The End of an Era



In the last week of April 2011, my girlfriend was in her Mavs fandom infancy. We were going to be moving to DC for two months, where my brother lives, on June 1st, and she made the offhanded suggestion that maybe I’d get to watch some playoff games with my brother.

I think she was pretty confused by my reaction.

My brother is my twin brother, and my best friend. He’s a lawyer now, and we live in different cities. Like everybody else, we don’t get to see each other much anymore. We still gchat almost every day, but this is the way of the world—wider, farther, stranger. To watch the Mavericks playoffs with him, after all these years apart, would be, as she knew, a tremendous pleasure. But it would need the Mavericks to make the NBA Finals for it to happen--I wasn't going to consider it.

My brother and I have shared everything. Among the many things we’ve shared have been every moment of the Mavericks stunning, then damaging, rise to prominence and pain. What we’d never shared, to that point, was triumph. On June 1st,, 2011, the day we moved to DC, or rather June 2nd, the Mavericks would come back from fifteen points down, with five minutes to go, the second time they’d done that in three games, to even the series against the Miami Heat. They would, at the same time, resurrect me, who had been sitting there sure that my worst nightmare was coming true, that the Mavericks had fought their way back here, in the face of all the pundits in the world, to embarrass themselves, and to embarrass Dirk, who until that instant, hampered with a torn ligament in his shooting hand, had not been able to make anything happen.

Who could have imagined that? Who could have imagined June 2011? Not we, who’d been there before.

My brother and I shared all of it, until we couldn't any more.

We were at my friend Eric’s house when Dirk drove on Manu, who, for no reason anyone will understand, went up to protect the rim. I had just gotten home, literally that day, from my junior year of college at Brown University, smarting from a bad break-up, hazy from lack of sleep. There on the TV, the little brothers stretched the big brothers to game 7, the losers made the winners sweat. But it all wasn’t going to matter. Then, suddenly, it did.

We rushed home to share a drink with my dad, who had been a Mavericks fan—and a Rangers fan, who at that point still hadn’t won a playoff series—since there had been either. He was, unbeknownst to all of us, just a couple of weeks away from never really watching basketball again. After watching what the referees did in that 2006 series, he couldn’t again feel like he was watching a sport that was in the players’ control. And I don’t blame him one bit. And I still feel that way sometimes today. My mother, who doesn’t drink, made drinks. I think we took shots.

We were at Zach’s when Dirk missed a free throw that would have iced game 3 against the Heat. I don’t remember where we were for Game 6.

Going home, and Mavericks success. Sometimes you could believe that the Gregorian calendar had been made with the NBA playoffs in mind, so perfectly do they match up with the academic calendar. If you're a college student and you can get home to watch your team in the playoffs, you better believe it’s been a good year.

I didn’t get home for the Warriors series the next year, because the Mavericks didn’t give me time. I didn’t get home for the New Orleans series. I was living in Dallas, teaching English when the Mavericks suddenly and surprisingly beat the Spurs. People don’t talk about that series much, because the Denver series, while expected, was so painful, but I still credit it with saving the Mavericks. After two first round exits, I felt, Mark Cuban’s finger hovered over the button, and now, seeing what he was willing to do to a championship team, it probably was. The next year, the Mavericks would officially give up on Josh Howard, setting in motion a series of events that would result in 2011.

The first playoff game against the Spurs was April 18th, 2009. Do you remember? I do. My brother and I turned 23 the day before, and I was in St. Louis, visiting him at law school, our first birthday together since I don’t know when. 18, probably. I missed most of the first half, my sister was in town too, coincidentally, for a wedding. She had gone to school in St. Louis some years before and I felt Mark and I were in the process of ruining her re-visit, by forcing her to go back to the restaurants and places she loved alone, because we would not take a time-out from the Mavericks. She really wanted Ted Drew’s frozen custard, and I went with her. It took a bit.

When I came back, the Spurs were up 49-45 at half. The score was tied after three. You know what happened in that fourth quarter? I’ll tell you. Antoine Wright made a three point play, Barea made a jumper, Brandon Bass made a dunk, Antoine Wright made a three, Erick Dampier made a tip shot, Barea made a three-point play and a runner, and Dampier made a tip shot. And the Mavericks had a 12 point lead with 4:41 to go. Yes, I’m looking this up, but I remember, and I remember Brandon Bass making a huge impact earlier. Seems like it's been forever since a Mavericks role player had a big game, in or out of the playoffs. They did, that series.

I was back in Dallas, by the time Antoine Wright didn’t manage to foul Carmelo at the end of game 3. I was on my way to a party, actually, I’d waited as long as I could, and I had to pull over into a church parking lot to hear the end of the radio broadcast, because I couldn’t go in. When I did make it in, they were just about to start the game on DVR. It was hell looking itself in the mirror. That’s how it goes.

The Mavericks would lose to the Spurs in the first round next year, their third first round exit in four years. And so, when my girlfriend said, the next year, that maybe I would get the chance to watch the Mavericks playoffs with my brother, I knew we wouldn’t. I knew we couldn’t.

I was home, actually, on a break, when the Mavericks had their best run of the regular season—a 4 games in 5 nights stretch, over Thanksgiving, against Detroit, OKC, San Antonio, and Miami, games they didn’t just win but dominated. And I did get to watch it with my brother, at least the Heat game, because it was Thanksgiving. I remember watching them take apart the Heat at Mike and Lindsey’s apartment. They would do it again a month later, as that little four game winning streak turned into a 17-1 stretch. By then I was a PhD student, and Mark was studying for the bar. It sure did make me look up.

But you know how that turned out. On game 18 of that streak, in a convincing win over OKC, Dirk Nowitzki came down funny on his knee and was helped off the court. The Mavericks would lose 10 of their next 12, and their second best player, Caron Butler. As Dirk played himself back into shape—he shot under 41% in 5 of his next 6, we had to deal with the fact that our best chance was gone. And though the Mavericks would launch a 20-3 stretch, in which all three losses were decided by one point, it certainly was not the same. You know what we knew--that it wouldn't happen. We knew it was coming. And so did all the pundits. I'll never forget Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! picking the Mavericks to get swept every series, till the Conference Finals, by which time he respected them enough to say they'd lose in 5. He shouldn't either.

I watched Game 4 against the Lakers, in my apartment in Providence, with my girlfriend. I knew if any team could dump a 3-0 lead, it would be the Mavericks, and if any team could come back from it, it would be the Lakers, a team that breathes the confidence and swagger that comes with being Showtime, or being Kobe Bryant.

As the Lakers dissolved before my eyes, I looked at the calendar and began to hope for the first time.

There are two bars near my brother’s apartment in DC, a sports bar and an Irish bar, and we chose based on what happened—whether we wanted to watch any more sports that night. You know it and I know it, that after Carlisle inserted JJ Barea into the lineup in game 4, we never had to go to that Irish bar again. What did we talk about after those games? I don’t know. Was it weird for him, that Robyn and I were together? Was it weird that I was visiting from far away, and that I was visiting a place that WASN’T Texas? Did it matter?

My brother, and my sister, and Robyn and I watched game 6 on the couch in his apartment—a wonderfully comfortable couch that has followed him in the places he’s lived for at least five years, and that therefore I have slept on, in various places for half a decade, sometimes sober, often drunk, one time because, on the night that Robyn and I moved to DC, after Mark came over to help us moved in, on the very last trip up, I locked the keys in our new apartment, at 2 am in the morning with no one around.

I tell a lie. Robyn slept on the couch, and I slept on the floor.

In that moment, as the clock ticked down, as Dirk left the court and ran past the same piece of machinery he'd kicked not three years before, I cannot tell you how I felt, or how much I knew, in that moment, that there could hardly be a better one--watching what I should be watching, with who i should be watching it. A magic moment. You don't get many, you don't notice a lot of the ones you do get until later. I've visited DC since then, and the last ten minutes of that game are still on Mark's DVR. We could watch them. Some day we will. But we don't have to.

And then it was this year. 2011-2012 was a season that never really got off the ground. There was the lockout, there was age, there was the brutal schedule, there were a lot of things. For a long time, I think, we’ve known that it wasn’t going to happen. That there wasn't a flip to switch. Every one of them had played so many games that year before, and the player that they depended on more than any team depended on a player, claimed as his reward the right to play more games for Germany. Dirk Nowitzki deserved anything he wanted after that performance, but I wish it hadn’t been that. Mavsmoneyball ran an article at the time, I remember, from a foreign correspondent who used the line, "Dirk Nowitzki’s eyes were black with exhaustion". It was called "The Dirkster is Gone". It was about how the Uberman ran himself into the ground, that summer, and how, some day, he would do it for good. And he will.

I can’t pinpoint the day it started to feel like, instead of watching a team that was working on coming together, I was watching a team that just wasn’t very good. I can tell you that the only time this season it was fun to be a Mavericks fan was the month of January, where, on January 2nd, they beat the Thunder and started a 13-5 run. They followed it up with losses against OKC (fine), Indiana (Sure, okay), and Cleveland). They ripped off a few more wins against quality opponents. But the fact is from February 1st to the end of the season they were 23-22. From Feb 19th, they were 16-19. At no point this season did they have a win streak longer than 6 games, at no point after Feb 19th did they have one of more than 4. I wasn’t waiting for anything this playoffs, and I didn’t get it.

It would have been nice to win one for pride. But 4-2 is a loss, 4-3 is a loss. You don’t go down 0-3 and win, and if you did, it wouldn’t be with this team, that had reached the end of its rope. Nobody but Dirk could get anything going offensively, nobody could get anything going defensively at all—the whole series it felt like the Mavericks never got a stop, just, OKC occasionally missed. And so James Harden drove into the heart of our defense five times in a row and a 13 point lead dissolved as if it never was. And tomorrow the Mavericks will start to dissolve, too. Jason Terry, Delonte West, Vince Carter and others will probably have to find somewhere else to play. Jason Kidd will have to think about whether he’s played his last game. Will Shawn Marion be a Maverick next year? Will Roddy Beaubois? The only thing certain is change.

And It was a year of changes. For all of us.

In 2011, Robyn and I moved in together, the first time I’ve ever lived with somebody. And Mark, a month away from maybe going home to Texas to look for work, got a job in DC. We made, in short, homes. And gone are a lot of days, but gone forever, maybe, are the days in which we will get to spend a lot of time in each other’s company, or dream of living in the same place, or take off, when we want, for more than a weekend, to do something, to take a trip, just to hang out. To watch a Mavericks game. Yes, it's sad. But in return we get our own home, which we have made. He gets his own home. And these things are a cause for joy, not sadness. We are doomed to lose, that is what we are born into. When we also gain, we must celebrate not mourn. We grow up. With luck, we flourish. I wouldn't trade a thing.

But change is hard. 2012 was the year I couldn’t make it home for my grandfather’s 90th birthday, the year I couldn’t come home to help him pack, as he moved from the home he’d lived in for 30 years into an assisted living facility. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, but that house is gone, where my grandmother, the sweetest women I ever knew, now dead six years, and my grandfather made their lives together. Now he is blind, his hearing is going, his memory has started to fade. He’s my only living grandfather, he just turned 90, and I get to come home to see him maybe twice a year. I’ll see him twice before he turns 91, twice before he turns 92. Time goes awfully fast that way.

I’ll never see the inside of that house again, where I can remember falling asleep on the floor, eight or so years old, trying so hard, some New Year’s Eve night, to see the ball fall. Where we used to watch Babar, and the Ninja Turtles, which my grandmother, god bless her, could never pronounce, but always called the "Ninjy" Turtles. I have no idea, and I never asked, whether she knew what a ninja was.

It seems strange to put the Mavericks in that place, the place where family and home is, a place where I get farther from but appreciate more every day. It seems strange to say that watching Jason Terry spot up for an open three, from a Dirk double-team, in a close game with a few minutes left reminds me of the same thing as all those other memories. But we have to mark the time, somehow, don’t we? I loved those Mavericks. And I loved that place. And now I am farther from all the things that made up my home, now my brother and I have our own homes, and they are not the same place, and something on the screen calls to us at the same time, and we know what we would say, but time passes.

We can say it now. In 2012 something came to an end. But we don’t know what it is, that's what makes it different than life. The Dirk and Terry years are over, yes, but is it the end of the Mavericks? Is there a brilliant second, or third act left? Why not. The Spurs are as dangerous as anybody, again.Or maybe it's the same as life. Maybe it slipped away while we weren't really looking. Maybe we were angry, all this time, because we didn't know how to love our tired champion, who wanted to throw that punch as much, more, than we wanted to see it thrown. Who had to endure, each night, what time does, and change, and the body blows that never stop coming, as the world takes, piece by piece, what it has given, replacing it with memories and, with luck, peace.

And maybe we don't know how far we've come, maybe there's no way to know, the Mavericks and I, and Mark, and Dallas, from home, from youth, from the beginning--or maybe, what we don't know is how close we still are. To all of it, bound together with our own pasts, in the fabric of what makes us, us. As if we could just turn around, and there it would all still be. Yesterday, and yesterdays of years ago, the playgrounds where we first learned this beautiful game, and the soccer fields, and my grandparents' house. And my grandmother, in that green dress I always remember, smiling as she always was. Things fade, yes. But I don't believe they get lost.

Some times, it is as if I could reach through time and give Dirk Nowitzki his youth back, and banish that dark cloud I feel in my heart every time I look at his ESPN player card and see June 13, 1978, Wurzburg, Germany (33). Or I could find us a place to live together, somehow, or give us back those things that time with cruel and careless hands has lost. But this is how close the past is. Always at hand. Always with us. All the things we hav seen adn gone through.

And so it ends. 0-4. Too old, too slow, too tired. But tonight, we do not mourn a lost season. We mourn many things lost, maybe never to be found again. But we do not mourn loving a silly game, and we do not mourn what is to come, which we cannot know. Because, no matter how bad it is, what we have seen and where we have been will burn on, a fire in the night, and it will bind us together. It will keep binding us together. The things we've seen have made us who we are. They have built networks. And they will always bring me home. These games, these players. These are the things I've seen, and the places that I have been.

I end, the season ends, for me, with these simple words, what I have learned from being a fan, from caring about something silly in a serious world, from hurting for strangers I don't know, and from remember what is no longer. The words are these:

There is nothing about basketball that isn't also about love. And this is something passing I have loved.

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