I love how our favorite sports movies inevitably involve the triumph of the underdog. Rudy. Hoosiers. The Water Boy. Victory. (That bunch of POWs escaping in WWII by playing soccer against the guards as a ruse movie, where though they had Pele, he wasn’t violating time-space by being Pele in 1944. He was just Pele playing some dude who turned out to be as good as Pele).
It’s a theme we all seem to be able to agree on. And then we go back to ‘real world rooting’, which inevitably involves dealing with the legion of Lakers, Yankees, Manchester United and Chelsea fans, all of whom claim to have supported those teams ‘when they sucked’, most of whom are lying. I know this because
- As a serial supporter of ‘almost there but never going to quite make it there’ teams and athletes, the mid 90s Lakers ‘slump’ was at best a brief aberration. In fact, to some fan bases, those Lakers results would still count as momentous achievements.
- If you’re a Chelsea supporter under the age of 35 and you have no geographic links to the area of London they’re from, I mean, come on. You really expect people to believe you rooted for the Graham Spencer / Gavin Peacock teams? Like really?
- Manchester United has not sucked since at least 1989. Seriously.
I have these flashbacks where I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if I had just ‘sold out’ and chosen to support present day championship caliber teams. But nooooo. I bought into the ‘underdogs can make it if they have heart’ koolaid and latched my own thwarted ambitions on to teams that played entertainingly and had players who showed heart. The disappointment never gets old.
Spring of 2003. I try to explain to a friend the kind of gratification I got watching the early 2000s Sacramento kings teams and how Bobby Jackson was probably my favorite player on that team cos I thought he played with the most heart (I know…). She looked at me funny and said ‘what kind of reason is that for supporting a player?!’
Post-1980s Tottenham Hotspur fan? Don’t even get me started. Don’t trust this guy with your money or your kids’ futures. What a retard. Oops.
Thankfully the people you root for do sometimes finally grab at the second chances life throws their way. Peyton Manning finally got over the hump and won one in the 2006 season, making it back to the Superbowl three years later. I sure would have liked to have been aware of and rooting for John Elway back in the day (a Stanford guy who’s clutch!)
Even Tottenham Hotspur won a couple shitty cups along the way and finally made the Champions League last season, resulting in me caring about the Champions League for the first time in my life.
And last week, at the end of an improbable playoff run that hardly anyone gave them much of a chance in, the Dallas Mavericks finally won the NBA championship and exorcised the ghosts of their 2006 meltdown to the Heat.
I should say that geographically, I have no links to the aforementioned teams. But I’m huge on people fulfilling their potential and earning a shot at redemption. I’m just a sucker for second chance stories. And I of course wasn’t alone in cherishing these sentiments. And as the Mavs got deeper and deeper in the playoffs, it finally dawned on me how many second chancers there were on that team and in that organization. All of this is common knowledge but regardless, here goes my hurry up tribute to the Mavs’ redeem team.
The players and staff
- Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, owner Mark Cuban: These were the 3 guys left over from the 2006 Mavs (probably Donnie Nelson too?). After watching folks like Dirk and Steve Nash (who regrettably was not part of either the 2006 or 2011 Mavs finals teams) get on with excelling and leading without the ego trips, it’s hard to not root for them to finally get their championship ring. For Dirk to do this by getting mentally tougher, developing a post-up game, and closing out really tight games throughout the playoffs is just a joy to behold. I’ve previously written about learning more from Jason Terry than from many other “experts” in leadership positions and I continue to think it’s true. And as for Mark Cuban, apart from admiring his sharp thinking as a blogger and businessman, this win for the Mavs also takes me back to when I first learned about Cuban’s ownership style through his multiple tirades and record fines. Besides the sheer entertainment he’s provided as an individual, his ability to build a great team and organization to win for the long term (the Mavs have something like 11 straight seasons of 50-plus wins) has also been remarkable. And as noted by many media observers, this time round, he kept his comments to himself and let his team do the talking. Overall, a much deserved reprieve for Cuban, Dirk and JET.
- Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd: These guys and Steve Nash all played for the Suns and Mavs, who had their own heated rivalry of sorts going on earlier in the decade. For Marion, it’s his first finals and first ring. Interesting that he should be the one out of the core group of him, Nash, and Amare Stoudemire from the mid decade Seven Seconds or Less Suns teams, but very much deserved too. Always a versatile player, Marion upped his game at this stage of his career, defending well on the wings and carrying the Dallas offense through some dry spells. As for Kidd, I remember the early 2000s Nets teams he was on (as well as my Jersey friends who would go, “Yay! We don’t suck anymore!”). Those Nets teams were never quite good enough to really challenge the Lakers and Spurs teams they met in the finals but you could perhaps make the case that this Mavs team wasn’t that much stronger or that much of a shoo-in either. Kidd did much more than just land on a stacked team as a crusty veteran, rediscovering his shot and getting it done on defense. After spending a long career making his teammates better, he thoroughly deserves this one, too.
- Peja Stojakovic (kinda vs Mike Bibby): So yeah, how bout those old players from the early 2000s Kings teams? First, I learned the Mavs had signed Peja at some point. Then I realized Bibby had signed with the Heat. So when both teams made the finals, it occurred to me that no matter what happened, one member of that old Kings team would win a ring. Wonder what C-Webb was thinking watching from the studios (and if he did say something, we have ESPN Asia here so I couldn’t have caught it anyway, sorry…) There was the old Peja heats up in an early round game thing when the Mavs swept the Lakers. And maybe it was for the best that he didn’t play much in the finals, else good old not quite so clutch Peja might have stolen some moments. Apparently John Hollinger’s analysis says Bibby has some historically crappy playoff PERs (player efficiency ratings). Guess it was past his time, but hey, he got to play in the finals.
- Coach Rick Carlisle: I remember Carlisle taking the Pistons and Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals some years back and then getting booted shortly after. And there was nothing he could have done about the Palace of Auburn Hills melee. More informed observers of the game have raved about his great coaching adjustments in these finals but again, given his personnel and the Mavs’ historic defensive deficiencies, this has to rank as a pretty sweet accomplishment. Together with Dirk and Kidd’s wins as players, he’s ensured that he won’t end up on lists of best coaches not to win a championship.
- Brian Cardinal, Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson: Chandler and Barea were key starters for this Mavs team but in general, the theme of redemption runs really strong with this group of players even though none of them played in the 2006 finals. Barea has been around the Mavs for awhile but his points in the paint, “little guy” dribble penetration, and that iconic and-one off the Andrew Bynum flagrant won’t be forgotten for awhile. Much has been made about Chandler’s defensive intensity and how much he gained from this Team USA Olympics experience. I think we should extend the trip down memory lane and remember he was once a young, out of high school seven footer next to Eddy Curry (!) who we weren’t sure would make it. Stevenson makes the list for his 3 triples in Game 6 (oh and hey, he and Brendan Haywood have now won rings after being the less heralded players around Arenas, Jamison and Butler in those Wizards teams). Brian Cardinal! Warriors fans shoutout! Big minutes and big charge taking on Dwayne Wade that may have further swung the series.
And here are some other (methinks) great reasons why this Mavs win was memorable in the sports ecosystem
- They swept the Lakers: Even if the Lakers were much more out of sync that anyone might have guessed, they were still the defending champs and people still expected THEM to sweep the Mavs out of the series. That the Mavs had to go through them and did so in such stunning fashion adds to the weight of this championship.
- They beat the Heat: There is obviously great redemption value here given that the Mavs had the opportunity to win one over the same team they collapsed against in 2006. But apart from that, there’s also of course the fact that this was a Heat team formed by “The Decision”. Personally I just took in The Decision as a neutral. And where LeBron had previously been much more of a media darling and supposedly had to confront being the villain this year, I had something of an opposite reaction. I have a little told story of running into LeBron in 2003 in Portland shortly before his NBA career began. He was with some friends in a department store and he joked then that he wasn’t LeBron. That was fine, but I always felt a little slighted by that. Then when people turned on him this summer (and obviously Cleveland fans have every right to feel betrayed), as a neutral, I thought, oh ok he’s not that irrationally popular anymore. Let’s see what him, Wade and Bosh can accomplish. Funny how sentiments work.
- Steve Nash couldn’t be along for the ride: There was this Bill Simmons podcast where Charles Barkley talked candidly about being on the shit list of the Greatest players never to win a ring. It’s really unfortunate that Steve Nash missed the boat so many times with the Suns. And of course him, Dirk, Finley, Van Exel; those were the guys who first helped the Mavs get it done. Here’s hoping he ends up somewhere good in the twilight of this career.
- Caron Butler didn’t play: Butler was the Mavs’ next best offensive weapon and they didn’t get to use him for the second half of the season. Oh well. He gets a ring, right?
- True team performance: As Rick Carlisle emphasized in many interviews, this was an old school team that wasn’t more athletic than their opponents but managed to conjure up a true team performance where the starters and a very prolific bench all chipped in and all had key moments. A very heartening sight.
- The role of owners in professional sports: I’ve already sung Cuban’s praises but what I find of note is that good owners in the NBA and NFL tend also to be good sports businessmen. This is probably in part because they’re forced to work with salary caps, and probably also because they’re red in the tooth American capitalists. But no one said you couldn’t have great leagues and great performances while being fiscally sound. Ahem, European football, any takers?
- Jason Terry embodies (quite literally) a lesson from motivation 101: Jason Terry had a tattoo of the championship trophy on his bicep done at the start of the season. Amazingly the Mavs made it all the way and he now gets to keep that tattoo there. But hey, as a motivational strategy, this would be way up there as an extreme but ultimately effective example in the vein of telling your friends what you’ve committed to do so that there’s no turning back.
I think this NBA.com recap sums up very nicely just how special this season has been. There’s just something about storytelling in American sports…
So thanks, Mavs, for seizing the moment and giving us underdog / redemption softies something to cheer about. A little timeout of escapist romanticism before the 800 pound gorillas return to shove us back on the treadmill.