "The Ticket" midday host Bob Sturm predicted a Blazers win, Mavs flagship radio station KESN-FM 103.3 morning host Ben Rogers labeled the Mavs the "One and Done Boys," and a certain columnist at the Dallas Observer penned that they were the same physically soft, psychologically fragile "Mav-wrecks" that had disappointed us again and again, guaranteeing a second-round elimination at the hands of the Lakers.

It was around then that I emailed owner Mark Cuban, asking for an interview. As one usually does, a reply landed in my inbox not long after. As they usually are, it was short.

"You've already written your end to our season," he wrote at the dawn of his playoffs media silence (see page 17). "But we've got something else in mind."

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt