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Over the years Dallas has made several significant personnel miscalculations, passing on Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars in the NBA draft (in favor of Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf and Bill Wennington, respectively), as well as trading the rights to an unsigned rookie named Mark Price for a second-round pick and cash. Sure, other teams made those mistakes in the draft, too, but other addle-headed picks—Bill Garnett in 1982, Uwe Blab and Wennington in '85, and Jim Farmer in '87—were the Mavericks' alone. In '89 they called Louisiana Tech forward Randy White "the poor man's Karl Malone" and took him with the eighth pick of the draft; turned out he wasn't even the homeless man's Karl Malone. Over the past seven years they have traded Dale Ellis (who through last week was averaging 16.6 points a game for the San Antonio Spurs), Mark Aguirre (9.3 for the Detroit Pistons) and Schrempf (19.8 for the Indiana Pacers), and just before the '90-91 season they let Perkins (14.7) go to the Los Angeles Lakers via free agency. In exchange for those players, they got, respectively, Al Wood (out of the league), Adrian Dantley (ditto), Herb Williams (backup center for the New York Knicks) and nothing.
Dallas has also endured its share of bad luck. Most teams liked forward Doug Smith, the Mavs' first-round pick in 1991, but it appears he doesn't have the low-post game to be an NBA player. Most observers also praised them for surrendering three first-round picks in '90 for solid veterans Fat Lever and Rodney McCray, but Lever went down with knee injuries (he has played only 35 games in two seasons for Dallas and has been out of action throughout this season), and McCray, since traded to the Chicago Bulls, was a bust as a go-to guy.
And then there is Roy Tarpley. That's Tarpley with a T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for problems. Lots of them. The Mavs did not just stick with Tarpley, a potential superstar, through several alcohol-and drug-related incidents; they built the franchise around him. But he failed two drugs tests and refused to take a third, thus striking out under the NBA's drug policy. He was banned from the league just before the start of the 1991-92 season.
Here's the real news: The Mavs would still welcome Tarpley back. "Absolutely," said Sonju last week. "Why not?" asked Adubato. Even Harper only hedged a bit. "He broke our hearts so many times, but, yeah, I'd play with him again," he said. That is as good an indication as any of how desperately Dallas is searching for wins. Tarpley is now playing in Greece after going through what was, by all accounts, a successful rehabilitation at the John Lucas Treatment Center in Houston. He will be eligible next season to petition the NBA for reinstatement.
But for now, the starting center is not a king-sized talent like Tarpley but a Rooks. And his backups are Donald Hodge, a slightly built seven-footer who bears a strong facial resemblance to Smokey Robinson (though the Miracles man is by far a more effective power player), and the aforementioned Curcic, a 6'10", 275-pound Serbian clock-stopper who looks like a refugee from the World Wrestling Federation. Early in the season Curcic, who speaks little English, showed up with a shaved head, reportedly because he could not explain to the barber what type of haircut he wanted.
Through all of this the Mavs play on, usually in quiet disarray, with most of the players too grateful for their NBA jobs to complain. "Actually, nobody says much of anything," says Adubato. "We're like a team of librarians." Generally, Dallas docs play hard. Last Thursday at Reunion, for example, it actually led the league's best team, the Phoenix Suns, 89-82 after three periods. Alas, weird things started to happen, as they usually do to bad teams. Harper, Rooks and Davis each missed two free throws in 33 seconds. The Suns' Tom Chambers tipped in a shot with the back of his hand. A clean block by Davis on Barkley was called a foul. Ultimately, Phoenix squeezed out a 111-107 win.
At several points Adubato raged up and down the sidelines, delivering what has become a familiar tirade against the referees: "You take one away from us at this end, then give one to them up at that end! How the hell we supposed to have a chance?" No technical was called. Adubato says he has noticed that referees have taken pity on him. "Our team doesn't get any calls, but they're less willing to T me up," he says.
Ah, but that was not the case in last week's loss to the Jazz. After running onto the court to protest a noncall against Malone, Adubato drew two T's and the old heave-ho from referee Bill Spooner.
The Mavericks' immediate plan seems to be this: hope for improvement and maturity from their young players; hope to be competitive at home; hope for the first pick in the 1993 lottery; hope that Tarpley is reinstated and ready to play; hope that the giant wheel of fortune returns to where it started for Dallas in the early 1980s, back when it was considered a model franchise. Perhaps it will work.
But the idea of developing players instead of trying to win games is anathema to a veteran like Harper, and his patience is wearing thin. He has always been one of the franchise's designated Good Guys, and he won't do anything to change that. But, privately, he wonders whether Adubato's practice drills, which are oriented toward fundamentals, can adequately prepare the Mavs to win.