Dallas Maverick second-year forward Popeye Jones is a hard-nosed re-bounder, but lately he has been a softhearted film critic. Jones, whose videotaped movie reviews (also featuring teammate Tony Dumas) are shown on the Reunion Arena scoreboard during the first quarter of Maverick home games, can make Ace Ventura: Pet Detective sound like Citizen Kane. Through the first 10 home games of the season, he had not given a film fewer than four hoops, and he had accorded such previously unappreciated works as Major League II his highest honor, the coveted five hoops.
Jones insists he doesn't give everything a rave. "Last year I got booed for not liking City Slickers," he says. "You have to be tough to give a bad review to a western in Dallas." But he has clearly been easier to please this season, which isn't surprising. After last year's debacle of defeat and dissension, Jones and the rest of the Mavericks are simply in a better mood these days. Their 9-7 record at week's end wasn't cause to start printing playoff tickets, but it did indicate that the Mavs are competitive again, and after a 24-140 record over the past two seasons and a near mutiny under coach Quinn Buckner last year, that's no small accomplishment.
The 1993-94 Dallas highlight film could have been entitled Nights of the Living Dead, but this season It's a Wonderful Life would be more appropriate, thanks to some key changes in the Mavericks' cast and crew. First the Mavs brought in a new director: Dick Motta, Dallas's coach during its glory years in the mid-1980s, returned to replace Buckner. Then rookie point guard Jason Kidd, the second overall pick of the '94 draft, arrived to punch up the Mavs' script and turn their games into action adventures, to the delight of their two leading men, second-year forward Jamal Mashburn and third-year guard Jim Jackson. And some old stars returned in key supporting roles: Roy Tarpley came back from a three-year suspension for repeated violations of the league drug policy to provide a potent backup at power forward, and retired Maverick standouts Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackmail helped lay the groundwork for Motta's solid relationship with Mashburn and Jackson. The moves have helped Dallas become, as film critic Jones might say, the feel-good hit of the season.
"It's unbelievable how much better things are than last year," says Mashburn, who prevailed over stiff competition for Most Miserable Maverick honors last season. "There's a big weight off everyone's shoulders, and it's showing up in the way we play."
No one has played better than Mashburn, 22, and Jackson, 24, both of whom were among the top five in scoring at week's end and each of whom has already turned in a 50-point performance, only the sixth time in NBA history that teammates have scored 50 or more in a game during the same season. Mashburn's 50 came in a 124-120 overtime win in Chicago on Nov. 12. Jackson's came two weeks later in another overtime road victory, 124-123 over the Denver Nuggets, in which the Mavericks erased a 25-point Denver lead. That was the Mavs' most impressive win of the year until Dec. 6, when they came up with yet another overtime road triumph, a 124-121 win over the San Antonio Spurs. Motta's youthful nucleus made most of the clutch plays: Mashburn (34 points) and Jackson (28) took care of the scoring, Jones (17 rebounds) handled the board work, and Kidd (10 points, 13 assists, five steals and seven rebounds) made contributions that mere numbers couldn't describe.
The most memorable of those came with the Mavericks trailing the Spurs 112-111 with 22.4 seconds left in regulation. Kidd deflected a San Antonio inbounds pass and outran Spur forward J.R. Reid to the ball as it bounced toward the end of the court. Kidd leaped, grabbed the ball and, just as he reached the end line, had the presence of mind not only to call time before his feet came down out of bounds but also to make sure that he signaled for a timeout of the 20-second variety, because he knew the Mavs had no full timeouts left. Try putting that in a box score. Mashburn hit a free throw on the ensuing possession to send the game into overtime.
"Jason is one of those guys you have to see every night to really appreciate," says Jackson. "You might see a couple of his great passes on the highlights, and you might see a triple double in the stats, but you won't see all the quiet, little plays he makes that help a team win."
Kidd, 21, has quickly erased most of the doubts in Dallas about his talent and his character. He survived a difficult off-season that included a paternity suit (he acknowledged being the father and pays monthly child support), another suit by a woman who accused him of slapping her at a party (due to lack of evidence, no charges were filed) and an auto accident in which he left the scene before police arrived (Kidd pleaded no contest to hit-and-run and speeding charges, for which he was fined $1,000 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service and two years court probation). He also irritated Motta by missing an off-season minicamp he had promised to attend. By the time he discovered that his new Chevy Suburban had been stolen from the parking lot of a Dallas hotel on Sept. 5, the theft must have seemed like a minor inconvenience. "The last few months were tough, but I think I came through them pretty well," he says. "I just wanted to get on the court with this team and hoped that people would give me the chance to show them what kind of player and person I am."
Maverick fans have liked what they've seen on both counts. Kidd's glaring weakness is his outside shot, but he more than compensates for his suspect jumper with his passing and defense. Away from the court Kidd has been on his best behavior—he probably leads the league in "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs"—and has even gone out of his way to say good night to the Mavs' ball boys before he leaves the arena after a game. But the best example of his goodwill has been his willingness to share the basketball. "I'd like to be playing with him," Motta says of Kidd. "Every time he got the ball, I'd be busting my butt down the court with my eyes open and my hands ready."
At 63 Motta won't be lacing up his hightops anytime soon, but he's not a dinosaur incapable of communicating with a new generation of players, as some critics of his hiring contended. Motta doesn't try to downplay the generation gap. While recently wearing a multicolored leather jacket with a profane message emblazoned on the back, forward-center Terry Davis glanced over his shoulder and saw Motta straining to make out the words. "You're too old to be reading this, Coach," Davis said. "Take one more step," Motta said, "and I won't be able to."
Motta uses his age to his advantage, correctly surmising that the youthful Mavs—at an average age of 24.75, they are the second youngest team in the league, senior only to the Los Angeles Clippers—need a father figure more than they need a big brother. After coaching four NBA teams over 22 seasons and winning a championship with the Washington Bullets in 1978, he has a been-there, done-that demeanor that suggests that nothing his young, unpredictable players might do would faze him. "The last time I was surprised," he says, "was when I was coaching at Weber State and my star forward came to me and told me he had a case of...." Well, you probably don't want to know what he had a case of. The point is, says Mashburn, "no matter what situation comes up, you know that he has been through it before and knows how to handle it. He has confidence, and that gives us confidence."
That's the quality that Motta was most concerned with nurturing when he took over the Mavericks again. "Their ego is eggshell thin right now," he says. "The last thing they need is a tyrant or an ogre." So far he has made all the right psychological moves. Against Denver the night of Jackson's 50-point outburst, the Mavs played a horrid first half that ended when a length-of-the-court inbounds pass by the Nuggets went through Dallas center Donald Hodge's hands and into the hands of Denver's Rodney Rogers, who laid the ball in at the buzzer. The Mavericks went into the locker room ready to be chewed out. Motta walked in, looked at the players in the silent locker room for a moment and then turned to Hodge. "They give you an assist on that?" he asked. Tension broken.
There was a time when Motta would have seemed the least likely person to lead the Mavericks back to respectability. He had taken Dallas from 15 wins in 1980-81, its first season as an expansion team, to 55 wins and a Midwest Division title in 1986-87. Then 20 days after a first-round upset loss to Seattle in the '87 playoffs and with other coaching possibilities beckoning, Motta abruptly announced his resignation in what was supposed to have been a routine interview session with reporters; he hadn't warned anyone in the organization, including his friend Maverick owner Donald Carter. "That hurt me as much as anything has ever hurt me," Carter says. "He should never have left, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be allowed to come back."
Carter brought Motta, who had coached the Sacramento Kings and done TV color work since leaving Dallas, back as a consultant midway through last season, hoping that Buckner would at least adopt facets of Motta's forward-oriented offense and thus improve his relationship with Mashburn. When that didn't work, Carter reluctantly fired Buckner at the end of the season and asked Motta for a list of recommended replacements. Motta submitted the names of NBA coaching veterans Matt Guokas, Gar Heard and Phil Johnson, but at the top of Motta's list was Dick Motta. His return is an unspoken apology to Carter for leaving. At the same time he wants to prepare his top assistant, longtime Maverick point guard Brad Davis, to take over as coach in a few years.
Motta enlisted two of his former players, Aguirre and Blackman, to talk to Mashburn and Jackson during the off-season. The two ex-Mavericks assured the two current ones that they were getting a solid coach who would take advantage of their strengths. Aguirre told Mashburn that as a forward in Motta's offense—the same one in which Bob Love, Chet Walker, Elvin Hayes and Aguirre himself had thrived—he would "get so many shots his arm would fall off."
One of the most surprising things about the Mavericks' strong start is that they have done it with a relatively small contribution from the 7-foot Tarpley. He was a rising star after five years in the NBA when he was suspended in 1991. He then played in the CBA, the USBL and Greece before the NBA reinstated him in September on the condition that he participate in the league's aftercare program, which includes frequent drug testing. Now, at 30, Tarpley is averaging 12.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in 23.2 minutes a game. But he rarely resembles the player who was a dominant inside scorer and shot-blocker in his first tour of NBA duty. He's thicker around the middle and less explosive around the basket than he once was. "I'm not back to where I want to be," he admits, "but I'll get there."
The same could be said of the Mavs in general. They still have a hole at center, where the starter is 6'9", 200-pound Lorenzo Williams, a veteran of the USBL and the CBA who was waived five times in the NBA before catching on in Dallas. And after Tarpley, the bench is suspect, as is the outside shooting. Even Jones, the kindly reviewer, couldn't justify giving the Mavs five hoops just yet. But wait a year or two. The sequel could be a huge hit.
Only 21 and already the Mavs' floor leader, Kidd usually has his hands, as well as his eye, on the ball.
The new, mellower Motta has used his old, forward-oriented offense to get Mashburn more shots.
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Jackson, who like Mashburn owns a 50-point game this season, has been a penetrating presence.