Even though the Pitiful Dallas Mavericks are one of the richest sources of comedy material in town, rivaled only by the Dallas Cowboys' Leon Lett, stand-up comics at The Comedy House tend to steer clear of Maverick jokes, mainly because they never know when one of the club's proprietors, 6'8", 240-pound Mav forward Randy White, might be in the audience. But elsewhere in Dallas, everyone is a comedian when the conversation turns to the Mavs.
How are the Mavericks like a man with four twenty-dollar bills? Neither one of them can break a hundred.
But the Mavs themselves are a humorless bunch these days, and not just because three home court losses last week extended their losing streak to 15 games and left them with a sorry 1-18 record. Losing, the Mavericks can handle. After all, they were 11-71 in 1992-93, dangerously close to the NBA standard for ineptitude, the 9-73 mark of the '72-73 Philadelphia 76ers. No, the main reason that the Mavs are even gloomier than last year is that the relationship between their first-year coach, Quinn Buckner, and the players has been even uglier than their record.
Before the season was even a month old, the Mavs were rebelling against what one player called Buckner's "reign of terror." The three most important Mavericks—rookie forward Jamal Mashburn and guards Jimmy Jackson, who is in his second season, and 11-year veteran Derek Harper—were the most demonstrative in their criticism, lashing out publicly at Buckner for everything from his erratic substitution patterns and his structured half-court offense to what they considered his harsh treatment of the players. Harper, the ultimate good soldier during a career spent entirely with the Mavs, went so far as to openly express his anger at Buckner during a game on Nov. 16. When a visitor to the Dallas locker room last week innocently asked Harper, "How's life?" some of his frustration came tumbling out. "Life is O.K.; it's my job that stinks right now," he said. "We've had problems, big problems. I never thought I'd enjoy a year less than I did last year, but this has been so much worse."
December 20, 1993
A much-needed team meeting in early December brought about a slight thaw in relations between Buckner and his team, although the Mavericks' locker room is still about as warm and cheery as a prison cell. The players' feelings about Buckner haven't changed, but they are at least making an effort to keep their displeasure to themselves. Mashburn, known for his quick first step, used it to dash right out of Reunion Arena last week before reporters could reach him after a 106-101 loss to the Miami Heat, and Harper could muster only a halfhearted attempt to put a positive spin on the state of his relationship with Buckner. "We're not getting engaged," he said. "We don't have to love each other to do our jobs." Some vote of confidence.
Have you heard about the remake of the movie Twelve Angry Men? It is about the Mavericks' Christmas party.
The friction between Buckner and his players is especially surprising because as a young former NBA player—still only 39, he was a key member of the Boston Celtics' '84 championship team—Buckner's greatest attribute was expected to be his ability to command the respect and affection of the troops. Instead, he has seemed more intent on being the Mighty Quinn, running the team with an iron hand reminiscent of his college coach, Indiana's Bob Knight. Although Buckner says he hasn't so much as spoken with Knight recently, he has shown the same disturbing need for total control. "Make one mistake," says Mashburn, "and be ready to grab some bench." In a 124-91 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 1, Buckner called a timeout 24 seconds into the game.
"I can't be Coach Knight in any way, shape or form, and I'm not trying to be," says Buckner. "I can only be me. All I'm trying to do is stay steadfast to my goals. I'm concerned with my players' state of mind, but I'm not going to let some complaining or criticism sway me from doing what I think needs to be done. Over time, the players will see that I'm not inflexible. I'm willing to listen and willing to learn."
After he was hired last March, Buckner brought in veteran player-personnel guru Stu Inman, an architect of the Portland Trail Blazers' success in the 1970s, as a consultant. That move wasn't exactly a compliment to the Mavs' incumbent brain trust of Norm Sonju, the chief operating officer and general manager, and Rick Sund, the vice-president of basketball operations. Soon, owner Donald Carter—known to be loyal to his employees, perhaps to a fault—might finally decide he is paying an awfully large contingent for such meager results.
But the players' unhappiness is the most pressing issue. Even the always optimistic Sonju admits, "It concerned us that the players felt they couldn't take their concerns to Quinn, that they felt the need to go to the media." After a game against the Utah Jazz on Nov. 13, Jackson angrily yelled at Buckner about substitution patterns, and when Mashburn was yanked early in the first quarter from a game against the Trail Blazers on Nov. 21, he fumed. "I asked him why [I was coming out]," Mashburn says, "and he didn't say much. If he's trying to send me a message, he's got to tell me. Let me in on it too." There was a Dale Carnegie seminar last week in the lobby of the hotel in which Mashburn lives, and young Mash—who, despite his difficulties, leads the Mavs in scoring with 19.5 points per game—would have undoubtedly been happy to invite his new coach over for a few tips on winning friends and influencing people.
Mashburn also has doubts about Buckner's X's and O's, particularly the Mavs' triangle offense, which, like Knight's scheme at Indiana, depends heavily on constant motion and precise timing. The 6'8" Mashburn feels the structure inhibits his talents, particularly his ability to slash through almost any defense. "We've got to be aggressive," he says. "We can't be like robots."
Given Mashburn's state of mind, the arrival of his college coach, Kentucky's Rick Pitino, in Dallas last week made for a bit of intrigue, but Pitino quickly quashed any thoughts that he was brought in to try to facilitate a Mashburn-Buckner dètente or perhaps even to discuss replacing Buckner himself. "The timing is just coincidental," he said after watching his former All-America score just two points in a 125-93 thrashing by the Seattle SuperSonics on Thursday. "I planned this trip to visit Jamal two months ago."
Buckner attributes some of the differences he has had with Mashburn and Jackson to their youth. "Sometimes when everything has been handed to you before you've even played, it comes as a shock to learn you have to earn things," Buckner says. And it's true that since leaving Kentucky, Mashburn has gotten used to the sort of star treatment that comes with being the fourth pick of the draft and the recipient of a reported seven-year, $32 million contract. The kind of dilemma Mashburn deals with these days is whether or not to trade in the red Ferrari, received as part of his $5 million Fila shoe deal, for a red Mercedes because he can't drive a stick.
But the tension between Buckner and the veteran Harper can't be explained away as easily. It began during the preseason when Buckner handed Harper's starting spot to Fat Lever. While Lever has played in only 35 games during the last three seasons because of various knee ailments, Harper has been the Mavs' cornerstone, starting all but 57 of the team's 594 games since midway through the '85-86 season (he missed 51 of those with injuries). Taking a starting job from Harper, the Mav captain and one of the most popular players in franchise history, was an inexplicable move that he considered a slap in the face. Harper started the season opener, but hostilities resumed when Buckner yanked him against the New York Knicks on Nov. 16 only 3:47 into the contest. During a timeout moments later, a steaming Harper sat in open defiance of Buckner at the end of the bench while the rest of the team huddled around the coach. When Buckner reinserted him three minutes later, Harper cursed audibly as he passed the scorer's table and kicked a resin bottle onto the floor. "There's too many games being played with me, man," Harper said later.
Buckner handled that flare-up the way he has handled all the incidents—with a tight-lipped air of superiority. His pet answer to most inquiries about the turmoil on his team is that he doesn't discuss "internal matters," of which the Mavs seem to have more than the CIA.
How many Mavs does it take to screw in a light bulb? No one knows. Buckner says it's an internal matter.
But now Buckner is finally trying to mend some fences. He admits that the controversies have been humbling, and for someone who has been accused of thinking he knows it all, he has actively sought advice from outside the organization. "Sometimes the players may misconstrue the toughness I show as a lack of openness," he says. "I care about these guys, and I'm confident they'll see that."
It appears that Buckner will have the opportunity to reverse his bad start. Carter made it a point to drop by the locker room after the Miami loss to declare his "100 percent support" for his rookie coach. But Buckner will have to show that the softening he has shown recently isn't just temporary. He also would be wise to push for a trade of Harper, for several reasons. The franchise owes it to Harper not to make him suffer through another horrible season. But more than that, Buckner has already made a miscalculation by not realizing that the highly respected Harper could have been his greatest ally in dealing with the rest of the team. Now the coach can't afford to keep Harper around as a constant reminder of that blunder and of the bad first impression he made with the players.
As woeful as things have been for the Mavericks, all of Dallas remembers that Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson was 1-15 and the object of similar scorn in his first year in town but won the Super Bowl three years later. No one is counting on such a quick and dramatic reversal from Buckner and the Mavs. At week's end it seemed enough of a challenge simply for Buckner to keep from coming true one joke currently making the rounds.
What do Quinn Buckner and Jimmy Johnson have in common? They both won only one game their first year.