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Derek Harper, the leading contender for Least Envied Player in the NBA, wrapped up his inspirational talk at a Dallas high school last week and opened the floor to questions. A murmur grew among the 200 Roosevelt High students, and Harper, a Dallas Maverick guard, flashed a weary smile. "I know your question," he said. "When are the Mavericks going to win again, right?" Applause all around.
Harper himself would like to know. After three home losses last week, including a 126-102 sleepwalker against the Utah Jazz on Saturday night, the Mavs had dropped 11 in a row and stood a horrific 2-26. At their current pace (.071 winning percentage), they are threatening to supplant the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73, .110) as the NBA's alltime worst team. Frighteningly, Dallas assistant coach Gar Heard, who played against those Sixers during the second of his 11 NBA seasons, feels that they had more talent than these Mavs.
The record hangs over the Mavericks like a dark cloud. "It's there when you wake up," says Harper, "and it's there when you go to bed." Dallas coach Richie Adubato thought he might escape it during a recent road trip. "So I pick up the paper in Sacramento, and there's a chart with the worst teams of all time in every sport," says Adubato. "We're in there, the Sixers, the Mets, some damn hockey team. Ruined my breakfast." And then the Kings ruined the Mavs' dinner with a 139-81 victory.
To summarize, things are going badly for the Mavericks.
So badly that the Dallas Cowboys, whose record for the 1992 regular season and the playoffs was extended to 14-3 on Sunday, will probably win more games than the Mavs will have won when their 82-game season ends in April. So badly that a schism has been noticed in the holy troika of owner Donald Carter, general manager Norm Sonju and player-personnel guru Rick Sund, who have run the Mavs in apparent harmony since the team was founded in '80. So badly that a few hearty fans in a half-full Reunion Arena (season-ticket sales slumped to 9,800 this season, the lowest since 1983-84) have taken to wearing bags over their heads and holding up signs that say things like BEST CBA TEAM IN THE NBA. So badly that Adubato proclaims the improvement of rookie center Sean Rooks, who ain't no Shaquille O'Neal, "the light at the end of the tunnel." So badly that the George Thorogood guitar riff that blares from the Reunion P.A. system from time to time could be part of the Mavs' theme song—it's from Bad to the Bone.
Yes, so far it has been one long journey into the Heart of Darkness for Dallas, and the Mavericks aren't even halfway through the horror, the horror. "The Cowboys went 1-15 [in 1989-90], and I think the fans would accept a rebuilding year like that for us," says Adubato. "But we play 82 games. When I got to 1-15 [on Dec. 12], I said, 'Is that it? Is it over?' "
No, it's not over, not by a long shot, and the cavalry is nowhere in sight. There is now almost no chance that would-be franchise savior Jim Jackson, the fourth pick in the 1992 draft and a current holdout (page 41), will play in Dallas. The Mavs could still trade for an established player or two who would help them win more games, but it would cost them Harper, their only player of any value. Their starting lineup Saturday against the Jazz consisted of Harper and former sixth-round pick—in the CBA draft—Walter Bond at guard, NBA first-round bust Doug Smith and undrafted acquisition Terry Davis at forward, and Rooks at center. Now, the muscular Davis is a keeper because of his defensive skills, and Rooks and Bond might indeed be solid NBA players, but this isn't a lineup that has Springfield clearing wall space. And as for reserve strength...you haven't met Radisav Curcic yet? "We're in a heavyweight division with featherweight fighters," says Adubato, who leads the league in losses, sleepless nights and metaphors.
Adubato, you might remember, was once called upon to preside over a disaster in Detroit after Dick Vitale was fired 12 games into the 1979-80 season. Adubato's record with the Pistons: 12-58. Here he is, 13 years later, once again piling up the sandbags to stop a flood (he would settle for 12 wins now without a moment's thought), his career winning percentage at .318 (106-227). Should the Mavs unload Adubato, he might qualify as coach of the New England Patriots.
"I could get the ax before the season's over, I know that," Adubato said last week while munching on a raisin English muffin at his favorite restaurant, near the Mavericks' workout facility in north Dallas. "But if we get some players in here, I'd like to be part of the winning, since I've been part of the suffering." Maverick insiders, however, feel that Adubato will not last the season, even if the revolting development in Dallas is not his fault.
Whose fault is it? Though they're not eager to stand up and take the fall, Carter, Sonju and Sund have to be held accountable. Sonju swears that things are running normally: Sund makes the basketball decisions, while Carter and Sonju step in during high-level negotiations (such as with Jackson) and major trade talks. But lately Carter has publicly questioned some of Sund's draft picks, and several observers around the league feel that there are a few too many hands stirring the Maverick pot.