Two Dirks, and the futility of nostalgia

Manager's Note: Front Paged For Utter Awesomeness

I’m not exactly sure when the exact genesis of this post was. I guess it could easily have been built up over the course of a few years, as things which happened registered to me in two forms – firstly, as some occurrence which would directly infuriate me and consequently cause an eclectic blend of swear words to be fired off, but also as something deeper, a collective which only seemed to appear to me just recently.

However, for the sake of ease-of-explanation, I’m going to attribute everything, all these thoughts, as having been catalyzed by two reasonably unexceptional events which occurred a few weeks ago. The first of these took place when the Mavs played the Jazz at home, on their first game back after the All-Star Break. Of course this was the game when Utah had traded away Deron Williams earlier in the day, and the Mavs were expected to win comfortably, having won 13 of 14 and considering the state that the Jazz franchise was supposed to be in.



As people remember it, Dallas didn’t make things easy upon themselves – par for the course, naturally. For most of the first half, they let Utah hang around, contentedly allowing the Jazz to do their wounded-tiger thing, being typically efficient on offense but overall not being particularly keyed-in at either end, at points being completely lackadaisical on defense.

The moment was an offensive possession which happened midway through the third quarter. By this time, the Mavericks had picked things up a little, having increased their lead to seven at 74-67. On the possession, Jason Kidd found Peja Stojakovic, who had curled off three screens, for a good look at three from the 45-degree point on the right side of the arc. Peja caught the ball and with a twisting turnaround jumper, with that quick release of his, drilled the shot. Just like old days.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the play before me, only it was not the Mavs and Rick Carlisle’s screen and ball movement offense, but it was the 2002 Sacramento Kings, and Peja was simply making a shot which was so routine to him, on his way to another big night against the Mavs at the American Airlines Center, against a team who were simply unable to cover both him as well as the offensively-formidable pairing of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac inside – while Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson or whatever other guards Sacramento ran out of their deep rotation waited for further slip-ups. He’d make spot-ups from kick-out passes as Raef LaFrentz and Shawn Bradley flailed helplessly against Webber’s smooth hybridized post and face-up game; he’d take one dribble and swish step-back jumpers over outstretched fingertips; he’d get outlet passes from Divac and pull-up from outside the three-point arc, inevitably dropping the ball into the basket as Mavs defenders arrived, too late as he went through his shooting motion with such speed.

I remember being worried every time Peja took a shot in those Kings-Mavs matchups, the most exciting contest in the league back then (later to be replaced by Suns-Mavs), perceiving even the most awkward-looking shots which he took to be like laser-guided bullets – to me, he posed a threat even bigger than that of Mike Bibby (noted Mavs killer) or Chris Webber in his most explosive, most irresistible, most visionary, most intimidating (kidding) form.

Which was why this event, a run-of-the-mill three-point jump shot happened to be particularly disorientating to myself. Here was the man who was pretty much the bane of my basketball-supporting existence for a few years, now no longer knocking down shots for the other team, but for my own, the team which I had spent way too much time in the past ten-plus years obsessing over, pondering over weaknesses and failures, worrying about bad matchups and only recently – and probably way too late for the likes of many - finally succumbing to the inevitable depressing periods of realization that they weren’t as good as I thought they would be, nor would they ever be.

It was such perceived negativity at the present, combined with what I claim as a major disconcerting factor – having Peja Stojakovic be a Mav rather than some annoying shooter for a rival – that perhaps left me thinking about nostalgia, about better days.

I mean, such recollection has always been present in my sports fan mind, and in every sports fan’s mind. I’d argue that it is the simply an effect of the natural flow of watching games, that one is suddenly reminded of incidents from the past – in my case, thoughts such as "Damn, Nick Van Exel was freaking badass, I wish we had his ability to score nowadays instead of that guy who does stupid airplane celebrations and can’t score in the playoffs," and "Blimey, Antoine Walker was a freaking waste of space when he was here. I mean, how could he shoot such a poor percentage when being fed the rock by Steve Nash? And shit, you thought Shawn Marion had an ugly shot."

Even though I’m more cynical about the positives of nostalgic thinking in real life (apart from my strange and completely illogical yearning for it to be the 90s once more), it seems that a large part of sports fandom is constructed around remembering (at least more so than in everyday life), of the stunning high points, the crazy and eventful, and the disgusting lows. And there ought to be no criticism here about living in the past, thinking about past successes – as flags do fly forever in sporting circles, as should the validity of memories of earning those flags.

Yet this new sense of resignation in anticipation of this team’s probable demise, which has replaced the mindset adopted in previous seasons - where I always entered the playoffs with perhaps unreasonable optimism - has magnified my latest take on the significance, the importance of having nostalgia to fall back on, thinking back to days where the ticking clock was but a blip on the horizon. Were these memories, of long-gone yet sprightly, delightfully new-school squads with infinite potential, preferable to a current squad seemingly scrapping desperately to maintain footing on a slippery downward slope, a team whose hopes rely on finding nonexistent lightning in a bottle?


On YouTube, someone uploaded the entirety of Game 5 of the 2001 first-round playoffs at the start of the year, involving the Mavericks and the Jazz engaging in a constructed narrative which saw an exciting, fearless, up-and-coming team burst back from a 2-0 series deficit, and overcome a grizzled, hardnosed, veteran opponent, and in doing so, propelling themselves towards a place where the sky appeared to be the limit.

Yet when I watched this game, hoping to relive those nostalgic notions of exuberant optimism, I was really quite shocked by how different those Mavs shaped up compared to the current team. This was a fledgling, rough-around-the-edges team built on organized chaos (with equal reliance upon disorganized pandemonium), only just beginning their scaling of the mountain, a journey which still has failed to reach the peak (well, of course we know they did one time, only to suffer that unnecessary kneecapping by David Stern). Steve Nash plays like a floppy-haired version of J.J. Barea, spending considerable amounts of time dribbling aimlessly left-and-right behind the three-point line, happily tossing up bricks, a shade of the awe-inspiring passing savant he would become. Michael Finley, comfortably in the pantheon of my favourite Mavs (see the signature) resembles one of the handfuls of inefficient athletic gunners frequenting the league these days, a Nick Young forcing mid-range jumpers from all over the court, getting away with such rash shot selection on the back of plenty of shot-making fortune. There’s Juwan Howard, simply existing like a character in an absurdist drama, unspectacular, a non-factor putting in points sleepily, each basket a gormless cliché resembling its predecessor. At least Shawn Bradley lives up to expectations…that is, expectations of complete beanpole punch-lines.

And then there’s Dirk. Like every other player from past Mavs teams, I had my preconceived memories of him back when he was younger – as someone who blended transcendent shooting ability with the incredible mobility he had back then, into a destructive whirlwind of offensive firepower: if the Dirk of now, creeping towards being lumbering in his movement, barely able to throw down a dunk, could manage well over 20 points a game, surely the Dirk of the past, still all flashing limbs and unthinkable speed for a seven-footer would have been better, even if there was a noticeable shade of rawness to his basketball-playing complexion?

Of course the rational me, and the rational in all of us Mavs fans know why it is the case, that the today Dirk is superior while the Dirk of 2001 was still a mass of shiny, high-potential parts, hastily attempting to arrange itself into some semblance of a functional machine. Yet my desire to relive nostalgia arguably blinded me, or at least distracted me from such referrals to my rational side. Early on in the game, Dirk misses a simple layup. No worries, my nostalgia-addled mind says. Maybe he’s a little stiff, rubber game of a playoff series, his pre-game routine probably isn’t as efficient and effective as he’d want to have it in these days of older age.

But by the end of the first quarter, of course, my rational side has woken up, or maybe finally grown tired of nostalgia’s naivety, helping the transition to reality along with perhaps a firm jab in the stomach or a kick to the nuts. By then, it becomes so apparent, so clear, that future Dirk - the pragmatic, calculating player living up to the supposed German stereotype of ruthless efficiency, with a response to every possible event seemingly calculated in his head – is so far away in the distance. Instead of carefully-constructed approaches (back to basket, turn to face up, jab step – no opening for shot – so head fake to freeze defender, dribble drive to right, spin left away from help defenders, no room to step forward to layup, so launch one-legged fadeaway), this iteration of Dirk moves indecisively or not at all, seemingly waiting for the ball to come to him rather than making those emphatic cuts to ideal scoring spots. And with the ball, his plate of offensive moves looks so dreadfully limited in comparison, rendering me infuriated as I think – surely he couldn’t have been THIS underdeveloped back then: I mean, could he at least try something a little craftier?

But he isn’t. At one point, Dirk and Steve, the BFFs, tangle with one another on a switch-on-screen, in one of their typically futile attempts at resembling an effective, coordinated component of a team defense. As the camera cuts to Steve picking his self up off the floor, you can clearly hear him drop an f-bomb. By this time, enough time has elapsed for me to share his frustration. Of course there are plenty of other videos on Youtube where I could possibly pick out the glorious positives of nostalgia – Nick Van Exel’s late game heroics in Sacramento, Michael Finley leading a stupefying comeback in the fact of elimination in San Antonio…and for more recent events, there obviously were two particularly magnificent from Dirk during the 2006 Finals run. Even this game ought to produce a happy ending in my mind – Calvin Booth is the improbable hero, knocking down the go-ahead jumpshot. But by then, I do not care – it’s Calvin Booth, after all, and the most relevant thing to note about him is how he looks like Nicholas Cage.

What I did care about – which partly came to me from watching this video (well, the playlist of clips which formed it) is a realization. A realization of nostalgia’s frightful fallibility. Maybe it had just been myself previously doing so, but the idea of wallowing in memories past now comes as naïve and futile. There is no time to stop and ponder on the past when the present is coming so quickly. No matter how feeble it is, this team’s spark still flickers on. There’s a song lyric about what to do when there’s nothing left to burn, but in the same way, a fire can’t be started without a spark, and one must hold onto that.

Stunningly enough with this, I’ve come to a conclusion that it is not the freewheeling end-to-end pyrotechnics of Don Nelson’s Dallas Mavericks which I happen to be partial to, but this current team, with its lovable superstar and baffling rotations and fluent ball-moving offense and agitating infatuation with jumpshots and its short, slow Puerto Rican backup point guard who takes bad shots and coughs up moronic turnovers and flops all over the court and the same player who is dating a former Miss Universe while improbably finding ways to penetrate to the basket and score and drop dimes in bunches. I watched that 2000-2001 Utah Jazz team in the video quite closely too. They were undoubtedly less talented team than the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks, yet some of the elements were common. The same wily point guard with the ability to pick a brilliant pass, knock down a jumpshot and rob a careless ball-handler. The assortment of role players – the outside shooter, the garbage scorer, the perimeter defender. And the same sense of a team which swimming against the downstream current, so likely to lose the long-standing fight with Father Time.

But I’ll watch it all the way. Go Mavs.

Reader Submitted

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