Motta uses his age to his advantage, correctly surmising that the youthful Mavs—at an average age of 24.75, they are the second youngest team in the league, senior only to the Los Angeles Clippers—need a father figure more than they need a big brother. After coaching four NBA teams over 22 seasons and winning a championship with the Washington Bullets in 1978, he has a been-there, done-that demeanor that suggests that nothing his young, unpredictable players might do would faze him. "The last time I was surprised," he says, "was when I was coaching at Weber State and my star forward came to me and told me he had a case of...." Well, you probably don't want to know what he had a case of. The point is, says Mashburn, "no matter what situation comes up, you know that he has been through it before and knows how to handle it. He has confidence, and that gives us confidence."
That's the quality that Motta was most concerned with nurturing when he took over the Mavericks again. "Their ego is eggshell thin right now," he says. "The last thing they need is a tyrant or an ogre." So far he has made all the right psychological moves. Against Denver the night of Jackson's 50-point outburst, the Mavs played a horrid first half that ended when a length-of-the-court inbounds pass by the Nuggets went through Dallas center Donald Hodge's hands and into the hands of Denver's Rodney Rogers, who laid the ball in at the buzzer. The Mavericks went into the locker room ready to be chewed out. Motta walked in, looked at the players in the silent locker room for a moment and then turned to Hodge. "They give you an assist on that?" he asked. Tension broken.
There was a time when Motta would have seemed the least likely person to lead the Mavericks back to respectability. He had taken Dallas from 15 wins in 1980-81, its first season as an expansion team, to 55 wins and a Midwest Division title in 1986-87. Then 20 days after a first-round upset loss to Seattle in the '87 playoffs and with other coaching possibilities beckoning, Motta abruptly announced his resignation in what was supposed to have been a routine interview session with reporters; he hadn't warned anyone in the organization, including his friend Maverick owner Donald Carter. "That hurt me as much as anything has ever hurt me," Carter says. "He should never have left, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be allowed to come back."
Carter brought Motta, who had coached the Sacramento Kings and done TV color work since leaving Dallas, back as a consultant midway through last season, hoping that Buckner would at least adopt facets of Motta's forward-oriented offense and thus improve his relationship with Mashburn. When that didn't work, Carter reluctantly fired Buckner at the end of the season and asked Motta for a list of recommended replacements. Motta submitted the names of NBA coaching veterans Matt Guokas, Gar Heard and Phil Johnson, but at the top of Motta's list was Dick Motta. His return is an unspoken apology to Carter for leaving. At the same time he wants to prepare his top assistant, longtime Maverick point guard Brad Davis, to take over as coach in a few years.
Motta enlisted two of his former players, Aguirre and Blackman, to talk to Mashburn and Jackson during the off-season. The two ex-Mavericks assured the two current ones that they were getting a solid coach who would take advantage of their strengths. Aguirre told Mashburn that as a forward in Motta's offense—the same one in which Bob Love, Chet Walker, Elvin Hayes and Aguirre himself had thrived—he would "get so many shots his arm would fall off."
One of the most surprising things about the Mavericks' strong start is that they have done it with a relatively small contribution from the 7-foot Tarpley. He was a rising star after five years in the NBA when he was suspended in 1991. He then played in the CBA, the USBL and Greece before the NBA reinstated him in September on the condition that he participate in the league's aftercare program, which includes frequent drug testing. Now, at 30, Tarpley is averaging 12.4 points and 7.6 rebounds in 23.2 minutes a game. But he rarely resembles the player who was a dominant inside scorer and shot-blocker in his first tour of NBA duty. He's thicker around the middle and less explosive around the basket than he once was. "I'm not back to where I want to be," he admits, "but I'll get there."
The same could be said of the Mavs in general. They still have a hole at center, where the starter is 6'9", 200-pound Lorenzo Williams, a veteran of the USBL and the CBA who was waived five times in the NBA before catching on in Dallas. And after Tarpley, the bench is suspect, as is the outside shooting. Even Jones, the kindly reviewer, couldn't justify giving the Mavs five hoops just yet. But wait a year or two. The sequel could be a huge hit.