In truth, the situation is probably neither as serious as Motta describes it nor as harmless as Mashburn and Jackson would have observers believe. And there is the possibility that Motta has kept the issue active in the press to either light a fire under his slumping team or nip any selfish behavior in the bud by embarrassing his bickering players in the media. But an occasional clash may be inevitable on a team with three stars of equal magnitude. The Dallas front office goes to great lengths to make sure that none of the Three J's are slighted in marketing or promotions, and there does seem to be a distinct role for each of them. Kidd, 22, has emerged as the most popular—in a Foil Worth Star-Telegram poll to determine its readers' favorite local athlete, he finished second to Aikman and ahead of Smith and Irvin. Jackson, 25, is considered the closest thing the Mavs have to a locker room leader. And Mashburn, 23, is the focal point of Motta's offense, which has always revolved around high-scoring small forwards. But when two of the stars have their own publicists, and the third, Kidd, has a sizable entourage of advisers, trying to keep all three satisfied may be an unwinnable battle.
Kidd has even gone so far as to seek advice on how to make the three-star system work from Sacramento King All-Star guard Mitch Richmond, a friend who was part of a similarly talented trio when he played with Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin for the Golden State Warriors. "I just want to see us go back to having fun," Kidd says. "We need to get back to the way it was last year when everyone was loose and relaxed. This year everyone's uptight and taking things too seriously."
The Mavs' woes do seem trivial when compared to the alcohol addiction Tarpley is apparently battling. Last week the league banned him for the second time after his third positive test for alcohol since his reinstatement 15 months ago. The alcohol use was in violation of the terms of the agreement Tarpley signed when he was allowed to return to the NBA last season after a three-year suspension for cocaine use. Although he can petition for reinstatement at any time, this ban is almost certainly permanent, since he has embarrassed the league and exhausted the considerable patience of Maverick management. Now, team president Norm Sonju keeps a picture of the troubled forward near his bathroom mirror to remind him to pray for Tarpley as regularly as he shaves.
"He didn't want to be helped," says Sonju. "My best guess? I think he'll continue to drink, I think he'll continue to be in denial and blame everybody else for his problems. I fear for him." Indeed, Tarpley did label the Mavs as the culprits. "They're out of my contract"—which called for $25.8 million over six years—"and that's what they wanted," Tarpley told the Associated Press. "I'm going to hang my head high."
Tarpley's story is undeniably a sad one, but the Mavericks are convinced that they cannot help him write a happy ending. "This is the final chapter of the book," says Mav majority owner Donald Carter. "And it wasn't a very good read."
The departure of the 7-foot Tarpley, who averaged 12.6 points and 8.2 rebounds last season but had not played this year, further weakens an already thin Dallas front line, whose only consistent inside threat is power forward Popeye Jones. "We're the Three J's and the CBA," Motta says. "We're not a playoff team. I said before the season that if we won 35 games, I'd be ecstatic, and that hasn't changed." The Mavs will be hard-pressed to meet even that goal if they don't improve their abysmal shooting. After making a mere 38.9% of their shots in a 103-94 home loss to the Washington Bullets last Saturday, the Mavericks were next to last in the league in shooting (41.3%). At week's end both Mashburn (37.9%) and Kidd (39.8%) continued to be stone-cold, and Jackson (42.7%) wasn't much warmer.
But it is Jackson who is playing the furthest below his usual standards. After missing the final 31 games of last season with a severely sprained left ankle, he has been unable to regain the explosive, slashing style that enabled him to average 25.7 points last year. He often settles for jump shots in situations in which he would have gone to the basket a year ago, which is why his free throw attempts are down and his scoring average has fallen to 16.3 points. Jackson attributes the decline in part to having to reintroduce himself to the offense after missing so much time last season, and in part to his ankle. "The ankle's probably about 85 percent," he says. "Maybe by the end of the year I'll be doing everything I used to do, but right now I'm just trying to find a good groove again."
The same can be said for the Mavericks in general. A moment symbolic of their season occurred with 1:11 left in the loss to Washington, when Jackson went in for an uncontested dunk with the Mavs trailing 94-89. Not only did he somehow miss it, but also he was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. After the Bullets converted the ensuing free throw, they had a six-point cushion. Good night, Dallas.
It's now so bad that the Mavs take nothing for granted. After the loss to Washington, Motta saw information about the team Christmas party posted in the locker room and smiled weakly. "Maybe we can get there," he said, "without getting lost."