The bicycle Dick Motta was riding at the Dallas Mavericks'
practice facility was stationary, but his train of thought
traveled far and wide, stopping at various times on the subjects
of the Middle East, Northern Ireland, alcohol, envy and the fear
of flying. This was not unusual for Motta, the Maverick coach
and one of the NBA's more provocative conversationalists. In
fact, those topics arose quite naturally during a discussion
about his team, which is a good indication of the surprisingly
sorry state in which the Mavs suddenly find themselves. Motta's
pedaling may have been getting him nowhere, but unlike his team,
at least he wasn't going in reverse.
After their 36-46 finish last season, a 23-game improvement over
1993-94, the Mavericks were considered one of the league's
fastest-rising young teams. Guards Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd,
and forward Jamal Mashburn--the Three J's, as they have come to
be known in Big D--seemed to be on their way to becoming the
basketball equivalent of the town's other talented triumvirate,
the Cowboys' Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. Over
Motta's protestations Dallas fans cleared their May 1996
calendars in anticipation of the Mavericks' first playoff
appearance in six years.
Instead, the Mavs' season so far has been notable for a clash of
egos between Jackson and Mashburn; the probable lifetime
suspension of forward Roy Tarpley after he violated his
aftercare agreement with the NBA requiring him to refrain from
the use of illegal drugs or alcohol; and the arrest of backup
center Donald Hodge for marijuana possession. Geraldo should be
calling any day now. Toss in a case of food poisoning that
afflicted half the team in Miami, a skid of 11 losses in 12
games and a 6-12 record at week's end, and it's clear the
Mavericks are having a Mav-wreck of a season. "What else can go
wrong?" Kidd wondered aloud after a 108-87 loss to the lowly
Philadelphia 76ers ended a 1-5 road trip last week. "I hope our
plane doesn't crash." Motta uses the same aerial imagery. "Last
year was heady stuff," he says. "But these kids have never
experienced the downward spiral. We're going to see if they have
a fear of flying. I told them to grab their helmets, because
it's going to be a bumpy ride."
Don't expect Jackson and Mashburn to help each other with their
seat belts. The chill in their relationship, stemming from
Jackson's belief that Mashburn was dominating the offense and
taking too many shots, goes at least as far back as the
Mavericks' 114-97 loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles on Nov. 15,
when Motta sensed that the two were refusing to pass to each
other. Despite the strong insistence of both players that they
resolved their differences in a meeting in Motta's hotel suite
the day after that game, there still appears to be conflict
bubbling just beneath the surface. "You can feel the tension in
the [locker] room," Kidd says, choosing his words carefully. "It
comes from people outside the [team] family, from agents and
relatives telling different guys they should be shooting more or
scoring more points."
Some Maverick observers saw a fraying of relations among the
Three J's as far back as last season. In a game against the Utah
Jazz, Kidd posted up and scored three consecutive times against
John Stockton. As he ran by the bench, he told the coaching
staff not to call the play a fourth time. When asked why, he
pointed toward Mashburn and Jackson and said, "I don't think
they like it." This season, however, Kidd has stayed above the
Motta finds Jackson's and Mashburn's contentions that they have
completely mended their relationship as ludicrous as he does
Tarpley's off-the-air explanation to two Dallas broadcasters
that the alcohol in his blood in the test that led to his
expulsion came from an over-the-counter flu medication. Told
that Jackson and Mashburn profess to be the best of friends,
Motta replied, "Yeah, right. And Roy Tarpley's only been
Jackson, Mashburn and Motta differ on the degree of the rift.
Jackson maintains that it was the kind of momentary flare-up
that is inevitable during the course of a season; Mashburn
acknowledges that there was substantial friction between them
but says it has been worked out; and Motta makes it sound as if
the two players arrive at practice with boxing gloves and
protective headgear. "There are a couple of people who got mad
at each other, and they're polarizing our team," he told a
reporter from The Dallas Morning News during that disastrous
road trip. "They won't pass to each other, won't speak to each
other. They're being very immature about it." Asked last week
whether Jackson and Mashburn can work out their differences, he
replied, "I guess if there could be peace in the Golan Heights
and peace in Belfast, anything's possible."
Motta paints a picture of two players who are more concerned
with competing against each other than against their opponents.
Although Jackson disputes it, he was said to be upset with the
number of shots Mashburn was taking. Mashburn, who averaged 19.6
shots last year, has increased that to 21.3 per game this
season, while Jackson's average has fallen from 20.1 to 13.7
shots per game. "It's a case of players watching each other's
statistics, focusing on the wrong things," says Motta. "I've
always said the only thing that could hurt the Three J's is if
the fourth J became 'jealousy.'"
But Mashburn and Jackson maintain that they are not jealous of
each other. "I hear this stuff about how we were supposed to be
at each other's throats, and I felt like looking at the
videotapes of our games," Jackson says. "Did I ever refuse to
pass Jamal the ball, like people were saying? Were there times
when we refused to talk to each other? If it ever happened, I
must have erased it from my memory. I challenge anyone who
thinks Jamal and I have a problem to watch us play and point to
Jackson and Mashburn may not be bosom buddies off the court, but
they do share a bond formed during Quinn Buckner's disastrous
13-69 tenure as Dallas's coach two seasons ago. They recalled
those days during the meeting in Los Angeles. "We told each
other that whatever little problem we might be going through, if
we made it through those days we can make it through this," says
Mashburn. "I wish we could put it to rest, because Jimmy and I
aren't having a feud, a fight, a rift, a separation, nothing."
In truth, the situation is probably neither as serious as Motta
describes it nor as harmless as Mashburn and Jackson would have
observers believe. And there is the possibility that Motta has
kept the issue active in the press to either light a fire under
his slumping team or nip any selfish behavior in the bud by
embarrassing his bickering players in the media. But an
occasional clash may be inevitable on a team with three stars of
equal magnitude. The Dallas front office goes to great lengths
to make sure that none of the Three J's are slighted in
marketing or promotions, and there does seem to be a distinct
role for each of them. Kidd, 22, has emerged as the most
popular--in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram poll to determine its
readers' favorite local athlete, he finished second to Aikman
and ahead of Smith and Irvin. Jackson, 25, is considered the
closest thing the Mavs have to a locker room leader. And
Mashburn, 23, is the focal point of Motta's offense, which has
always revolved around high-scoring small forwards. But when two
of the stars have their own publicists, and the third, Kidd, has
a sizable entourage of advisers, trying to keep all three
satisfied may be an unwinnable battle.
Kidd has even gone so far as to seek advice on how to make the
three-star system work from Sacramento King All-Star guard Mitch
Richmond, a friend who was part of a similarly talented trio
when he played with Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin for the Golden
State Warriors. "I just want to see us go back to having fun,"
Kidd says. "We need to get back to the way it was last year when
everyone was loose and relaxed. This year everyone's uptight and
taking things too seriously."
The Mavs' woes do seem trivial when compared to the alcohol
addiction Tarpley is apparently battling. Last week the league
banned him for the second time after his third positive test for
alcohol since his reinstatement 15 months ago. The alcohol use
was in violation of the terms of the agreement Tarpley signed
when he was allowed to return to the NBA last season after a
three-year suspension for cocaine use. Although he can petition
for reinstatement at any time, this ban is almost certainly
permanent, since he has embarrassed the league and exhausted the
considerable patience of Maverick management. Now, team
president Norm Sonju keeps a picture of the troubled forward
near his bathroom mirror to remind him to pray for Tarpley as
regularly as he shaves.
"He didn't want to be helped," says Sonju. "My best guess? I
think he'll continue to drink, I think he'll continue to be in
denial and blame everybody else for his problems. I fear for
him." Indeed, Tarpley did label the Mavs as the culprits.
"They're out of my contract"--which called for $25.8 million over
six years--"and that's what they wanted," Tarpley told the
Associated Press. "I'm going to hang my head high."
Tarpley's story is undeniably a sad one, but the Mavericks are
convinced that they cannot help him write a happy ending. "This
is the final chapter of the book," says Mav majority owner
Donald Carter. "And it wasn't a very good read."
The departure of the 7-foot Tarpley, who averaged 12.6 points
and 8.2 rebounds last season but had not played this year,
further weakens an already thin Dallas front line, whose only
consistent inside threat is power forward Popeye Jones. "We're
the Three J's and the CBA," Motta says. "We're not a playoff
team. I said before the season that if we won 35 games, I'd be
ecstatic, and that hasn't changed." The Mavs will be
hard-pressed to meet even that goal if they don't improve their
abysmal shooting. After making a mere 38.9% of their shots in a
103-94 home loss to the Washington Bullets last Saturday, the
Mavericks were next to last in the league in shooting (41.3%).
At week's end both Mashburn (37.9%) and Kidd (39.8%) continued
to be stone-cold, and Jackson (42.7%) wasn't much warmer.
But it is Jackson who is playing the furthest below his usual
standards. After missing the final 31 games of last season with
a severely sprained left ankle, he has been unable to regain the
explosive, slashing style that enabled him to average 25.7
points last year. He often settles for jump shots in situations
in which he would have gone to the basket a year ago, which is
why his free throw attempts are down and his scoring average has
fallen to 16.3 points. Jackson attributes the decline in part to
having to reintroduce himself to the offense after missing so
much time last season, and in part to his ankle. "The ankle's
probably about 85 percent," he says. "Maybe by the end of the
year I'll be doing everything I used to do, but right now I'm
just trying to find a good groove again."
The same can be said for the Mavericks in general. A moment
symbolic of their season occurred with 1:11 left in the loss to
Washington, when Jackson went in for an uncontested dunk with
the Mavs trailing 94-89. Not only did he somehow miss it, but
also he was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim.
After the Bullets converted the ensuing free throw, they had a
six-point cushion. Good night, Dallas.
It's now so bad that the Mavs take nothing for granted. After
the loss to Washington, Motta saw information about the team
Christmas party posted in the locker room and smiled weakly.
"Maybe we can get there," he said, "without getting lost."