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Playing Some Big O In Big D

The torrid Dallas Mavericks have shot and scored their way to the lead in the NBA's Midwest Division

Aw, shoot. That's Texan for "there is no quick fix." You've heard it before, especially if you've visited Dallas lately. Aw, shoot, the Cowboys have gone south. Aw, shoot, somebody blew the whistle at SMU. Aw, shoot, there's an oil glut. Aw, shoot, the Mavericks lost to the Los Angeles Lakers again, 112-104, at The Forum on Friday night. Aw, shoot. That's right. That's the spirit. Just keep on shooting, Dallas. You've got the Mavs to keep you company all winter.

The Mavericks believe in shooting. In fact the Mavs are among the shootingest teams in the NBA, hot pistoleros whose only curse is that they're still a little wet behind the trigger fingers. But save your sympathy for the Cowboys. The Mavericks are no quick fix. Last season they were second in the NBA in scoring with 115.3 points per game, despite an almost nonexistent fast break. This year the Mavericks lead the NBA in scoring with 117.3 points per game, and the lowest field goal percentages among their starters belong to top guns Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman (the two were shooting a combined .501 as of Sunday). Aguirre and Blackman didn't help their average by shooting 11 for 31 against the Lakers. "Our big guns weren't into it," said coach Dick Motta. "Mark didn't want it tonight. Ro had five turnovers. Unusual. He's not a turnover player."

"We won't have eight nights like this all year," said Aguirre. Blackman agreed: "One bad night. But we have a whip here. We won't sweat one game."

Certainly no need for sweat, not when you can put up numbers like the Mavs can. Sandwiched around their loss to the Lakers were games in which Dallas shot the lights out in Sacramento and edged the Kings 127-124, and beat the Golden State Warriors 109-104 on Saturday night in Oakland. The win over the Warriors was the 66th consecutive game in which Dallas has been in triple figures. "We can really shoot," says Motta, who, in his 19th year in the NBA, is about to get noticed as a coach again, and not just because he sometimes crosses his fingers when a Maverick puts one up from the scorer's table. Aw, shoot, Dick. Don't sweat it. It's going down.

It's not just Aguirre and Blackman that the rest of the NBA has to worry about. It's all those other guys who have helped to build Dallas's 12-6 record and 1½-game lead in the NBA Midwest Division—and who make the Mavs a team of the future that can play today. It's point guard Derek Harper, who leads the team in assists and has great shooting range. "And he's a thief on defense, besides," says Blackman. It's 6'9" forward Sam Perkins (.530 from the field), who stalks the offensive perimeter, adjusting his bombsight and looking for the 18- to 25-footers he can hoist—and make—without hesitation. It's Detlef Schrempf, Aguirre's West German caddie, who leads the league with an impossible three-point field goal percentage of .625.

Still, in the last two minutes Aguirre and Blackman are the ones that Motta wants to see punching passes in a two-man game, with the 6'6", 232-pound Aguirre using that mountainous derriere to control the low block and absorbing the ball with hands that wear a size 14 ring. "Mark is a monster down there," says the 6'6" Blackman, who can move furiously off a great pivot foot, squaring himself to the basket while Aguirre is settling down low. "If you're on D, which one do you want?" Blackman asks. "Me or Mark? I don't think you want either."

Unless you're the Lakers. The Mavs have lost twice this season to the Riders of the Purple Break, and they lost four out of six to L.A. in last year's playoffs. "It always happens that way," said Perkins. "We just let them get away." The Lakers, however, have taken note. "Dallas is tougher than Houston," said Magic Johnson after his 27 points, 10 assists and 8 boards sent the Mavs away mumbling. "You know Houston is going down low. With Dallas, you have to play everybody."

Blackman and Aguirre combined for 61 against the Kings and 38 against the Warriors. Against the Lakers? Aw, shoot. Only 27. But sooner or later, Ro and Aguirre, the Muffin Man, will figure out that they can shoot it in front of Jack Nicholson just like they shoot it in front of everybody else.

But do Harper, Perkins, Schrempf, James Donaldson, rookie Roy Tarpley and Al Wood have enough starch in their wrists to keep the Mavs close, so that Blackman and Aguirre can shoot them into—or out of—the NBA finals? The Lakers of Abdul-Jabbar and the Rockets of Olajuwon will have something to say about that. The 55-year-old Motta has never had a dominant center like those in L.A. and Houston, and he has the character lines in his face to prove it. But boy, can he condition a team and get a shot for a shooter. At times, though, his dry wit is lost on the latter. After Aguirre scored 32 no-sweat points in the Mavs' win at Sacramento, Motta said, "Everybody on the team has the green light. Except Mark." Motta laughed. It was a pleasant joke. Aguirre, sitting on the floor close by, made a muted laughing sound. He found it only mildly amusing. No love lost? No doubt, but some things were meant to be. "I can get my shot," Aguirre said later. "Nothing [that Motta] and I have gone through has caused me a problem on the court. Sure, it's no fun being thought of as trade bait, especially when you think you've done a lot for an organization. But Dick wants to win. I can help. So that's the bottom line."

"Mark is a unique individual," Motta says. "He's a bleeping genius. And most geniuses are bleeped up. They hear different drummers."

It has been a sad year for Aguirre, whose mother, Mary, died of cancer on June 27. "It let me know how short life is," he says. Once the Pagliacci of the baseline, wearing his heart on his wristband, Aguirre now plays with a deadpan grace. Still, his mother's name is printed on his size 13½ sneakers.

"His mother was so young [41], it was like Mark lost three people—a mother, a sister and a friend," says Dallas general manager Norm Sonju. The Mavs' owner, Donald Carter, had watched his own mother die of cancer just a few weeks before Aguirre's. Sonju says that the day before Mary Aguirre died, Carter asked that Aguirre be pulled off the trading block and out of a deal that would have sent him to the Lakers (along with Tarpley and throw-ins) for James Worthy.

In the end, the Mavs got to keep Tarpley, a seven-footer and another dead-eyed shooter, but they still lack a dominant big man—although you'd have a hard time convincing some people that the 7'2", 272-pound Donaldson isn't dominant, especially after he has set a pick on them. Donaldson, who came from the L.A. Clippers last year, is Motta's seventh starting center in the coach's seven years in Dallas. Suddenly, even Donaldson can shoot; his free throw percentage is .902. "My whole action at the line is the same," he says. "But I've gone from 65 percent to 90.1 can't explain it."

"We're very pleased with James, but with all the first-round picks we had, we felt sure we'd get Olajuwon or Ewing," Motta says. What Dallas got instead was Schrempf (rhymes with nothing), the eighth pick in the year of the Ewing lottery. "In terms of development, he's only a college sophomore," says Motta. "If he wants to be an All-Star, he will be."

Like Blackman, a native of Panama, and Olajuwon, from Nigeria, Schrempf played soccer as a youth. He ran on the pitches of Leverkusen, West Germany, near the Rhine, and didn't take up basketball until he was 13. Four years later he was an exchange student near Seattle, and he eventually ended up playing ball for the University of Washington.

"I basically started playing basketball to make friends," Blackman says of the years after he left soccer and Panama City for the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Schrempf played hoops because he had grown to love the game, an affection unsullied by all that American babble about the white man's disease. "I couldn't really jump when I came from Germany," says Schrempf. "I planned to stay only one year. But I desired to play basketball. So I played rat ball, all the time. I just played and played."

Now Schrempf is a magnificent leaper, the best dunker in Dallas. The Mavs traded Dale Ellis and Jay Vincent, more than 3,000 veteran minutes, to ensure Schrempf's playing time. He has filled those minutes with 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds a game. He jumps so well he sometimes leaps right into trouble, as he did in the Mavs' 119-94 drubbing of New Jersey on Nov. 28 when he was cut out of the air on a drive by Leon Wood and landed hard on his back. Perhaps Wood, who fancies himself a great three-point shooter, had seen the sheet on Schrempf, who at the time was 7 for 10 from three-point heaven. But jumping and shooting rainbows hardly define Schrempf's limits. With a full complement of evasive dribbles, he has even played point guard for Motta. "Detlef plays like an inner-city player," says Sonju. "Being from Germany, he never heard how white guys were supposed to play. So he emulated the players he liked—Dr. J, Magic."

"I like the full-court game," says the 6'10", 214-pound Schrempf. "But I'm trying to gain weight, be like Mark down low. Once you have confidence and the green light, there are no limitations."

"Detlef is going to be a great player," says Motta. "He has that German thing—everything has to be perfect or you see it on his face. Cut open his head and little basketballs would fall out. I used to say Ro was the most self-critical player I've had. Now, I think it's Detlef. When Detlef can come off a pick at 100 miles an hour and release the shot like Ro, he'll be great, too."

Hey, maybe Dallas could also be great. True, the Mavs might be a year or two away from the NBA finals. But then, they might be only a few months away. Aw, shoot. Either way, they've got a good shot.



Some say the Mavs lack a dominant center, but try telling that to the guys who have hooked up with the 7'2", 272-pound Donaldson (40).



At crunch time, the Mavs bank on a red-hot Blackman.



Aguirre, the Muffin Man, has snaked and baked his way to a robust 23.8 scoring average.



Schrempf has quickly proved himself a great leaper, though there were times when the Lakers had him looking more like a yo-yo.



[See caption above.]