Monday, June 13, 2011

A Mavs fan, rewarded

Dallas Mavericks. World Champions.

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. Did it really happen? As a fan who has rooted for this team since literally before I can remember -- as a toddler who went to games with my dad at Reunion Arena in the late 1980s -- and seeing this thing through always believing and rooting for the Mavericks, last night's 105-95 win over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals is the ultimate payoff, for myself and all Mavericks fans worldwide.

And when I think about what this means, not only being a lifelong Mavericks fan who grew up in Dallas, I truly believe that this championship, the first for the Dallas Mavericks, is the most meaningful that I've experienced as a fan. And it makes perfect sense.

First of all, it's the fifth championship won by one of my professional teams that I grew up rooting for: the Cowboys, Mavericks, Stars and Rangers.

The Cowboys won three Super Bowls just as I reached sports-consciousness. I had just turned eight years old when Troy Aikman quarterbacked the Cowboys to the first of three titles in four years. The Cowboys greatness became an entitlement to me, as it to some degree has been for fans of America's Team since the 1970s. I couldn't appreciate just how low things had been just four or five years earlier for that franchise when Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry in 1989, and the Cowboys followed with a 1-15 season.

Now as a Cowboys fan who has experienced only one playoff victory since the 1996 season, I'm beginning to understand what other NFL fans face year in and year out. Apparently the Super Bowl is not our birthright as Dallas Cowboys fans. It's something I didn't quite comprehend growing up.

As for the Dallas Stars Stanley Cup win in 1999, oh, I was excited about it. I wore my Stars jersey to games during the '99 season, painted my face, cheered in Reunion Arena for this newfangled hockey team that had just come to town six years earlier and was originally marketed as "football on ice" to a gridiron-centric sports town. The Stars went back to the Stanley Cup finals the following year, losing the New Jersey Devils, and have advanced to the Conference Finals just once since then, in 2008 when they fell in six games to the Red Wings. But hockey was never on the forefront of my mind. The Stars were a cool novelty compared to the Cowboys, Rangers and Mavericks, all of which had predated my existence in Dallas.

Yes, the Rangers run last fall was magical. I still don't know how it happened. But to some degree, it came out of nowhere, and there is still a sense of being content with just getting to experience a World Series without actually winning it. I loved the Rangers growing up. I enjoyed going to games at the old Arlington Stadium. Hell, I work in baseball now. A Texas Rangers Championship last fall would have been amazing. It's what the long-suffering Rangers fan dreams of.

Except the suffering of a Rangers fan is different than that of a the Mavericks fan. As a Rangers fan, we suffer through mediocrity year in and year out -- up until last year of course. The Rangers' success came out of nowhere. The 2010 Opening Day starter, Scott Feldman, and No. 2 starter, Rich Harden, didn't pitch in the postseason. The Cliff Lee deal? Was anyone expecting that at all? No. Rangers fans slogged through 39 subpar seasons with flashes of success in 1996, '98 and '99, but the thought of winning the World Series was never something to be seriously considered. Yes, Rangers fans suffered, but only through the acceptance of rooting for what appeared -- until last season -- to be a perennial loser. Not until 2010 could Rangers fans experience true pride in their team.

The Pain of Mavericks Fandom
But the suffering of Dallas Mavericks fans is that of a dangling championship that appeared would always elude us. Dallas reached the Western Conference Finals in the late 80s, falling to the mighty Los Angeles Lakers in a deciding seventh game. Eventually the Mavericks of Mark Aguire and Rolondo Blackman faded, and the Dallas NBA franchise became basketball bottom-feeders, putting together 11-win and 13-win seasons in consecutive years in the early 90s.

That is where I came into sports-consciousness with the Mavericks. My dad took me to games to root for the Mavericks. I got to see Jamal Mashburn and Jimmy Jackson join a rookie named Jason Kidd to form what was supposed to be the trio to propel the Mavericks to compete for relevance in the NBA. Triple-J had arrived, but nothing ever game from it. Eventually the three left or were sent away from Dallas. Jimmy Jackson was part of the trade to bring Shawn Bradley to Dallas from New Jersey. Jason Kidd was shipped to Phoenix for a young gun out of Wisconsin named Michael Finley.

And still I watched as this ragtag basketball team trudged through games at Reunion Arena, all the while cheering them on with no real expectation of success. Heck, sometimes I even got to see them win. A game. But win anything of significance? Only once.

My dad took me to Reunion Arena on March 12, 1998, to see Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the defending NBA Champions. The biggest star in the NBA was coming to our neck of the woods. It was like a great national concert tour that was going to make a stop in our little city. Sure, the Mavericks were going to probably get crushed by the two-time defending champs, but who cares.

Then out of nowhere, something completely unexpected happened. We won. Wait, what? The Mavericks beat the Bulls, 104-97. I can still remember standing at the end of a concourse tunnel as the final seconds ticked off the clock. That night, I can still remember calling in to 106.1 Kiss-FM in Dallas to tell Sammy G how "I wanna be like Mike ... FINLEY!" It was the best win in Dallas Mavericks history in my sports-consciousness. I was just two years or three years old when Dallas went to the conference finals against LA in the 80s. But this win over the Bulls was the ultimate win.

The win over Chicago was so big that the Mavericks put out a VHS of the game, "Unforgetta-Bull: Mavericks shock Bulls 104-97 in OT" and a copy of that tape sits somewhere in my parents house.

Little did I know this win, a win that seemingly would never be surpassed in the annals of Dallas Mavericks history, would pale in comparison the ride we as Mavericks fans were about to take.

In the summer of 1998, just weeks after the Chicago Bulls -- the same team that lost to lowly Dallas in March -- claimed their third straight NBA Championship, that miserable Dallas franchise made a draft day trade for some German teenager that would forever alter how people in the Metroplex and around the world would view this organization.

Dirk Nowitzki.

If you doubted him before, his greatness is now, FINALLY, validated with the label of NBA Champion. But I'm jumping ahead in the story. (Sorry, I still can't believe it happened.)

Building For Success
Dirk's emergence combined with Mark Cuban's purchase of the franchise in January of 2000 kick-started what would become the most successful stretch in franchise history. And short of Tom Landry's 20 consecutive winning seasons, it's the most successful stretch for any Dallas-area franchise ever.

Dallas made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade after the 2001 season and met the Utah Jazz in the first round. John Stockton and Karl Malone, two Hall of Famers, taking on the little Mavericks' "Big Three" of Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki ... in that order. And when we say "Big Three" it was a big three for Dallas, for a franchise that had tried to assemble it's last "Big Three" with the Triple-J boys of the mid-90s. But it wasn't a true Big Three compared to what we see today with Miami. It wasn't three players who could conceivably win a championship -- and at the time, I think we all knew that but were still happy to root for them.

Utah quickly jumped out to a 2-0 lead in a then-best-of-five first round series against Dallas as the series shifted to Reunion Arena for Game 3, and if necessary Game 4. The Mavericks won game three. They squeaked by in Game 4, I want to say 94-93, but I can't remember and don't feel like googling. The series was going back to Utah for Game 5. Wow, so this is what playoff basketball is like?

I was experiencing it for the first time in my life. Playoff basketball was new to me. I'd never had a team to root for, never had a dog in the fight until now.

And facing a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a deciding Game 5 in Utah, the Dallas Mavericks led by Michael Finley and Steve Nash with help from Dirk Nowitzki came charging back to eliminate the Jazz. At that time, I was convinced Calvin Booth was going to forever hold a place in Dallas Mavericks lore ... and maybe because that playoff series win was the first to start this amazing run, perhaps he does. (What a crazy-ass realization.)

Can't Settle For Satisfactory
Dallas started a string of 11-straight 50-win seasons, and with each year, Mavericks fans -- now fully embracing our new "Mavs fans" persona became less and less enthralled with playoff participation and more and more focused on achieving success. The mindset shift, I feel, came in the 2003 postseason. Dallas began the playoffs with a first-round series (now in best-of-seven format) against the Portland Trailblazers. The Mavericks Mavs jumped out to a 3-0 series lead before dropping the next three games as the Blazers forced Game 7. Dallas prevailed, advancing to the next round.

Enter the Sacramento Kings. Dallas and Sacramento began a seven-game series that highlighted what would be my final few weeks of high school. In one of the first two games of the series in Dallas, the score was 44-40 Dallas after the first QUARTER. By halftime, the high-scoring blitz saw the Mavs lead, 83-80. And these numbers are coming from memory. I know I have these numbers right. In fairness, I don't remember the final score of that game. I'm not even sure if we won that high-scoring affair. I just know the series was a lights-out shootout. Chris Webber went down with a knee injury early in the series, and Dallas and Sacramento eventually found themselves in Game 7 in Dallas, on the exact same night as my senior stinkin' prom.

My little brother Matthew and a friend went to Game 7, getting to witness the Mavericks advance to the Wester Conference Finals against the in-state rival San Antonio Spurs. Meanwhile, I was at prom with my high school girlfriend. There were no smart phones. There was no "checking the score" to see how the game was going. At some point, someone made an announcement that Dallas won, but I never saw a second of the game. The night, for me, was highlighted when I got back to my then-girlfriend's house (no, this isn't going where you think it is ... remember, I'm a sports nut, so my focus was not where other high school seniors' focus would be after prom). My girlfriend's dad was at the door waiting for us, and he handed me a printout of the post-game story detailing Dallas' success. That, to me, was awesome on his part, and is in fact my highlight memory from senior prom.

Dallas stole Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in San Antonio despite only leading for something like 67 seconds of the game, but Dallas shot 49-50 from the free throw line (again, I promise you I'm not looking these numbers up. Someone feel free to google and see what I've missed, but I doubt it's much of anything. In fact, it was Eduardo Najera who missed the first free throw for Dallas before the Mavs made 49 straight in the game.) But Dirk got hurt, and Dallas eventually lost in six games to the eventual champs.

Still, the bar had been raised. Simply participating in the playoffs was no longer satisfactory. Now, we want--, no, we need to win it all. Easier said than done, as we would find out.

That was after the 2003 season. It wouldn't be for another eight seasons that the Mavericks would finally achieve this dream. A new type of suffering was about to begin.

Struggling With Success
Dallas continued to win at least 50 games each year, continued to make the playoffs, but continued to fall short of its ultimate goal. The Mavs showed promising signs. There was a series win over Houston in 2005 after Dallas trailed 0-2, losing the first two games at home. There was a great Game 7 in San Antonio to beat the arch-nemesis Spurs in 2006 to advance to the Conference Finals against MVP Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns. Six games later, Dirk helped elevate Dallas to a place it had never been: the NBA Finals.

We all know what happened in 2006. And as much as last night is revenge, 2006 will always hurt. The series was right there. Many Mavs fans will always blame refs, and I can't disagree to strongly based on some of the generous called afforded to Dwayne Wade. Let's just say, I'm glad Bennett Salvatore didn't make an appearance in the 2011 finals. Still, the refs didn't make Josh Howard call timeout after Dwayne Wade's first free throw, not his second, in the pivotal Game 5 (granted, Wade shouldn't have been on the line, but I digress). And no one was complaining about the officiating when Dallas was leading the Heat, 2-games-to-none and up by 13 points with 6:28 left in Game 3.

The next year, Dallas got off to a rough start, beginning 2006-07 with four straight losses before going on to an NBA-best 67-win season, but the first-round loss to Golden State was a kick to the groin of our playoff hopes. Former head coach Don Nelson guided the Golden State Warriors to a six-game series win, becoming the first 8-seed to top a 1-seed in the first round since the NBA went to a best-of-seven first round format. That team was supposed to redeem the '06 Finals collapse. Instead, it was an even bigger failure. As Mavs fans, it was devastating.

Head Coach Avery Johson was jettisoned after the 2008 season and a first-round loss to Chris Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler, and the New Orleans Hornets. Dallas had traded young point guard Devon Harris for aging veteran Jason Kidd. It was a move I didn't understand. It was a move I blasted Mark Cuban for saying he would do it again if given the chance to do it over. It was a move that didn't payoff, and that playoff failure cost Johnson, a former NBA Coach of the Year, his job.

In Avery's goodbye press conference, he noted five things that a championship-caliber team needed to have. At the time, it seemed like he was making excuses for coming up short. But retroactively, it seems he was right, because it's those five things that Dallas put together three years later to achieve ultimate glory.

Avery noted that championship teams need:
1. A superstar player
2. Strong center position
3. Guard that can dribble-drive, get to the free throw line
4. Depth on bench
5. Experience on coaching staff

Well doesn't that sound like the 2011 Mavs?
1. Dirk
2. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood
3. Jason Terry, Kidd & Barea
4. See Game 4 of the Lakers series
5. Rick Carlisle.

Yeah, so Avery had it right. Dallas, in fact, didn't have the pieces in place to win in 2008. But it's not like Rick Carlisle found the magic formula right out of the gate. Fans were calling for his head after last season's first-round exit to the seventh-seeded Spurs. The Mavs lost in the first round for three times in the last four seasons. Maybe that window that Dallas flung open with Dirk's and-one against Manu Ginobili in Game 7 in San Antonio in 2006 was slamming shut before our eyes.

50 Redundant Wins
Dallas was rocking and rolling to start the 2010-11 season. There were plenty of big wins, and the Mavs were one of the NBA's best teams before injuries to Dirk Nowitzki and Caron Butler proved to be significant setbacks, leading to a six-game losing streak, the longest since Mark Cuban bought the team, but merely "just another week" by 1990s franchise standards.

In November, the Mavs had a great come-from-behind win over the Detroit Pistons, at which time I wrote this blog about the greatness of Dirk and what we as Mavs fans were fortunate enough to witness. At the time I wrote it with the hope that one day he would win at title but knowing the reality didn't look too good. I finished the post by saying:

There will at some point come a time when he no longer suits up for the Mavs. I hope it's not for a while, because as he displayed on Tuesday night against Detroit, he is still very much capable of dominating a game in the NBA. But when his time as a Maverick is done, with a ring or not, he will be looked back at as one of the greatest sports figures the DFW metropplex has ever seen. He'll be up there with Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Nolan Ryan. He's one ring away from immortality status as far as the rest of the NBA is concerned, but here in Dallas, let's hope his team's fans know better than that.

He's already achieved it.

It feels so much better knowing his legacy will not be accompanied with the Stockton/Malone-esque "greatest to never win a championship" label.

Dirk and Mavs finished the 2010-11 season is somewhat of a slump, although it's hard to remember now. Dallas was 0-8 against playoff teams to finish the season and had lost out on the second seed to the Los Angeles Lakers, setting up a second-round match up with LA holding home court.

Bracing For Another Disappointment
There was no indication this would be a special playoff run at the time the post-season began. Dallas started off with two wins against Portland at home before dropping Game 3 on the road. Nevertheless, the Mavs had a 2-1 series lead with home court in the series, but was facing a Portland team that many predicted to upset Dallas in the first round (little did we know it would be the other Texas playoff team, San Antonio, that would suffer a first-round exit at the hands of Memphis). Then, the moment Mavs fans have sadly become accustomed to occurred.

Dallas led by 23 points against the Blazers when Brandon Roy had a career performance, scoring 24 points and leading a shocking comeback to tie the series, 2-2. If the window of opportunity for Dallas to win a championship was still open at this point, it wasn't by much. Buckle up, because this was the first-round upset everyone was project about to happen. Dallas was cooked.

But then, something different happened. Something even the most diehard of Mavs fans might have been cringingly expecting. Dallas didn't complete the collapse. Instead, they bounced back, winning Game 5 and going into Portland to win their first road playoff game in the last 10 years (okay, that stat is not accurate, but it sure felt like it before the LA/OKC/Heat series, right?). Dallas closed out the series in six games but would have an even bigger task waiting for them in the next round.

Defeating Goliath
The two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers earned home court by winning two of three games against the Mavs during the regular season. Kobe Bryant is an assassin with a basketball, and his supporting cast is nothing to scoff at. He has former, current and future All-Stars all around him along with the greatest coach in NBA history, Phil Jackson, on the bench to guide this basketball juggernaut against the Mavericks who barely edged the Blazers in the first round.

Dallas and Los Angeles went down the final minute with the game still in doubt, but Dirk made the plays when it mattered and Kobe clanged out what could have been the game-winning three as time expired. Dallas escaped LA with a Game 1 win, 96-94, and captured home court. Good. Now Dallas could just take care of business at home and win the series. Wasn't that what we all were thinking?

If you were thinking Dallas would sweep, you're either A. mentally challenged, or B. a LIAR! (and you've already read all this, so I doubt you're not all there in the head).

But that's what Dallas did, including an all-out blitz in the Game 4 clincher that was marred by flagrant fouls from Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. I thought J.J. Barea might have died that day. How he survived that cheap shot from Bynum, let alone was still able to play in that game, heck, in these playoffs, was amazing. If anyone was going to question the collective toughness of Dallas anymore, just look at that play. The Mavs were going to take every shot put on them, both legitimate within the game and otherwise, get back up and continue to go to work. With a defeat of the Lakers, Dallas had a clear path to the finals basket with San Antonio already out of the picture. A return to the Finals was the light at the end of the tunnel, and we could clearly see it.

Handling The Little Brother
Dallas faced the new young guns of the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you really think about it, the Thunder is exactly where Dallas was in 2003, a young team finding itself on the brink of the Finals for the first time. Maybe the lights were too bright for them on that stage, or perhaps Dallas simply willed themselves past OKC. Whatever had happened in that series prior to Game 4, however, didn't matter.

The Mavs trailed by 15 points with five minutes to play. Oklahoma City was sending the series back to Dallas tied, 2-2. The Mavs would have three games, including two at home, to win two more to advance to the NBA Finals. Not a bad position to be in at all. But that wasn't good enough for these Mavs. Dirk put Dallas on his back, the Mavs ended the game on a 17-2 run to force overtime, where they went on to part the clouds with a 112-104 win, sending the series back to Dallas 3-1, and the Mavs closed it out in front of their fans to advance to the NBA Finals.

But when Dallas was awarded the Western Conference Finals trophy, they didn't celebrate. Instead, Dirk walked off the stage, headed to the locker room. His teammates saw this and followed. This was not the trophy they came for. There was still work to be done. They have one of these trophies... and its meaning is hollow after how 2006 ended. The tone was set. Dallas was going back to the Finals on a mission.

A Familiar Foe
If Mavs fans dreamed of making a run to the Finals as the 2010-11 season began, it might have been wise to anticipate a rematch with Miami after they assembled their three-headed monster in the offseason. LeBron James was the big national story, but to Dallasites, Dwayne Wade was the true enemy. Wade, not LeBron, took what we were so close to capturing in 2006. Wade, not LeBron, said Dirk wasn't the leader Dallas needed him to be after that series. Wade, not LeBrong James is who Dallas needed revenge against. But beating the self-proclaimed King in the process, that's just icing on the cupcake.

Wade quickly reminded Mavs fans of what they were up against in 2006, pushing the Heat to wins in Games 1 and 3. The Mavs had a chance to win Game 3, but Dirk's shot, his flamingo one-footed fadeaway didn't fall -- perhaps for the first time ever? -- and Miami led the NBA Finals, 2-1. The Mavs would need to win three of the next four games if they were going to validate the previous decade's streak of 50-win seasons and the franchise's entire existence with a championship.

Dirk's flu game in Game 4, followed by an offensive outburst for the first time in these Finals in Game 5 put the Mavs on the brink, one win away from a title for the first time ever.

Last night, June 12, 2011, the Dallas Mavericks finished the job. Dirk bounced back from a 1-for-12 first half in which Jason Terry dragged the Mavericks kicking and screaming to an improbable 60-57 halftime lead. The Big German shook off the cobwebs after the break for 18 second half points to achieve him dream, to help us as Mavs fans achieve a dream of all of ours. There's no need to go into overdrive on last night's Xs and Os for why Dallas won, but it was so very fitting that the one Mavericks aside from Dirk who made the Championship-clinching victory possible was the same Maverick who took so much heat - no pun intended - since his arrival in Dallas simply because, frankly, he wasn't Steve Nash. Jason Eugene Terry, the JET, finally took flight to new height, scoring a game-high 27 points as the Mavericks etched themselves into immortality as NBA Champions.

Forever the names of these Mavericks players will hold a special place in the heart of all Mavs fans. Dirk Nowitzki would have been remembered as the greatest Mav ever regardless. Now, it's just got a nicer ring to it (that time, yes, pun intended). Jason Terry is also now a Maverick-immortal. And the names of Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd, J.J. Barea, Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Peja Stojakovic, Brian Cardinal, Corey Brewer, Ian Mahinmi, and even Caron Butler along with head coach Rick Carlisle, this will forever be the group that got it done for Dallas. These are the ones who brought Larry O'Brien to Dallas. Their legacy, in our eyes as Mavs fans, is forever sealed. Much in the way I remembered Calvin Booth's contributions as a young Dallas team beat the veteran-laden Jazz in 2001 to begin this incredible journey, I will remember these players who came along a decade later for finishing the job.

The Dallas Mavericks are NBA Champions. If it means suffering through the types of 11- and 13-win seasons we had to endure in the early 90s, so be it. Because we will forever be able to look the rafters of the American Airlines Center to remember what was accomplished this year.

Long before Mark Cuban's marketing team coined the phrase, I was a Mavs fan for life. And today, I find myself living a dream.

Congratulations to the Dallas Mavericks, the 2011 NBA Champions, and thank you for rewarding our loyalties with your demonstration of class, dignity, and above all else, a title. This season will live into eternity.

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