The life of a die hard sports fan is full of ups and downs. The nature of sports is that joy is fleeting as every team but one will finish the season either missing the playoffs or with a loss. If one chooses to view things as championship or bust, this can lead to a nihilistic experience which leaves one wondering why they even bother.
The obvious ultimate joy of fandom comes from watching a team you have watched struggle and fail for years finally reach the summit and win a title. Mavericks fans were treated to one of the greatest examples of this in sports history with Dirk Nowitzki finally winning his title in 2011. Fortunately there is another form of joy which is a close second, watching a glimpse of the future that might be.
The Dallas Mavericks of the 1990s were one of the most inept franchises in sports history. They went an astonishingly terrible 180-476 in the eight seasons from 1990-91 to 1997-98. There appeared to be a potential turnaround on the horizon with the formation of the “Three Js,” Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn and Jason Kidd in the mid 90s. But by the end of the 1997-98 season, all three were gone.
In their place as the beacon of hope for the future was the ridiculously athletic iron man, Michael Finley. Finley played in all 82 games averaging over 41 minutes per game. He played at least 48 minutes 12 different times and had five more games where he played between 47 and 48 minutes. The most exciting of these games came on March 12, 1998.
The Mavericks were facing the mighty Chicago Bulls, in the final season of their second three peat. The Bulls would finish the season 62-20 on the way to the sixth and final title of Jordan’s illustrious career. For one night, Finley was the better Michael and the Mavericks were the better team.
Finley played 50 minutes and 32 seconds as the game went to over time. He had 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. He made 14 of 29 shots from the field. Lest anyone think this was simply a game the Bulls did not care about, Jordan played 46 minutes and 54 seconds himself. He had 26 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. Aging defensive greats Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman also played a combined 74 minutes in this game. The Bulls did not simply concede this game. The young Mavericks took it.
Finley was too strong and too athletic for everyone the Bulls through at him. He showcased all of the skills that he would come to be known for. The relentless stamina, the incredible vertical athleticism(there were multiple plays where he showed a level of vertical explosion that this version of Jordan simply could not match) and the jump shooting out of the triple threat were all on display. Cedric Ceballos was an able sidekick chipping in 25 points 13 rebounds and 3 assists of his own, including a miraculous three to tie the game with less than five seconds remaining.
Many fans remember Finely as the aging albatross contract the Mavericks had to make the painful decision to get rid of only to watch him join the hated San Antonio Spurs or as an executive who is helping to remake the team. It would be better if everyone remembered the freak athlete who did absolutely everything he could to help his team win every night. This game was an early example of the fantastic player Finley would become and it is one of my most fun memories as a basketball fan.