The Mavericks Finally Fought Back, and They Have the Title to Prove It
Mark Cuban, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs shed labels and the Miami Heat on the way to their first NBA championship.
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."Maybe you never believed in the Mavericks, a franchise boldly founded deep in the heart of football country by Don Carter in 1980. Back then the Mavericks were good, but the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were legendary. Maybe you lost faith somewhere in the change of logos, the relocation from Reunion Arena to American Airlines Center, the ownership transfers from Carter to Ross Perot Jr. to Cuban, or the coaching switches from Dick Motta to John MacLeod to Richie Adubato to Quinn Buckner to Motta again to Jim Cleamons to Don Nelson to Avery Johnson to Carlisle. Perhaps you threw your hands up during the back-to-back seasons of 11 and 13 wins in 1993 and 94. Or the 1990s draft picks of Cherokee Parks and Samaki Walker and Chris Anstey, or the trading away of Kidd, or the re-acquisition of Kidd for Devin Harris in 2000.
The rest of you likely quit when the Mavericks wound up re-signing Robin-forced-to-be-Batman Nowitzki and trading for only Tyson Chandler, a 10-year veteran with no All-Star appearances and a history of injuries. Or when, after a promising 24-5 start, Butler suffered a season-ending knee injury. Or when the Mavs lost by 28 to the Lakers on March 31. When an ineffective Beaubois, bothered by a broken foot, was yanked from the starting lineup in favor of veteran DeShawn Stevenson. Or maybe it was the 23-point blown lead in Game 4 at Portland, the 16-point hole the Mavs dug in Game 1 against the Lakers, the 15-point deficit with five minutes remaining in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, or even the 88-73 crater in Miami with seven minutes left in Game 2 of the Finals.
When they were down 0-1 and trailing by 15 against Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, there was ample leg room on the bandwagon. But the team never seemed to notice.
"This team is amazing in its focus," Carlisle said after the game. "Our greatest asset is our persistence. We just keep at it."
In surviving the Blazers, sweeping the Lakers and outrunning the Thunder, the Mavs conquered LaMarcus Aldridge, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. But in the Finals—as it had to be—they faced James, Bosh and Wade, the player who scorched them in a forgettable 2006 Finals littered by the Heimliching of a 2-0 series lead and 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in Miami.
Only Cuban, Nowitzki and sixth man Jason Terry remained from that squad, but the battle scars—empowering, as it turns out—were transferable. The pain, morphed into motivation, was inherited and ingested by even the newest Mavs.
After getting dunked and punked in a Game 1 loss, the Mavs were this close to going down 0-2. Wade, who infuriates opponents and critics by flopping and flailing like an 8-pound bass on the deck of a Four Winns, drilled a 3-pointer, then decided to hold the follow-through pose. He then preened and pranced right in front of Dallas' bench, as if to channel a recurring-nightmare Freddy Krueger determined to further torment a franchise. At that moment, Mavs believers would've fit in Grandma's sewing thimble.
But that's when it seemed to happen: The Mavs got fed up with being bullied. Terry barked at Wade, chasing him back toward Miami's end of the court during the ensuing timeout. What happened next altered a scoreboard, changed a series and transformed a legacy.
The Mavericks ended the game on a 22-5 run, winning 95-93 via a left-handed layup by Nowitzki, who in Game 1 had torn a tendon in the middle finger on that same hand. Wade missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer, falling and inexplicably grabbing his eye as he fell untouched to the floor. The Mavs had not only tied the series, they had the Heat's attention—if not their respect.
The teams split Games 3 and 4, with Nowitzki missing a potential game-tying jumper in one and fighting off a 102-degree fever for a key layup in the next. Before crucial Game 5 last Thursday night in Dallas, Wade and James were shown mocking Nowitzki's post-Game 4 cough. Wade referred to it as "the fun-loving story of him being sick."
"I just thought it was a little childish, a little ignorant," Nowitzki responded. "I've been in this league for 13 years. I've never faked an injury or illness."
Countered Wade, inexplicably: "I actually did cough."
After missing a key free throw and fumbling a final possession in Game 4, Wade—who once left a game in a wheelchair with a shoulder injury—made two dramatic re-entries into Game 5, complete with a convenient limp on a supposedly bruised left hip. But Kidd and Terry hit late 3-pointers in a nine-point victory that pushed the Mavs closer than ever to a title.
As Game 6 neared, the frosty relationship between Nowitzki and Wade came into focus. After the 2006 series, Wade remarked that Dirk "wasn't the leader he's supposed to be in the closing moments." Nowitzki remembered, and the two were cordial at league functions but didn't as much as bump fists when forced to interact. Wade's mocking video only fueled things.
Asked before Game 6 if the Mavs hated the Heat, Nelson barely blinked: "Let me take the high road."
Privately pissed and purposeful, the Mavs headed to Miami with every member of the traveling party wearing at least one black article of clothing. Always wear black to a funeral, right?
In the end, Nowitzki wasn't around to see the final seconds tick away. His accomplishment was temporarily more debilitating than exhilarating, prompting tears of joy with a side of exhaustive relief. In the final minute, he began crying at midcourt, and before the final horn, he hopped over the scorer's table and jogged into the visitor's locker room for a private moment. It was in that same hallway in 2006 where he kicked a Stairmaster in disgust after missing a key free throw that led to a Game 3 loss.
"I had to go lay down," Nowitzki explained later. "I had some tears."
For 13 seasons he's been the face of a franchise that has faltered. He's been called weak. Soft. Criticized for being a Euro. Trashed for not being a leader, much less a winner. Many in Dallas maintained that the Mavericks would never win a championship with Nowitzki as their best player. Turns out that shutting up the critics, defeating his nemesis and winning a NBA Finals MVP was too much for a guy who, since 1999, has always had the stomach and the backbone to carry an entire organization.
"I think tomorrow," joked a misty-eyed Holger Geschwindner, Nowitzki's long-time mentor, "I'll give him the day off."
While the Mavericks are the NBA's first one-star champ since Olajuwon's Houston Rockets in 1994, there's plenty of vindication to go around.
After missing a potential game-tying 3-pointer in Game 6 in 2006, Terry responded brilliantly in these playoffs, especially after being called out by Nowitzki for not being the "clutch player" the Mavs needed. He hit jumpers and shocked NBA observers by beating James repeatedly off the dribble, validating the previously bizarre NBA Finals trophy tattoo he got on his right biceps before the season. In Game 6, as Nowitzki struggled, Terry kept Dallas afloat on his way to 27 points.
When Terry is good, the Mavericks can be great. And when he is great, they can be unbeatable.
Or, as Cuban put it after the game: "He just shoved it up everybody's ass."
Chandler, Stevenson, Haywood and Shawn Marion each won rings after 10-plus seasons. Kidd's wait finally ended at 17. If he was the steadying influence on the court, it was Carlisle's flexibility off it that pushed his team to unprecedented heights. Down 2-1, he inserted J.J. Barea into the starting lineup to push the pace.
In the end, substance whipped style.
"We don't run fast or jump high," Carlisle said. "But we play the game the right way. Enough with the LeBron reality show. How about talking about the purity of our brand of basketball?"
After Game 6, Cuban finally broke his silence, but not until he made one of the classiest moves in the history of Dallas sports. With the team gathered on stage, America waited for the deliciously uncomfortable moment when commissioner David Stern was forced to hand the NBA Finals trophy to the renegade owner he'd fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for outlandish behavior and direct criticism of the league office. Instead, Cuban summoned the 77-year-old Carter to be the first to lay hands on the precious hardware. Later, he promised to foot the bill for Dallas' first sports parade since 1999.
"I've waited so long for this I can't tell you how special it is," said an emotional Carter, who still owns a small percentage of the team. "For Mark to ask me up there...it was the best gesture I could imagine. He's grown into the owner I always imagined he could be."
As for Cuban and his self-imposed muting? It worked.
"The quieter I got, the more we won," he explains. "I didn't want to break the karma."
After making a beaming lap around AAA with trophies under each arm, Nowitzki climbed aboard the team bus. Cuban passed him an $80,000 bottle of Ace of Spades Champagne. And with that, the Mavericks headed to a party at the Hotel Fontainebleau's LIV nightclub that included 100 bottles of Champagne and a $200,000 bar tab.
In "The Decision," James boastfully took his talents to South Beach.
The Mavericks one-upped him. They took their trophy.