There are thousands of terrific pictures commemorating the Mavs' first ever NBA championship. This one is my favorite.
But I'll get to that. Let's back up a bit. Yesterday evening, I sat in my living room and watched my freshly minted 2011 Dallas Mavericks NBA Champions DVD. Although much of the footage is material we've already seen online (before NBA.com became a lockout-induced multimedia wasteland of pseudo-celebrity golf highlights), I enjoyed seeing it sewn together as a season-long storybook---a story with which I will undoubtedly regale my MFFL-indoctrinated children one day.
For all the DVD's riveting moments, I was particularly captivated by one. Just before the highlights of Game 6 and the Mavs' championship celebration thirty-one years in the making, the story shifts momentarily away from the whole team and to three of its players: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd. Interspersed with commentary from narrator Ahmad Rashad, the three long-tenured NBA veterans discuss their relationships and the common goal that brought (and kept) them together.
My focus here is the former two members of this title trio. With due respect to Kidd and the rest of the Mavs' spectacular fifteen-deep, the relationship between Dirk and Terry is a story of its own. As discussed below, their shared bond is a microcosm of the past seven years of Mavericks basketball---an era defined by hopeful expectations, crushing disappointments, and finally, the ultimate triumph.
Terry's relationship with Dirk didn't begin under the kindest of circumstances. After spending his first five seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, Terry was traded to Dallas before the 2004 season. Although he had been an excellent scoring guard in Atlanta, Terry's presumed role in Dallas would exceed his NBA resume to that point. Here, he would be asked to replace multiple all-star point guard Steve Nash, a well-entrenched fan favorite and Dirk's closest friend in the U.S. In the words of Mavs GM Donnie Nelson, "How do you step into those shoes?"
Never one to back away from a challenge, Terry performed admirably in his first season as a Maverick. He started 57 games, shot 50% from the field (42% from deep), and was easily the Mavs' assist leader with 5.4 per game. He also successfully endeared himself to Dirk, who explains that they "bonded right away from day one." In the Mavs' first-round playoff matchup against the Houston Rockets--Terry's first foray into the postseason--he established himself as a legitimate second scoring option, helping lead a Mavs comeback from an 0-2 deficit to a comical Game 7 blowout victory.
But Dirk and Terry's relationship would soon face its first major hurdle. In the second round, the Mavs squared off against the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns and their new point guard: Nash, the league MVP. While Terry performed capably, Nash dazzled. Within the first five games of the series, Nash had a 34-point game, a 48-point game, and a 27-point, 17-assist game, all with Terry frequently defending him. Although Dirk had grown fond of his new teammate, each sensational play by Nash served as a sucker-punch reminder of what used to be.
Then, things got worse. A week later, the Mavs were clinging to a three-point lead in the final seconds of Game 6 in Dallas. A win would have sent the series back to Phoenix for a decisive Game 7. As Nash brought the ball up the court, the final seconds ticking away and the Suns down to their last breath, Terry inexplicably backed off, leaving Nash wide open for a three. The crowd gasped audibly as the shot left Nash's fingertips. In truth, there wasn't much suspense as the ball hung in the air--any Nash-era Mavs fan knew what was about to happen.
The shot went in. At midcourt, Dirk turned to Terry and screamed violently. The specifics weren't clear, but the idea certainly was: "What in the hell are you thinking?" Ultimately, this unsettling scene would memorialize the Mavs' 2004-05 season. Terry had played a good game overall (finishing with 36 points), but he had again been outdone by the man he was endeavoring to replace. And when the Suns went on to win the game in overtime and ended the Mavs' season, that one burning image of Dirk and Terry endured.
Over the next five seasons, Dirk and Terry's mutual bond developed through shared successes and failures. As they became one of the most fearsome fourth-quarter scoring duos in the NBA, they provided some of the greatest moments in Mavs history: a seven-game playoff masterpiece against the archrival San Antonio Spurs in 2006, the franchise's first ever trip to the NBA Finals that same year, and a record-setting 67-win season in 2007.
Unfortunately, those terrific moments came with a price. Dirk and Terry also suffered from (and in fairness, were substantially responsible for) the two most crushing disappointments in franchise history. First, they were part of the 2006 Finals loss to the Miami Heat, in which the Mavs were six minutes away from a commanding 3-0 series lead before losing four games in a row. Second, they each substantially underperformed in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, allowing the upstart eight-seeded Golden State Warriors to topple a Mavs team sporting the best record in the NBA (67-15) since the Chicago Bulls ten years prior.
The next three seasons felt similarly hollow. Although Dirk played admirably in the playoffs each year, Terry's performances were monumentally disappointing. Over that span, the Mavs won just one playoff series (against the Spurs in 2009), and even then, Terry came nowhere near his expected level of production.
The MFFL faithful grew increasingly impatient. Radio callers and internet posters began proclaiming in earnest that it was time for Terry to go, that he'd stayed in Dallas past his prime and past his welcome. Although he'd been the league's best sixth man in 2009, many fans claimed Terry could no longer succeed under the increased pressure and intensity of the postseason. Without much evidence, some even suggested that Dirk had himself grown weary of Terry and quietly hoped his longest-tenured teammate would be traded. Dirk was tired, they insisted. Tired of picking up the slack for Terry in the playoffs. Tired of doing everything himself.
For some fans, these assumptions about Dirk and Terry's relationship extended through most of the 2011 championship run. Although Terry had played very well for much of these playoffs, in truth the recipe hadn't changed significantly from the past several seasons. Dirk carries the team. When a key roleplayer (read: Terry) is having a bad night, Dirk makes up for it. When Terry commits a boneheaded foul on a Lamar Odom half-court three before halftime, Dirk responds with increased scoring in the second half to make up the deficit. When Terry inexplicably (again) leaves Mario Chalmers wide open for a game-tying three, Dirk says, "I got your back," and promptly hits the game-winner.
But that's the funny part about sports. Things change. And at least for one game, something changed here. In Game 6 of the 2011 Finals--the most important game of Dirk's and Terry's careers--Dirk struggled out the gate. He shot a miserable 1-of-12 in the first half, some misses coming on the easiest looks he'd seen all playoffs. There was no 102-degree fever (as in Game 4), no swarming effort from an increasingly ineffective and bewildered Heat defense. Dirk was just off. And even though the Mavs' supporting cast had produced all playoffs, the prevailing sentiment was clear: the Mavs can't win this game--can't close this series and take this long-awaited championship--if Dirk doesn't play like Dirk.
That balmy June night on South Beach, it was Terry who rejected this sentiment. With Dirk struggling, Terry showed his mettle. In the first half alone, he made 80% of his shots and scored 19 points. Time and time again, his clutch shooting turned away the Heat's bids to gain the momentum they so desperately needed. By halftime, the story was no longer, "Dirk is playing poorly." Instead, thanks to Terry, the story was, "Dirk is playing poorly . . . and the Mavs are still winning."
But just as importantly as his production, Terry did something else that night:
He remembered the heartbreak of years past. "Remember ‘05-06," he told Dirk. Remember the pain of coming so close and the long, arduous road we've walked to have this opportunity again. Remember that we may not ever get another chance.
And so Terry did for Dirk what Dirk had done for him so many times. He picked Dirk up off the ground. He encouraged him to keep fighting. And he kept the Mavs in the game until their star could find his way back in the closing moments.
Only Terry could fill that role. His seven seasons as Dirk's teammate had given them a special bond--a Mavericks brotherhood unique to them and them alone. Sure, the other players knew the past weighed heavily on their two teammates, but they didn't really understand. They couldn't. They hadn't been there. Even Jason Kidd, who had experienced two Finals losses during his seventeen-year career, hadn't suffered similarly.
Dirk and Terry were the lone two remnants of an infamously ill-fated Mavs team just five years removed on the timeline. The emotional valleys of those five years, though, were enough to last a lifetime. On June 12, 2011, Terry helped Dirk remember that pain. Then, together, they put those demons to rest.
Moreso than any other major American team sport, the NBA is a players' league. Individual players dominate on- and off-court narratives. To some extent, this is a function of the game itself, which heavily rewards individual talent. But the NBA is also a players' league because of the dynamic between players and fans. NBA players don't wear masks, helmets, or hats. Their faces--every word, every emotion--are on unmitigated display for fans who sit closer to the action than in any other sport. When the stakes are high, we see these men in their most vulnerable professional state. They can't hide.
Between 2004 and 2011, this transparency allowed Mavs fans to see Dirk and Terry's relationship at both emotional extremes. At its worst, we saw anger and frustration in 2005, unspeakable heartbreak in 2006, and shellshocked disbelief in 2007. For three more years, we watched as the final buzzer of each season dug mercilessly into the already deep scar shared by the two men.
At its best, we saw contentment, unbridled joy, and endless respect. We saw cathartic relief from the previously inescapable pain of past failures, failures explained to many but understood by only a few. Finally, we saw immeasurable mutual pride from the realization of a shared lifelong dream.
That's why the picture above, from the end of Game 6, is my favorite. In one simple image, it encapsulates the relationship between two men who have together represented our city and our team for seven years. They are brothers. Sometimes brothers don't see eye to eye, and sometimes brothers fight. But at the end of the day, through all their trials and tribulations, brothers love each other.
And if that picture had a caption, I think it'd say something like, "Thanks, little brother. We finally made it."