Not Too Weary to Throw the Hat Again

When the Pistons vanquished the mighty Lakers in 2004, I’d never been as happy for a team I didn’t particularly care to watch. A motley collection of players, all of whom had been written off at various points in their careers, wrestled the trophy away from the defending champs when many assumed that the finals served little purpose other than enabling ABC to fill their time slots with something other than Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place. While the Pistons’ victory affirmed the ravings of numerous crotchety old white men who pined for basketballs forgotten “right way,” it more significantly illustrated how a group of flawed individuals can work together to overcome their weaknesses and attain their highest goals. Yet as the Pistons seem to be abandoning the principles that made them so great in the first place, out west, the Mavericks are poised to rise like the 2004 champs, but in a far more entertaining way.

Like the Pistons, so many of the Mavericks are castaways, a collection of albatrosses shipped out from moribund franchises. Jerry Stackhouse embodied the spirit of selfishness and indifference towards team success in his disappointing days in DC; Jason Terry’s talent was overshadowed by his uselessness in leading the Hawks towards anywhere but irrelevance; in my first post to FD, I called Desagana Diop, “Jabba the Hut with legs”. Josh Howard, like Tayshaun Prince, was a celebrated college player that most thought would never amount to anything more than that. Even Dirk Nowitzki, a player that embodies both the promise of the Euro and empty promise of the Euro, was not long ago considered too soft and too limited defensively to ever lead a team to a championship. After dumping their celebrated big three (save for one critical piece), the Mavericks, much like the Pistons before them, gathered the sparest of spare parts, and fashioned a juggernaut.

The Pistons of today strut with arrogance and a sense of entitlement, carrying themselves as if they earned the title in January but the Mavericks walk the way of the Pistons of old. While writers would superimpose their own puritanical values on the Pistons, in 2004, they didn’t seem to be trying to embody or represent anything; they simply knew the gargantuan task ahead of them and achieved with quiet confidence, dignity, and single-minded determination. Similarly, the Mavericks understand the significance of each game in this series and how difficult and momentous it would be to finally overcome the Spurs along with their own personal demons. Yet if the Lakers ultimately rolled over for the Pistons in 2004, the Spurs have ceded nothing to the Mavericks. Nearly every possession of this series has featured two exceptionally talented teams playing to their strengths and at the peak of their respective games. While I certainly don’t consider myself a Spurs fan, only a fool would fail to see how good they are and what it takes to topple them. This series truly has been basketball, regardless of one’s aesthetic predispositions, at its highest level.

Yet the Mavericks/Pistons similarities end there. The Mavericks succeed with a great offense and a defense that, though much improved, is still not something to be relied upon against the Spurs. However, the Mavs’ offense could not differ more from the beautiful controlled chaos of the Suns. Every Mavericks basket symbolizes nothing less than a slap in the face of “right way” basketball proponents. For years, players like Dirk, Terry, and Stack have been maligned for exhibiting characteristics like “playing me-first basketball” and “needing the ball to score.” Yet before us stands a real team constructed of the kind of players once thought to be incapable of existing within that paradigm. The essence of their teamwork lies not within their seamless functioning as one unit, but in their ability to take turns taking over the game. No one of these semistars can dominate a game in its entirety, but each one can carry the load for a short period of time and then exhaustedly pass the fate of the team to the next eager performer. Other Mavericks teams of similar construction have ultimately failed because their players cared more about shining than winning (see Walker, Antoine). This team differs because while each of its players can assume the mantle of “the man,” they know they can only succeed when they take turns with it.

In a way, this year’s Mavericks have become the true underdog story, in contrast to the Pistons of 2004. Many writers argued that, given the right environment, the Pistons’ core could win a title. That a crew of unselfish talents could win at the highest level is not beyond anyone’s reasoning capacity. Yet for a time, Stack, Terry, Diop, and Dampier represented everything wrong with the league, from selfishness to laziness. To see them succeed, and succeed as a team, shows us that there’s hope for every team and for every individual. For a long time, I despised Jerry Stackhouse for the way he played, but after years of bouncing from team to team as each one gave up on him, he seems to finally now understand how he can best help his team, and I can’t help but pull for and identify with him. I want him to succeed, so the same fool sportswriters won’t be able to say again, “I knew he couldn’t do it,” as if he hasn’t changed.

In my mind, the fact that this has been an offensively oriented series has made it so much more entertaining and exciting than any other. In any series with the Pistons, there’s a sense that possessions don’t matter as much; the Piston’s can usually assume if they don’t make a shot, they’ll simply make a defensive stop on the other end. Secondly, since defense is a team endeavor, there’s a kind of diffusion of responsibility among the individual players; since the whole team is accountable, there isn’t as much pressure on one given player.

The Mavericks know that they can never simply assume they’ll be able to stop the Spurs. Because of the nature of their offense, each possession requires a player to simply step up and take sole responsibility for what may be the difference between a win and a loss. In game four, Terry and Stack knew they had to score, knew the shots would be difficult, knew that if they missed, their team would fall and they’d be second guessed and criticized, and still hit shot after shot.

If we watch basketball in hopes of witnessing history or the repetition of biblical allegories, then look no further than Cavs-Pistons. Yet if we watch basketball in hopes of seeing the sport played at its best, where every player on the court faces seemingly overwhelming pressure of both the karmic and in-game variety, then keep the television on and go to work the next morning sleep deprived.


At 5/19/2006 11:36 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

the mavs are sort of like double underdogs, since there's no easy category they can get placed in and loved according to. their reputation depends solely on their ability to win or lose games; they can't fall back on being praised for "right way" teamwork or grit. that's what i find so fascinating about them--there's this tremendous urgency surrounding them because if they can't advance, it'll basically be forgotten that they were any good at all.

At 5/19/2006 12:36 PM, Blogger GentleWhoadie9000 said...

The advantage the Pistons had in '04 was that they were toiling in the era where the West was perceived as uber-dominant. Nobody in the East was supposed to be able to fuck with the Lakers, Spurs, Mavs or Kings. The P's had the rightgeous indignation that goes with underdog status. The Mavs have that to a certain degree, but they aren't written off merely for their geographic orientation.

People expect something from the Mavs. What that something is, nobody seems to be sure- but I think that they have been due for something out of character for a while now.

Also, Dirk is the Otto von Bismarck of 5-meter turnaround jumpers.

At 5/19/2006 1:11 PM, Blogger CrazyLegsBerg said...

That perception of the West was so powerfull that, as I remember it, even as I had been told over and over again by my boys that the Lakers wouldn't amount to anything in the playoffs, probably lose in round 1 to Houston, by the time they had run the table in the West it their finals to win or choke away. LA had some incredible moments just to advance in the West.

I didn't see anything in those finals that said the Pistons weren't the better team, yet every front page said the Lakers had choked.

It was great for Pistons fans. A better team and an underdog.

At 5/19/2006 1:39 PM, Blogger humbolt said...

Long time reader, first time poster...

Love y'all's writing, but I have to disagree, there is no way the Mavericks should be considered an underdog. They are a great team, but this is not a David v. Goliath story in the least.

They are a 60+ win team that was just a couple of wins away from the top seed and homecourt advantage. They are in the playoffs every year, and most of the media people whose make it their job to predict these things had them winning the series with the Spurs in 6.

Jerry Stackhouse led the league in scoring one year. Dirk is an all-NBA first teamer and an All Star every year. Jason Terry was the Hawk's best player for years.
They are well-coached and deep, and their centers, although not great, are at least better than Shawn Bradley. And while, to the shame of most every GM in the league, Josh Howard was the last pick in the first round, so was Tony Parker. Manu Ginobli and Gilbert Arenas, of course, were taken in the second round.

And, more importantly, to the cultural aspect of your blog, in no way is DALLAS an underdog city, like Detroit, New Orleans or even San Antonio. Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes, to quote Jimmy Dale Gilmore. It is the winningest city in Texas -- the home of big money and slicked back bible-belt entitlement. To give it's highly paid and well-treated franchise the moral might of underdog status is the cultural equivalent of tax cuts for the rich.

At 5/19/2006 2:17 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

mavs=perennial powerhouse that for some reason never gets any playoff love

dallas=chief shiny texas metropolis, still laughed at by the rest of the country

texas=cocksure, influential state that the union often distances itself from

maybe "underdog" isn't the right word, but certainly it's a marginal city/franchise when it's done everything to deserve the opposite. and at some point that catches up with you psychologically.

i also think this feeds into burns's theory--it's not a bunch of sublimated egos who have, on some level, accepted their limitations and decided to go the humble route. it's hired guns who have learned that, by orchestrating their outbursts, they can all remain individual (semi) stars. none of that spursian or pistonian confusion over who wear the horns.

At 5/19/2006 2:25 PM, Blogger Neil Scientist said...

I like the Mavs because they gel in Dirk's image of post-communist Germany, or classically corrupt nascent capitalist economies. Everybody is out to get his, and it works--the GNP and rims both swell, trade surplus gapes like recent grills. Eventually the infighting, backstabbing and corruption will tear it all apart (there will be a day when Terry and Harris will never be allowed on the floor at the same time), but when it meshes, it's a thing of decadent beauty. I've never been there, but is that what the city of Dallas is like too?

At 5/19/2006 2:30 PM, Blogger Neil Scientist said...

i guess that's sort of what shoals said while I was typing. But I'm insistent on this frontier capitalism thing...maybe it's significant that Dallas was the biggest show during the 80s in Romania. Ceausescu tried to spin it as a demonstration of America's polluted morality, but everyone just wanted the cars. There's got to be something apposite there.

At 5/19/2006 2:42 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

a certain authoritative texan source of mine is urging me to point out that the dallas of dallas is long gone. she's now suggesting to me that the racial polarity of the mavs (dirk as face of franchise vs. the entire new roster that's brought them this season) reflects the city's current state.

apparently it also has the seventh worse hs graduation rate of the country, with only one third of adults holding high school diplomas.

so while houston's urban decay may be better known/advertised, it also at the moment has more features of a legitimate city, and the possibility for growth as opposed to reeling from decline.

it's also worth noting that the mavs are mostly underdogs in their own city, where they will never, ever match the cowboys, or even the rangers if they ever made a stab at legitimacy.

At 5/19/2006 2:43 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i drew most of the really aggressive conclusions in that, for the record.

At 5/19/2006 2:50 PM, Blogger GentleWhoadie9000 said...

I don't really look at Dirk as a corrupt devil-may-care capitalist figure, but I do see him as the image of post-communist Germany. I see him as the kind of guy who, if not blessed with great height, would listen to a lot of Afu-Ra, speak pretty good English, smoke hash joints with tobacco in them and wear a Lacoste bucket hat cocked to the side. He'd probably do one of those national service foreign exchanges where he ends up playing for your high school soccer team and gettin' up with lots of rich girls who find him exotic.

Dirk also listens to lots of Tresor.

At 5/19/2006 2:52 PM, Blogger Mirabeau Lamar said...


Your analogy to Romania was a thing of beauty. Dallas the city is indeed much like your description.


True dat. The demographic shift in the former symbol of baroque, white Texan power is beginning to rise to the surface. The city elected a Hispanic lesbian as sherrif in '04 and almost went for Kerry. The days of the oil boom with longhorns on the caddies are becoming obsolete. Cuban might be an interesting study for the new Dallas, at least his politics and flippant attitude toward the old order.

At 5/19/2006 2:58 PM, Blogger GentleWhoadie9000 said...

I have to be honest here and admit that Dirk has long been my favorite NBA player. This is in large part due to how rediculous he was in NBA2K2 for dreamcast. He could do absolutely anything he wanted, including have sex with Wally Szczerbiak's mother at center court. Also, my stacatto exclaimation of "Dirk!" everytime he laid it down on Jesse's poorly chosen, Baron Davis fetishized Hornet's squad- well, let's just say it struck fear in the hearts of men.

And furthermore, did anybody notice how, despite a few years of star status, Dirk was never quoted or interviewed until like 18 months ago?

At 5/19/2006 2:59 PM, Anonymous jack said...

In relating politics to the association, Kerry is just as play-the-right-way as Bush, he just happened to play the right way and lose. Cuban is a rich white male in the style of his predecessors, and if this Dallas team is loved and successful, it's because of Avery's defense-wins-championships, play-the-right-way mantra. Substitute Duncan for Dirk, and this team is as fundamentally despicable as the spurs.

At 5/19/2006 3:08 PM, Blogger GentleWhoadie9000 said...


I will say no more.

At 5/24/2006 6:00 AM, Blogger Monticello said...

"I have to be honest here and admit that Dirk has long been my favorite NBA player. This is in large part due to how rediculous he was in NBA2K2 for dreamcast."

I have been a Mavs follower, and a Dirk follower, ever since the "big three" came together... but HELL YES. My games were played on PS2, but the utter dominance of Dirk Nowitzki in NBA2K2 is one of the most underrated electronic sports game stories ever. People love to talk about TecmoBo and MaddenVick, but I'm telling you... you could legitimately outscore entire teams with Dirk alone. I averaged 44ppg with him over a full season one time. God, memories.


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