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The hard is what makes it great: Remembering my dad through the 2011 Finals

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Basketball is entertainment. But sometimes, it's more than that.

Ronald Martinez

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(manager's note: I asked Josh (aka TheDirkness) to contribute this story after he mentioned it in a comment, and I'm so glad he agreed. We'll have a few more Championship Week articles tomorrow, but I think this one here is the most important and meaningful. Thanks for reading.)

My father once explained to me that since every person is unique, it follows that we all have unique contexts through which we process any given experience. Said another way, if one million different people are told the same story, then one million different stories have been told. You and I may see the same film, or read the same book, or watch the same 7-foot German hoist a trophy, but depending on the sum total events of our respective lives to that point, we all etch those experiences into our memories a little differently. My own context for the story of the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks is such that it's written with the same pen that recounts the last year of my father's life. Both stories are, in their own ways, tales of incredible courage and fight, along the path to greatness. They have different endings but identical themes, and for me are forever inextricable. With thanks to Tim for the invitation, I'm pleased to share my story with the Mavs Moneyball community.

While there is comfort in online anonymity, I feel that in order to do this the right way I should disclose that my father was Dr. Lewis Pincus, a proud husband, parent and Mavs season ticket holder who practiced internal medicine at Methodist Hospitals of South Dallas for thirty years until the day leukemia forced him into retirement and later took his life. I share his name for a few reasons.

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The first is for me. In the time since he died, I've been largely unable to confront the memory of him. I have shied away from warming anecdotes and imagery. Honestly, it's just been too hard. When I was asked to contribute this article, it seemed like a unique opportunity to make some overdue progress.

The second is for him. For a time after, I would google him to see what still came up. There was actually a lot. His medical practice, accolades for work with weight-loss patients, interviews he gave to local news. Then last week, on what would have been his 65th birthday, I googled him for the first time in a year and found that, at least as far as the internet is concerned, he's almost entirely gone. Maybe a little online name-dropping and SEO is just what the doctor prescribed.

The third is for you, or at least any of you that might have known him. Dr. Pincus treated thousands of Dallas patients during his career, changed many lives and flat out saved a good number of them. On the chance that you or a loved one were one of them, I thought you might like to know you were reading about him.

Anyway, as with personal stories, history and context matter when you talk about the Mavs because the greatness of 2011's victory has its roots in the franchise's ineptitude and flat-out agony up to that point. For those of you older than 30, the conversation really begins with the late 80's squad that came this close before getting Magic Johnson'd into a decade of utter oblivion. We endured a laughingstock stretch that was best measured in empty promises and false prophets, from the Roy Tarpley saga, to the three feuding J's, to some sort of driverless SUV called a Cherokee Parks.

As we all know, when Cubes rolled into town, things began to change. There was new energy, and bold, calculated risk-taking. Things moved in an exciting direction. We matured and grew smarter. We moved the ball and ran the break. I think we would have won in 2003 if not for Dirk's knee injury, and that sucked, but it wasn't agonizing. We had arguably overachieved, and it would soon be our turn. I was sure of it.

Then 2006 happened. 2006 was sheer, trauma-inducing agony, and none of us could handle it. Remember Karl Rove on election night 2012, desperately assailing any Fox News statistician in sight, demanding they run the numbers again on Ohio? That was us. We denied, and lamented, and trolled Heat fans on message boards. We muttered to anyone who would listen that we were robbed, that it was rigged, that only a true asshole would spell it "Dwyane." And it wasn't just us - the players were beyond psychological repair. Josh Howard was destroyed mentally, and his game soon followed. It carried into 2007, with the Warriors debacle that should have surprised no one. Outside of Dallas, the nation-wide whispering that Dirk was too soft, too Euro, was fueled to a fever pitch, and we were smacked down if we dared to argue otherwise. Something so good and hopeful, something we felt so secure about, had been shattered.

Later that summer, my father paid me a surprise visit in Los Angeles, so that he could tell me in person that he had cancer.

***

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Dr. Lewis Pincus

In explaining my father and our relationship, I should convey how much this man loved professional sports. When he moved to Dallas in 1980 he bought Rangers season tickets, and picked up the Mavs early in the Dirk era. His metaphors were all strike three's, jump balls and touchdowns. When he wanted to teach me patience and diligence, he took me to the driving range. When he wanted to do something special, he'd pull me out of school, "just our secret," to see Nolan Ryan pitch. And when he had to tell me he was battling a life-threatening disease, he did so with Angels-Red Sox tickets in his pocket, as if an outing to the ballpark would harken back to a better time and wash our troubles away.

And for a spell, I suppose it did. The next four years, for both the Mavs and my father, were a series of ebbs and flows with challenges faced on the regular, but ultimately with a sense of stability and a feeling that there was a plan. While Mark and Donnie were surrounding Dirk with Rick Carlisle, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, Dad bolstered his own team with leukemia experts from the Anderson Center in Houston, and leading gastroenterologists from the Cleveland Clinic who aimed to get a handle on his digestive complications. Those of us who are desperately seeking hope can be guilty of transferring it from one place to another. Maybe I told myself that if one thing I loved was getting better, so was everything else. Completely irrational, but I guess that's how hope works sometimes. No atheists in foxholes.

In 2010, the roads unfortunately began to diverge. While the Mavs were busy re-signing Dirk, acquiring Tyson Chandler and later blazing out of the gate to start the season, my father began to lose ground. An infection here, a lost appetite there, 10 pounds, 20 pounds, then 50 pounds gone, never to return. We had to start pumping him full of nutrients intravenously because the nausea from the chemo was too much for him to keep enough food down to combat the weight loss. Things continued to deteriorate. Then, at Thanksgiving, while we tried to watch the Cowboys and feign some sense of normalcy, Dad excused himself and didn't come back for a long time. My mother found him nursing a painful new ear infection and took him to the hospital. Sometime in December, as I watched this emaciated man struggle to function, I realized he was never going to leave that room. My walls of hope and denial broke down and I knew, without doubt, that my best friend, mentor and hero was going to die.

***

My father was a man of many special skills and talents, but the one I've missed most is his uncanny ability to snatch little flicks of wisdom from the ether, as if they were fireflies, and keep them in a jar. They could come from anywhere; Yogi Berra, Winston Churchill, the guy at the Wendy's drive-thru (when in those last months when, for whatever reason, he only wanted to eat Frosty's). It didn't matter; as an optimist and a humanist, my father knew that wisdom could, and would, come from anywhere. He knew to capture it when he saw it, and he knew exactly when to release it back into the universe.

The brightest of these fireflies was a seminal line from the 1992 film A League of Their Own.  You likely know the scene - on the eve of the World Series, Tom Hanks is loading up the Rockford Peaches' bus and spies his star catcher, Geena Davis, hanging up her cleats to bolt town with her returned war-hero husband. After a few weak attempts at justifying her choice, she finally admits the cold uncomfortable truth: "It just got too hard." Hanks then leans in, and with total clarity and purpose replies: "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

The hard is what makes it great. Those seven little words probably capture what I'm trying to relate here better than the other three thousand. My father loved this line. He quoted it to me more times and on more occasions than I can list. A failed test, a lost love, a daunting adventure. Or sometimes for no clear reason at all. In retrospect, this was his greatest gift to me -- instilling in me not only the idea that life was a gift, but that when life got hard, as it surely would, it actually became even more beautiful, more rewarding and more special.

During the summer of 2007, as my father was building the resolve to go tell his children his horrible news, Dirk Nowitzki was on a soul searching mission of his own, deep in the Australian bush. Get back to basics, find yourself in nature. That was the lesson plan set by Dirk's great teacher, Holger Geschwindner, as they reflected under the stars beside a crackling bonfire. "How did this happen? Was 2006 the last chance I'll ever get? Is it not in the cards for me? Is it just too hard?" I obviously have no idea what questions were asked; that's between Dirk, Holger and the Aboriginal spirits. But anyone who watched him bounce back in 2008-09, upping his scoring to 26 points a game for the first time in three seasons, knows that he caught a few fireflies there in the Outback.

***

On December 15, 2010, as I stood at the window of a Methodist Hospital room, staring out at nothing and trying to figure out how to say goodbye, I had an odd premonition. It was as if I were standing in an Iowa cornfield, with a voice whispering sacred instructions to me: "if you email, he will come." My gaze came into focus beyond the Trinity River basin and the I-35 interchange, squarely upon the American Airlines Center. The venue that held the memories of so many of our best times; times that couldn't be touched by the cancer. I opened up my laptop, and sent Mark Cuban the following email:

Dear Mark,

I'm sure you get hundreds of these and I can't believe it's come to this "make a wish" email, but my dad is extremely ill with leukemia and will likely pass away in the next few weeks. He is on the 7th floor at Methodist hospital, just across the trinity river from the AAC. He is a wonderful man -- a doctor himself, and the head of the weight management institute at Methodist for which you may have seen billboards near the AAC... The Mavs have meant so much to our family and are the source of some of our best memories. If there's a day before the road trip that you or Dirk or both of you could go see him it would mean more than I can express.

Thanks for even considering.

I won't post the private email he sent me in response, but to sum it up Mark quickly replied and committed to getting the home TV crew to give Dad a shout out during a game. (To digress for a moment, how many billionaires do you know that return emails? Awesome). It was a huge victory and a big spirit-lifter, and I guess Dad wanted to be around for it because, like the Mavs after Dirk and Caron Butler went down with knee injuries that week, he just wasn't interested in calling it quits. He walked out of that hospital in January, and got to hear his amazing live-TV shout-out during a game against the Raptors. Months later, he got to hear his sons shout into the phone when Dirk hit the lefty lay-up on Bosh and sealed the deal. He got to eat something like two hundred more Frosty's. He got to see the movie I spent three years working on. He got to dance with my mother on her birthday one more time.

To deliver the sort of catharsis we all experienced, it could only be the Heat.

Do you know why he got to do all those things? For the same reason Dirk, Jet, Rick, all of them, won that trophy. Whether it's the media, or Dwyane Wade, or leukemia, a true champion stares his most insurmountable challenges in the face and says: "F$@K YOU. I am going to beat you. I am going to conquer you and take what's mine, or I am going to die trying."

That's how the Mavs played in the 2011 NBA playoffs. For Dirk, and all of Mavericks nation, it just had to be the whining, flopping, "unbeatable" Miami Heat. Fighting the ghost of 2006. Plus Lebron. And with Dirk sick. Any championship would have been amazing, but to deliver the sort of catharsis we all experienced, properly rewarding the decades of disappointment and delivering sports nirvana, it could only be the Heat. The only thing missing was Bennett Salvatore strapped to a courtside seat, eyes pried open Clockwork Orange style, forced to watch as justice ran its course.

As for my father, he hung on until November, a full year beyond what we all expected. And I assure you, it was a hard year. Every step was a struggle, but he never stopped trying. I honestly wonder if he ever thought he was going to lose. One of my favorite memories I've allowed myself -- one of the only ones from that year until now -- was a lunch outing with him at the Olive Garden. It may have been the last time we went out to eat just the two of us, I can't quite remember. What I do know is that it had been months since he had last kept down more than three bites of food. So what does he order? The Never Ending Pasta Bowl. Not to be funny (and he was so funny), but because he was absolutely certain that he would be eating more than one giant bowl of pasta. And keep those breadsticks coming while you're at it! It reminded me of JET tattooing the Larry O'Brien trophy on his bicep before the season. Wasted ink and fettuccine? Not for a second. It's a great little story; one that I'll save for my kids when they ask about him.

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I like remembering it this way, with Dad and the champion Mavs all mashed together, even if it's conveniently reconstructed here or there. It gives me a context in which I can face things that are worth facing. When I think about him, I don't have to think about bandages, jaundiced eyes and sleepless nights. I can remember the Mavs, and their grit and determination, and the incredible joy they allowed us to share at a time when there was otherwise none to be found. I can face it.

Yes, it's hard. But it's supposed to be hard.