My head fell into my hands and I slumped into the metal folding chair I was sitting in. No one was within arm's reach and the heat of the summer evening engulfed me. In front me, the projector screen on the patio of Lucky Lou's was filled with smiling faces. They were familiar faces but they weren't the ones I hoped would be smiling. Moments earlier, the screen had shown Jason Terry hoisting a quarter-court shot. It looked like it might go. It might tie the game. It might give the Mavericks a comeback opportunity. It didn't. It rimmed out, dashing all hope. The game was over and so were the 2006 Finals. Dallas' best season in franchise history ended in disappointment.
Growing up in Dallas, sporting success was commonplace. The Dallas Cowboys dominated the NFL, winning three Super Bowls in four years. In Arlington, the Texas Rangers built a brand-new stadium guaranteed to maximize the power-hitting prowess that the team was known for. For the Mavericks, though, it was a different story. The Reunion Rowdies were silent, their voices muffled by the paper bags over their heads.
During the 1980s, the Dallas Mavericks established themselves as a perennial playoff team. In 1988, the team took the vaunted Showtime Lakers to a seventh game in the Western Conference Finals before succumbing to the eventual champions. But the 90s were a different story.
Futile is the word that best sums up the Mavericks efforts during the better part of that decade. Yet, I chose to watch them on television. This was before their games were shown almost exclusively on cable. It was a simpler time. Some of the most memorable games involved the Mavs squaring off with the Bucks. Both teams were wretched and whoever won those contests would likely avoid the worst record in the league at season's end. Somehow I enjoyed it.
Watching on television was as close as I ever got to the Mavericks, though, outside of a couple of basketball camps. In fact, the few times I went to Reunion Arena was to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it came to town. My mother recently told me that she took me to see the Harlem Globetrotters there once. I wish I could remember that. As for the Mavericks, I never saw them live.
A few months after the Mavericks lost the 2006 Finals, it was announced that the team would be holding training camp at the University of North Texas. The sting of the Finals loss was still very much with me and my friends who followed the team for years. Luckily, a new season brought with it a renewed hope. It could also wash our mouths clean of the foul taste left from June.
To conclude their stint at UNT, the Mavericks held a scrimmage open to the students. The scrimmage was played in the Super Pit, the universities arena. Anyone familiar with the building knows that it bears a striking resemblance to the old Reunion Arena, only smaller. At this point, I still had yet to see the Mavericks play in person. This was my chance. It didn't matter that it was just a team scrimmage. The Mavs would win either way.
The morning of the scrimmage started out like most college mornings, slowly. After watching a few videos on MTV Jams and possibly an episode of Giada at Home, we began our walk to the arena. For a free game featuring a team that was just in the NBA Finals, the line to get in wasn't very long. Inside, the arena wasn't even full.
Now, UNT wasn't a school known for its sports. The men's basketball team hadn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1988 at this point and the football team was wallowing at the bottom of the Sun Belt. Nonetheless, this was an NBA team on campus. Maybe I just had higher expectations for the turnout based on years of fandom. Here we were, though. On the court below were the Mavericks.
Dallas' roster, ever prone to player turnover, changed from the previous season but still retained the core of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Devin Harris, Jerry Stackhouse, Desagana Diop, and Erick Dampier. Some of the most important additions to the team were Greg Buckner, Austin Croshere, Devean George, and Anthony Johnson. Looking back at the roster it's somewhat hard to believe that this team won 67 games.
During the scrimmage, the atmosphere in the Super Pit was enthusiastic and loud even with the number of empty seats. My friend asked me who the small white guy running around on the court was. I explained to him that he was Puerto Rican and that his name is J.J. Barea.
I don't remember if the white or blue team won the game. It really doesn't matter. The Mavericks won. I won. Everyone won. That was the point. When the game was over, the players hung around to sign autographs and chat with the students. Terry, ever the showman, began taking off articles of clothing and hurling them into the crowd as people clamored for a shoe or a wristband. Other players followed suit. It was a free-for-all and the smiles and laughs coming from the players epitomized the ambiance.
The ghosts of the 2006 Finals will always haunt me. To this day, Terry's final shot elicits the range on emotions I felt on that summer night years ago. However, a simple scrimmage held at my school gave me the first opportunity to see the team I followed for so many years in person. That in itself was enough to restore my faith in the organization and give me hope that a bright future lay in store. The roller coaster was again clicking upward and I was along for the ride.