The bicycle Dick Motta was riding at the Dallas Mavericks' practice facility was stationary, but his train of thought traveled far and wide, stopping at various times on the subjects of the Middle East, Northern Ireland, alcohol, envy and the fear of flying. This was not unusual for Motta, the Maverick coach and one of the NBA's more provocative conversationalists. In fact, those topics arose quite naturally during a discussion about his team, which is a good indication of the surprisingly sorry state in which the Mavs suddenly find themselves. Motta's pedaling may have been getting him nowhere, but unlike his team, at least he wasn't going in reverse.
After their 36-46 finish last season, a 23-game improvement over 1993-94, the Mavericks were considered one of the league's fastest-rising young teams. Guards Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd, and forward Jamal Mashburn—the Three J's, as they have come to be known in Big D—seemed to be on their way to becoming the basketball equivalent of the town's other talented triumvirate, the Cowboys' Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. Over Motta's protestations Dallas fans cleared their May 1996 calendars in anticipation of the Mavericks' first playoff appearance in six years.
Instead, the Mavs' season so far has been notable for a clash of egos between Jackson and Mashburn; the probable lifetime suspension of forward Roy Tarpley after he violated his aftercare agreement with the NBA requiring him to refrain from the use of illegal drugs or alcohol; and the arrest of backup center Donald Hodge for marijuana possession. Geraldo should be calling any day now. Toss in a case of food poisoning that afflicted half the team in Miami, a skid of 11 losses in 12 games and a 6-12 record at week's end, and it's clear the Mavericks are having a Mav-wreck of a season. "What else can go wrong?" Kidd wondered aloud after a 108-87 loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers ended a 1-5 road trip last week. "I hope our plane doesn't crash." Motta uses the same aerial imagery. "Last year was heady stuff," he says. "But these kids have never experienced the downward spiral. We're going to see if they have a fear of flying. I told them to grab their helmets, because it's going to be a bumpy ride."
Don't expect Jackson and Mashburn to help each other with their seat belts. The chill in their relationship, stemming from Jackson's belief that Mashburn was dominating the offense and taking too many shots, goes at least as far back as the Mavericks' 114-97 loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles on Nov. 15, when Motta sensed that the two were refusing to pass to each other. Despite the strong insistence of both players that they resolved their differences in a meeting in Motta's hotel suite the day after that game, there still appears to be conflict bubbling just beneath the surface. "You can feel the tension in the [locker] room," Kidd says, choosing his words carefully. "It comes from people outside the [team] family, from agents and relatives telling different guys they should be shooting more or scoring more points."
Some Maverick observers saw a fraying of relations among the Three J's as far back as last season. In a game against the Utah Jazz, Kidd posted up and scored three consecutive times against John Stockton. As he ran by the bench, he told the coaching staff not to call the play a fourth time. When asked why, he pointed toward Mashburn and Jackson and said, "I don't think they like it." This season, however, Kidd has stayed above the Jackson-Mashburn fracas.
Motta finds Jackson's and Mashburn's contentions that they have completely mended their relationship as ludicrous as he does Tarpley's off-the-air explanation to two Dallas broadcasters that the alcohol in his blood in the test that led to his expulsion came from an over-the-counter flu medication. Told that Jackson and Mashburn profess to be the best of friends, Motta replied, "Yeah, right. And Roy Tarpley's only been drinking NyQuil."
Jackson, Mashburn and Motta differ on the degree of the rift. Jackson maintains that it was the kind of momentary flare-up that is inevitable during the course of a season; Mashburn acknowledges that there was substantial friction between them but says it has been worked out; and Motta makes it sound as if the two players arrive at practice with boxing gloves and protective headgear. "There are a couple of people who got mad at each other, and they're polarizing our team," he told a reporter from The Dallas Morning News during that disastrous road trip. "They won't pass to each other, won't speak to each other. They're being very immature about it." Asked last week whether Jackson and Mashburn can work out their differences, he replied, "I guess if there could be peace in the Golan Heights and peace in Belfast, anything's possible."
Motta paints a picture of two players who are more concerned with competing against each other than against their opponents. Although Jackson disputes it, he was said to be upset with the number of shots Mashburn was taking. Mashburn, who averaged 19.6 shots last year, has increased that to 21.3 per game this season, while Jackson's average has fallen from 20.1 to 13.7 shots per game. "It's a case of players watching each other's statistics, focusing on the wrong things," says Motta. "I've always said the only thing that could hurt the Three J's is if the fourth J became 'jealousy.' "
But Mashburn and Jackson maintain that they are not jealous of each other. "I hear this stuff about how we were supposed to be at each other's throats, and I felt like looking at the videotapes of our games," Jackson says. "Did I ever refuse to pass Jamal the ball, like people were saying? Were there times when we refused to talk to each other? If it ever happened, I must have erased it from my memory. I challenge anyone who thinks Jamal and I have a problem to watch us play and point to some evidence."
Jackson and Mashburn may not be bosom buddies off the court, but they do share a bond formed during Quinn Buckner's disastrous 13-69 tenure as Dallas's coach two seasons ago. They recalled those days during the meeting in Los Angeles. "We told each other that whatever little problem we might be going through, if we made it through those days we can make it through this," says Mashburn. "I wish we could put it to rest, because Jimmy and I aren't having a feud, a fight, a rift, a separation, nothing."