Derek Harper, the leading contender for Least Envied Player in the NBA, wrapped up his inspirational talk at a Dallas high school last week and opened the floor to questions. A murmur grew among the 200 Roosevelt High students, and Harper, a Dallas Maverick guard, flashed a weary smile. "I know your question," he said. "When are the Mavericks going to win again, right?" Applause all around.
Harper himself would like to know. After three home losses last week, including a 126-102 sleepwalker against the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, the Mavs had dropped 11 in a row and stood a horrific 2-26. At their current pace (.071 winning percentage), they are threatening to supplant the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73, .110) as the NBA's alltime worst team. Frighteningly, Dallas assistant coach Gar Heard, who played against those Sixers during the second of his 11 NBA seasons, feels that they had more talent than these Mavs.
The record hangs over the Mavericks like a dark cloud. "It's there when you wake up," says Harper, "and it's there when you go to bed." Dallas coach Richie Adubato thought he might escape it during a recent road trip. "So I pick up the paper in Sacramento, and there's a chart with the worst teams of all time in every sport," says Adubato. "We're in there, the Sixers, the Mets, some damn hockey team. Ruined my breakfast." And then the Kings ruined the Mavs' dinner with a 139-81 victory.
To summarize, things are going badly for the Mavericks.
So badly that the Dallas Cowboys, whose record for the 1992 regular season and the playoffs was extended to 14-3 on Sunday, will probably win more games than the Mavs will have won when their 82-game season ends in April. So badly that a schism has been noticed in the holy troika of owner Donald Carter, general manager Norm Sonju and player-personnel guru Rick Sund, who have run the Mavs in apparent harmony since the team was founded in '80. So badly that a few hearty fans in a half-full Reunion Arena (season-ticket sales slumped to 9,800 this season, the lowest since 1983-84) have taken to wearing bags over their heads and holding up signs that say things like BEST CBA TEAM IN THE NBA. So badly that Adubato proclaims the improvement of rookie center Sean Rooks, who ain't no Shaquille O'Neal, "the light at the end of the tunnel." So badly that the George Thorogood guitar riff that blares from the Reunion P.A. system from time to time could be part of the Mavs' theme song—it's from Bad to the Bone.
Yes, so far it has been one long journey into the Heart of Darkness for Dallas, and the Mavericks aren't even halfway through the horror, the horror. "The Cowboys went 1-15 [in 1989-90], and I think the fans would accept a rebuilding year like that for us," says Adubato. "But we play 82 games. When I got to 1-15 [on Dec. 12], I said, 'Is that it? Is it over?' "
No, it's not over, not by a long shot, and the cavalry is nowhere in sight. There is now almost no chance that would-be franchise savior Jim Jackson, the fourth pick in the 1992 draft and a current holdout (page 41), will play in Dallas. The Mavs could still trade for an established player or two who would help them win more games, but it would cost them Harper, their only player of any value. Their starting lineup Saturday against the Jazz consisted of Harper and former sixth-round pick—in the CBA draft—Walter Bond at guard, NBA first-round bust Doug Smith and undrafted acquisition Terry Davis at forward, and Rooks at center. Now, the muscular Davis is a keeper because of his defensive skills, and Rooks and Bond might indeed be solid NBA players, but this isn't a lineup that has Springfield clearing wall space. And as for reserve strength...you haven't met Radisav Curcic yet? "We're in a heavyweight division with featherweight fighters," says Adubato, who leads the league in losses, sleepless nights and metaphors.
Adubato, you might remember, was once called upon to preside over a disaster in Detroit after Dick Vitale was fired 12 games into the 1979-80 season. Adubato's record with the Pistons: 12-58. Here he is, 13 years later, once again piling up the sandbags to stop a flood (he would settle for 12 wins now without a moment's thought), his career winning percentage at .318 (106-227). Should the Mavs unload Adubato, he might qualify as coach of the New England Patriots.
"I could get the ax before the season's over, I know that," Adubato said last week while munching on a raisin English muffin at his favorite restaurant, near the Mavericks' workout facility in north Dallas. "But if we get some players in here, I'd like to be part of the winning, since I've been part of the suffering." Maverick insiders, however, feel that Adubato will not last the season, even if the revolting development in Dallas is not his fault.
Whose fault is it? Though they're not eager to stand up and take the fall, Carter, Sonju and Sund have to be held accountable. Sonju swears that things are running normally: Sund makes the basketball decisions, while Carter and Sonju step in during high-level negotiations (such as with Jackson) and major trade talks. But lately Carter has publicly questioned some of Sund's draft picks, and several observers around the league feel that there are a few too many hands stirring the Maverick pot.
Over the years Dallas has made several significant personnel miscalculations, passing on Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars in the NBA draft (in favor of Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf and Bill Wennington, respectively), as well as trading the rights to an unsigned rookie named Mark Price for a second-round pick and cash. Sure, other teams made those mistakes in the draft, too, but other addle-headed picks—Bill Garnett in 1982, Uwe Blab and Wennington in '85, and Jim Farmer in '87—were the Mavericks' alone. In '89 they called Louisiana Tech forward Randy White "the poor man's Karl Malone" and took him with the eighth pick of the draft; turned out he wasn't even the homeless man's Karl Malone. Over the past seven years they have traded Dale Ellis (who through last week was averaging 16.6 points a game for the San Antonio Spurs), Mark Aguirre (9.3 for the Detroit Pistons) and Schrempf (19.8 for the Indiana Pacers), and just before the '90-91 season they let Perkins (14.7) go to the Los Angeles Lakers via free agency. In exchange for those players, they got, respectively, Al Wood (out of the league), Adrian Dantley (ditto), Herb Williams (backup center for the New York Knicks) and nothing.
Dallas has also endured its share of bad luck. Most teams liked forward Doug Smith, the Mavs' first-round pick in 1991, but it appears he doesn't have the low-post game to be an NBA player. Most observers also praised them for surrendering three first-round picks in '90 for solid veterans Fat Lever and Rodney McCray, but Lever went down with knee injuries (he has played only 35 games in two seasons for Dallas and has been out of action throughout this season), and McCray, since traded to the Chicago Bulls, was a bust as a go-to guy.
And then there is Roy Tarpley. That's Tarpley with a T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for problems. Lots of them. The Mavs did not just stick with Tarpley, a potential superstar, through several alcohol-and drug-related incidents; they built the franchise around him. But he failed two drugs tests and refused to take a third, thus striking out under the NBA's drug policy. He was banned from the league just before the start of the 1991-92 season.
Here's the real news: The Mavs would still welcome Tarpley back. "Absolutely," said Sonju last week. "Why not?" asked Adubato. Even Harper only hedged a bit. "He broke our hearts so many times, but, yeah, I'd play with him again," he said. That is as good an indication as any of how desperately Dallas is searching for wins. Tarpley is now playing in Greece after going through what was, by all accounts, a successful rehabilitation at the John Lucas Treatment Center in Houston. He will be eligible next season to petition the NBA for reinstatement.
But for now, the starting center is not a king-sized talent like Tarpley but a Rooks. And his backups are Donald Hodge, a slightly built seven-footer who bears a strong facial resemblance to Smokey Robinson (though the Miracles man is by far a more effective power player), and the aforementioned Curcic, a 6'10", 275-pound Serbian clock-stopper who looks like a refugee from the World Wrestling Federation. Early in the season Curcic, who speaks little English, showed up with a shaved head, reportedly because he could not explain to the barber what type of haircut he wanted.
Through all of this the Mavs play on, usually in quiet disarray, with most of the players too grateful for their NBA jobs to complain. "Actually, nobody says much of anything," says Adubato. "We're like a team of librarians." Generally, Dallas docs play hard. Last Thursday at Reunion, for example, it actually led the league's best team, the Phoenix Suns, 89-82 after three periods. Alas, weird things started to happen, as they usually do to bad teams. Harper, Rooks and Davis each missed two free throws in 33 seconds. The Suns' Tom Chambers tipped in a shot with the back of his hand. A clean block by Davis on Barkley was called a foul. Ultimately, Phoenix squeezed out a 111-107 win.
At several points Adubato raged up and down the sidelines, delivering what has become a familiar tirade against the referees: "You take one away from us at this end, then give one to them up at that end! How the hell we supposed to have a chance?" No technical was called. Adubato says he has noticed that referees have taken pity on him. "Our team doesn't get any calls, but they're less willing to T me up," he says.
Ah, but that was not the case in last week's loss to the Jazz. After running onto the court to protest a noncall against Malone, Adubato drew two T's and the old heave-ho from referee Bill Spooner.
The Mavericks' immediate plan seems to be this: hope for improvement and maturity from their young players; hope to be competitive at home; hope for the first pick in the 1993 lottery; hope that Tarpley is reinstated and ready to play; hope that the giant wheel of fortune returns to where it started for Dallas in the early 1980s, back when it was considered a model franchise. Perhaps it will work.
But the idea of developing players instead of trying to win games is anathema to a veteran like Harper, and his patience is wearing thin. He has always been one of the franchise's designated Good Guys, and he won't do anything to change that. But, privately, he wonders whether Adubato's practice drills, which are oriented toward fundamentals, can adequately prepare the Mavs to win.
"Look, no one's given up, and no one's tuned out Richie," said Harper. "We're trying every minute of every game. I still get goose bumps when I'm heading toward Reunion Arena for a game." He shook his head. "But it's tough. The ride home never feels good. I've never, ever lost this much. You know what? I feel like I'm slowly losing my hair over this." He laughed. "Then I'll finally be in style."
At least Harper sleeps easily at night. Adubato goes home and puts on the videotape, frequently torturing himself until dawn. "Only one thing has kept me sane," he says. "When I walk in that door, I see my two-year-old son, Adam, and he looks at me and smiles. He doesn't know about records and losing streaks. Far as Adam knows, we're undefeated."
Alltime Worst Teams**
TAMPA BAY BUCS
Where They Stand
*AS OF JAN. 10