A Championship Years in the Making

Relief.

Not elation, just relief. I felt more elation after the Game 5 victory at home, the one that put the Mavs within sight of the championship.

Maybe I was relieved that the Mavs wouldn't blow another Finals that they led going back to Miami. Perhaps I was relieved that the 31 year wait for the franchise was over. Maybe I was relieved for Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and the other 13 guys that now have their careers validated like a parking ticket. Maybe I was relieved for myself.

The elation will come in the next few days or weeks, but for now, I'm just content that my fandom has paid off.

February 5, 1993.

I exited the doors of my high school into the waiting door of my mom’s car, quickly turning the radio to the Dallas Mavericks game, all because I had heard a rumor that the Mavs were actually up in the second half of a game against the Indiana Pacers.

I implored my mom to slightly bend the traffic rules to rush home, where I found a spot in front of a television to witness the 105-104 victory that snapped the Mavs’ 8 game losing streak. Sean Rooks put in 26 points that night while Derek Harper contributed 22 and Randy White, Terry Davis and Dexter Cambridge all put in double-digit efforts.

The Mavs improved their record that night to 4-38. They then promptly lost 19 games in a row.

I’ve seen the Mavs lose a playoff game in overtime because the point guard dribbled out the clock in regulation, thinking that they were ahead on the scoreboard. I’ve seen a franchise cornerstone snort the franchise up his nose.

I've seen the Mavs finish with the worst record or one of the worst records but never garner the first pick in drafts that included Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan. I've seen them not even get high enough to get Kevin Garnett or Alonzo Mourning. I've seen them have to settle for Doug Smith and Kelvin Cato and Samaki Walker and Cherokee Parks. I’ve seen a ten year drought of playoff appearances.

I've seen them form a solid nucleus and get to the Western Conference Finals only to have their best player get injured and miss most of the series. I've seen them rebuild the team several times and reach a Finals only to lose the series when they were up 2-0. I’ve seen them win 67 games and become the first number one seed in the seven game format to lose to an eight seed.

I've seen them follow that up with becoming the first second seed to lose to a seven seed in a first round series. I've seen them climb that Spurs mountain only to get punked by the Nuggets in '09, then saw those same Spurs punk them last year.

Finally last off-season I said no more. I would enjoy the games just as much, but when they didn't blow it up and tried to convince us the oldest team in the league had what it took to bring home a championship, I shrugged and refused to get my hopes up as far as post-season aspirations went.

The window appeared to be closed, and it appeared that Nowitzki would close his career sharing an apartment with Karl Malone and Charles Barkley as great players that never won a title.

What I failed to recognize, however, even after reading the book this winter, is that the Mavs were following The Secret.

If you have read Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball (a must read if you are any sort of NBA fan), you know about The Secret. The story goes that Simmons ran into Isiah Thomas (a frequent target of his ESPN columns, which made the meeting about as tense as the Sunnis and Shiites getting together) at a Las Vegas hotel pool. Simmons asked Isiah about Cameron Stauth’s book The Franchise, which detailed the story of the 1989 Detroit Pistons, who were probably the last team to face as much adversity before winning the title as this Mavericks team did after giving away series in 1987 and 1988. A passage in the book describes Isiah Thomas telling a gathering of reporters what the secret to winning basketball was.

Isiah mentioned reading a Pat Riley book (this is like an Inception-like several level delve into books, I know) that said successful teams often fall prey to the disease of more. Teams reach a certain level, and then guys want more shots, more money, more minutes, etc. You have to find a way around that. And then this next passage, straight from the mouth of Thomas in the Stauth book:

We got 12 guys who are totally committed to winning. Every night we found a different person to win it for us. Talked to Larry Bird about this once. Couple years back, at the All-Star Game. We were sitting signing basketballs and I’m talking to him about Red Auerbach and the Boston franchise and just picking his brain, but I think he knew. Because I asked one question and he just looked at me. Smiled. Didn’t answer.

And then later:

Lots of times, on our team, you can’t tell who the best player in the game was. ‘Cause everybody did something good. That’s what makes us so good. The other team has to worry about stopping eight or nine people instead of two or three. It’s the only way to win.

From Isiah in The Book of Basketball: The secret to winning basketball is that it isn’t about basketball.

Instead of going out and getting the flashiest player that the Erick Dampier chip would get, the Mavs acquired Tyson Chandler, a defensive force who became an instant leader in the locker room. Shawn Marion, a player who forced himself out of a great situation in Phoenix because of playing time and spotlight squabbles, accepted a role on the bench as Caron Butler’s back-up, and then when Butler was injured he didn’t need to score to be happy, he was fine being the defensive stopper.

DeShawn Stevenson accepted a similar role. Jason Terry was fine coming off the bench. Knowing that he wasn’t an elite point guard any more, Jason Kidd was fine with ceding time to JJ Barea. Brendan Haywood complained about playing time one time during the season, but a one game suspension snapped him into reality and he accepted his role in time to be an effective force in the playoffs. Peja Stojackovic was a star in Sacramento and a starter in New Orleans but was fine coming off the bench for just a few minutes a game. And Dirk Nowitzki? He was fine with taking less money to stay in Dallas and give up some of the spotlight in order to be a more balanced offensive machine.

And it paid off in the playoffs. Marion was the best player on the court at times to take over games and guarded Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James in successive series. Kidd was a deadly spot-up shooter throughout the playoffs. Stojackovic made the Lakers think it was 2002 again. Stevenson played shut-down defense and hit dagger three pointers while providing defense on guys such as Dwyane Wade. Chandler and Haywood provided valuable defense. Jason Terry was up and down, but buried the Lakers and came around in time to bury the Heat as well.

All in all, there were nine guys on this team that have been in the league at least ten years and didn’t have a ring. Knowing that with an aging roster and a lockout looming that this might be their last chance, the Mavs rallied around each other. After a Game 4 loss in Portland where they blew a 23 point lead, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki told a locker room full of dejected faces that they weren’t going to go out like this.

The Mavs promptly won 7 playoff games in a row, including double-digit comeback victories in each of the three remaining series.

The general of all of this was head coach Rick Carlisle, who was a victim of tragedy himself in Indiana when he possibly had the best team in the league before the brawl at Auburn Hills ruined that team. Carlisle came under fire last year for his inability to find playing time for Roddy Beaubois in the San Antonio series, but everything that Carlisle tried this off-season seemed to work, including his suffocating zone defense deployed against Miami and inserting JJ Barea into the starting lineup halfway through the series.

Carlisle goes from much-maligned to what some pundits are calling the best tactician in the NBA in the course of a year. Not bad. Carlisle also has the help of a veteran coaching staff that includes Terry Stotts, Dewayne Casey and statistician Roland Beech, who founded 82games.com and gave the Mavs valuable information on how certain lineups fared against other teams and where to force the other team’s best players on the court to take them out of their comfort zone.

But the biggest benefactor of all of this undoubtedly has to be Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk goes from a consensus Top 30 or so player to possibly being a Pantheon player by the end of his career. You would like to think that he has at least four solid seasons left in him, with an owner that is not shy to put great resources around him.

For years Nowitzki carried the burden of an entire franchise, taking the blame when his team was eliminated despite putting up some of the best playoff averages in the history of the association. A notorious gym rat who has never employed an agent to negotiate his contracts, Nowitzki was the anti-Lebron last summer, choosing to stay with the Mavericks despite most of the nation believing that the Mavs’ window was closed.

The label of "soft" and "scared" was cast upon Nowitzki for years despite playing through several ailments every step of the way, leading his team deep into the playoffs several times with a supporting cast that has only twice included another All-NBA player (Steve Nash in ’02 and ’03 made the third team). His MVP award was mocked in league circles in 2007 when the Mavs were ousted from the first round, and if you believe that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James would have mocked any other NBA superstar’s sickness earlier this series, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.

Gone is that label, now when Nowitzki is introduced he shall forever be introduced as "NBA champion Dirk Nowitzki"….or "NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki…" Nowitzki didn’t need that validation from the rest of the NBA community to complete his career, but if you saw him walk off the stage during the Western Conference trophy presentation or seek solace for a private moment of reflection the moment the last second ticked off the clock in the clinching game, you know that this title was important to him…the most important thing.

He, of course, isn’t the only one in the locker room for which that could be said. There are 14 other players, a coaching staff, and an organization that still employs many of the original members of that expansion franchise.

I couldn’t be more relieved for them.

No…I couldn’t be more elated.

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