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Mashburn also has doubts about Buckner's X's and O's, particularly the Mavs' triangle offense, which, like Knight's scheme at Indiana, depends heavily on constant motion and precise timing. The 6'8" Mashburn feels the structure inhibits his talents, particularly his ability to slash through almost any defense. "We've got to be aggressive," he says. "We can't be like robots."
Given Mashburn's state of mind, the arrival of his college coach, Kentucky's Rick Pitino, in Dallas last week made for a bit of intrigue, but Pitino quickly quashed any thoughts that he was brought in to try to facilitate a Mashburn-Buckner d�tente or perhaps even to discuss replacing Buckner himself. "The timing is just coincidental," he said after watching his former All-America score just two points in a 125-93 thrashing by the Seattle SuperSonics on Thursday. "I planned this trip to visit Jamal two months ago."
Buckner attributes some of the differences he has had with Mashburn and Jackson to their youth. "Sometimes when everything has been handed to you before you've even played, it comes as a shock to learn you have to earn things," Buckner says. And it's true that since leaving Kentucky, Mashburn has gotten used to the sort of star treatment that comes with being the fourth pick of the draft and the recipient of a reported seven-year, $32 million contract. The kind of dilemma Mashburn deals with these days is whether or not to trade in the red Ferrari, received as part of his $5 million Fila shoe deal, for a red Mercedes because he can't drive a stick.
But the tension between Buckner and the veteran Harper can't be explained away as easily. It began during the preseason when Buckner handed Harper's starting spot to Fat Lever. While Lever has played in only 35 games during the last three seasons because of various knee ailments, Harper has been the Mavs' cornerstone, starting all but 57 of the team's 594 games since midway through the '85-86 season (he missed 51 of those with injuries). Taking a starting job from Harper, the Mav captain and one of the most popular players in franchise history, was an inexplicable move that he considered a slap in the face. Harper started the season opener, but hostilities resumed when Buckner yanked him against the New York Knicks on Nov. 16 only 3:47 into the contest. During a timeout moments later, a steaming Harper sat in open defiance of Buckner at the end of the bench while the rest of the team huddled around the coach. When Buckner reinserted him three minutes later, Harper cursed audibly as he passed the scorer's table and kicked a resin bottle onto the floor. "There's too many games being played with me, man," Harper said later.
Buckner handled that flare-up the way he has handled all the incidents—with a tight-lipped air of superiority. His pet answer to most inquiries about the turmoil on his team is that he doesn't discuss "internal matters," of which the Mavs seem to have more than the CIA.
How many Mavs does it take to screw in a light bulb? No one knows. Buckner says it's an internal matter.
But now Buckner is finally trying to mend some fences. He admits that the controversies have been humbling, and for someone who has been accused of thinking he knows it all, he has actively sought advice from outside the organization. "Sometimes the players may misconstrue the toughness I show as a lack of openness," he says. "I care about these guys, and I'm confident they'll see that."
It appears that Buckner will have the opportunity to reverse his bad start. Carter made it a point to drop by the locker room after the Miami loss to declare his "100 percent support" for his rookie coach. But Buckner will have to show that the softening he has shown recently isn't just temporary. He also would be wise to push for a trade of Harper, for several reasons. The franchise owes it to Harper not to make him suffer through another horrible season. But more than that, Buckner has already made a miscalculation by not realizing that the highly respected Harper could have been his greatest ally in dealing with the rest of the team. Now the coach can't afford to keep Harper around as a constant reminder of that blunder and of the bad first impression he made with the players.
As woeful as things have been for the Mavericks, all of Dallas remembers that Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson was 1-15 and the object of similar scorn in his first year in town but won the Super Bowl three years later. No one is counting on such a quick and dramatic reversal from Buckner and the Mavs. At week's end it seemed enough of a challenge simply for Buckner to keep from coming true one joke currently making the rounds.