Jay Vincent limped into Dallas' Reunion Arena on a strained left knee, before a Maverick shootaround. Two nights earlier he had limped to 23 points in 37 minutes against the Houston Rockets. Indeed, on the night he suffered the injury—almost a month ago, late in the first half of a game against the New York Knicks—he had scored 40 points, shooting nine-for-nine from the field in the third quarter. The knee needed rest, but Vincent said, "I'd prefer not to sit out now...if you know what I mean."
We know. Before breaking a bone in his right foot last Dec. 9, fellow rookie Forward Mark Aguirre was averaging 23.6 points a game and was a contender for Rookie of the Year—a position Vincent now shares with Buck Williams, Kelly Tripucka and Isiah Thomas. Averaging 26.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in the 39 games he's started since Aguirre was injured, Vincent has been virtually unstoppable.
Except by Aguirre. In his first full workout after returning from his injury, Mark was the player on the floor most sought after by the media. For Vincent the scene brought back familiar memories, but nothing to be concerned with at present. Aguirre is coming off the bench and still not playing at peak efficiency, and when he does begin to cook it may be on a back burner to Vincent. "You can forget about playing team defense when you guard Vincent," says the Knicks' Campy Russell, who tried to guard him when he popped for 40. "You're too busy to help out on other players." Especially when the other players are intent upon getting the ball to Vincent. "Jay's been my meal ticket because he helps me so much," says Allan Bristow, a nine-year veteran who is second in assists behind Boston's Larry Bird among NBA non-guards. "Teams are so worried about him inside that they don't play me tough outside. That just gives me an easier lane to pass the ball to Jay. I could take that shot, but I know I'm never going to lead the league in scoring [he averages seven points a game]. If Jay can hit 70% of the time he gets the ball around the basket, then why not give it to him?"
At 6'7", 230 pounds, Vincent is already one of the NBA's best power forwards. "I'm effective from anywhere in the post," he says. "I don't think anyone can stop me from four feet on in. They either let me score or foul me."
It's hard to believe now, but Vincent wasn't the Mavericks' first choice for a hired gun. Or the second. Much to his chagrin, Aguirre and Guard Rolando Blackman were picked ahead of him. Vincent was the Mavs' first choice in the second round, the 24th player picked overall. He was so sure he'd be taken in the first round that on the day of the draft he invited about 15 friends to his home in Lansing, Mich. to what he thought would be an early celebration. "It was heartbreak time," Vincent says. "All the fellas were trying to cheer me up, but there was just no cheer there."
Maverick Coach Dick Motta, who had considered taking Vincent with the ninth pick in the first round but instead chose Blackman, was happy to find Vincent available on the second round. Motta was also surprised to see Elston Turner of Mississippi, who has become his starting off-guard, available on the second. Dallas quickly grabbed him, too, although by now Motta was doubting himself. "We'd gotten four players we thought very highly of when we expected only two. I began to wonder if there were some flaws in our scouting system."
Motta wasn't assuaged when he saw Vincent work out in Dallas' preseason rookie camp. While Aguirre was playing like the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Turner and Brad Davis were reviving memories of Motta's Chicago backcourt combination of Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier, Vincent was sluggish and overweight. "He was a disappointment at first, not in his ability but in his attitude," Motta says. "He said he was upset about the draft, but he came in too heavy to show why it was wrong."
"We just didn't get along at first," Vincent says of Motta. "It was like I was over here and he was over there." As Aguirre got off to his scintillating early start, Vincent struggled. Limited to about 19 minutes a game, Vincent was acting as if "it was the last 19 minutes I'd ever get," he says. "I thought the world would end if I didn't score 20 points or get 30 rebounds."
As much as anything else it was a "little thing" that made a believer out of Motta. Against Milwaukee on Jan. 20, Vincent took an elbow that left him with a nasty gash over his right eye, requiring four stitches. Before the game had ended, though, Vincent was back in the lineup. Perhaps the medical attention inspired the nickname Doctor Jay, but Vincent objected. "It just didn't sound right," he says. "It would be like calling another player the Iceman."
With all due respect to Lamont Cranston, the Shadow would be a perfect nickname for Vincent. Whether fighting for recognition or fighting on the street, Vincent has always lived in the shadows. As one of six brothers growing up in Lansing, Jay was off limits for the neighborhood bullies. When not protecting each other from the wolves, the Vincent siblings competed for the attention of their parents, Sylvester, who died in 1972, and Ella.
In basketball Jay developed from a park player whose repertoire consisted of nothing but hook shots ("I'd hook from the free-throw line, from the top of the key, from anywhere") to perhaps the best schoolboy player in the history of Lansing. "Perhaps" because he had a great rival, name of Earvin (later known as Magic) Johnson. "The first time we played against each other I was in the third grade at Holmes Street School, and he played for Main Street," Vincent recalls. "His team beat ours by a point, and afterward everyone wanted to fight him because he had brought the only scorekeeper; ours was sick."
From that potential rumble a friendship was born. When they weren't competing against each other, Jay and Magic were often teammates, first starring on a peewee football team. But the real battles were on the basketball floor.
Let the record show that Johnson's Everett High team beat Vincent's Eastern High in both games their sophomore year and all three the next season. Eastern finally won a year later but lost twice more, including 86-79 in overtime. In that game, Vincent scored 25 points with 13 rebounds and four assists. Magic's numbers were 45, 30 and 15.
It was almost as if the two were playing strictly against each other instead of for their teams. Everett went all the way in the state tournament and Johnson was the hero. "People said I should wait until Magic committed to a school, then choose somewhere else, but I didn't want to do that," Vincent says. Typically, he declared for Michigan State two weeks before Johnson. In their sophomore year, along with Greg Kelser, another illustrious player and future pro, the Spartans won the NCAA title. But Vincent, who had suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during a second-round game against Lamar, played sparingly.
Although still hobbled the next season, Vincent led the Big Ten in scoring with a 22.1 average. In the off-season he had electrodes implanted to help the foot heal, and he again led the conference as a senior, with a 24.1 average, and was UPI's Big Ten Player of the Year.
After that championship season, all the Magic had left the Spartans and Vincent was in the shadows again, where he would remain until Aguirre's injury gave him room to strut his stuff. Not coincidentally, Vincent's rise parallels that of the Mavericks themselves. After a 1-13 start, Dallas has gone 18-28, and 30 victories appears an attainable goal. And Motta's Great Experiment, combining Vincent with Aguirre at forward, may yet prove to be successful. "I think these two can go down in history with Chet Walker and Bob Love or Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge," Motta says, referring to the matched forwards he coached in Chicago and Washington. "Before Mark came back, Jay was the only true scorer we had. People don't know which is the small forward and which is the power forward, but that's O.K. In Chicago we'd flip a coin before each game to decide that."
Motta knows whereof he speaks. In a game on Dec. 5 against Denver, Aguirre scored 26 points to Vincent's 25. Everyone scores against the Nuggets, but Vincent and Aguirre feel they'll be able to do it to the best of 'em. As soon as Aguirre gets untracked, that is. On the Thursday of his first home game since returning, against Golden State, Aguirre was the one pressing, mishandling the ball and going one-for-eight from the field. "I was trying to do too much too quickly," he said. "I've never had to deal with something like this before." Perhaps he can get a few lessons from Jay Vincent, who's an old hand at that game.
Vincent imperative: Let me score or foul me.