The year was 2006. Tim Cato was 12, a "newsie" in a 1920s cap. Hal Brown barely a Jewish adult. But I? I was a strapping 21, and I was on my way home from my junior year of college at NBA Column Writers U.
It was a different world. Dirk was 27. The Mavs were looking up. The future, like a red carpet, was rolling out, and like that oft-referenced Twilight Zone episode, we were all saying "there was time now...there would have been..." but our glasses were beginning to break.
Two years earlier, the Mavs had taken their first trip to the Conference Finals, their third playoff run in the Dirk era, and had come up just short against basically these same San Antonio Spurs. Dirk had a knee injury in Game 5, Steve Kerr hit a bunch of threes at the end of Game 6 and Danny Green, all of 17 years old, was deciding on a college or something. The next year had been a disappointing loss to one of those great Sacramento Kings teams, not only an intensely pleasing array of talent but one of the physically ugliest teams in recorded history.
And then this. You know, if my flight had been delayed, I would have missed the second greatest game in Mavs playoff history. You all remember, even the kids. It seemed over. Manu had hit a three (same damn Spurs as today, seriously) with 32 seconds left. But then with 21 seconds left, Dirk -- who went for 37-15 that game -- faked a three and went up to dunk....and Manu grabbed his wrist. The shot rattled in. Dirk made the and-one. And with no time left, Dirk BLOCKED Tim Duncan to send it to OT.
Jerry Stackhouse had four points, and Diop made a dunk. Josh Howard scored and Diop blocked Duncan. The series was so great and the ending so riveting that it, like the ending of The Sixth Sense, produced one of the great innovations of playoff basketball, eliminating the importance of divisions, the way this season should eliminate the importance of conferences. The Detroit Pistons won 64 games that year, but the two second highest win totals were held by the Spurs and the Mavs, and they were the first and fourth seed respectively so they met in the semifinals. The next year, the magic of that team was gone.
How far we've come. Tim and Hal got their driver's license. I'm still in school, but for my PhD. And rather than trying to break through, these Mavs and Dirk are trying to hold on. Trying to prove they're a worthy investment for some free agent so they get a couple more years of relevance. Trying to come up with one more great finish.
The difference is pretty big. For one thing, it means Sunday doesn't mean everything. Man would we all go nuts, but there is so many ways in which, this time, just being here is enough. Game 7 against the best team in the NBA. Gave ‘em all they could handle in EVERY game. Enough. Dayenu.
But the heart never stops wanting more, really. After a season of sangfroid, from yours truly, I was an insane person last night. Stalking up and down, yelling, running around with a Mavs banner. I had my Mavs jersey on over my Pizzadactyl shirt, I was drinking out of a Mavs championship glass. And I was drinking a lot.
That is the experience these Mavs have given me this season: they, like that heroic, misunderstood illness in The Walking Dead, have resurrected my heart. The Mavs and I will both be leaving it all on the floor Sunday. There is a real difference, because unlike 2006, I don't need this. Mentally, I've clutched Dirk's championship ring to my heart to keep nightmares away. It means this movie is already going to end okay no matter what happens.
But now that we're so close, man do I want it.