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June 21, 2011
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June 21, 2011

A Maverick Kind Of Town


I DON'T REMEMBER MUCH ABOUT MY FIRST TRIP TO REUNION ARENA. I WAS 10 YEARS old, and my aunt and uncle took my sister and me to see the Mavs play the Jazz because my uncle was a Karl Malone fan. ("The Mailman: He delivers," I was taught at an early age.) I remember Derek Harper, who quickly became my favorite player, and I remember that the Mavericks were really (really) behind the entire game and that the crowd began to cheer when Dallas pulled to within 20 points of Utah. This was during the 1992--93 season after all, and the Mavericks would only win 11—11!—games that year. The next season they wouldn't do much better, winning only 13 to finish with the third- and seventh-worst records in NBA history in back-to-back years.

To a young sports fan spoiled with two Super Bowl wins by this point, I could have easily abandoned the Mavs—and Dallas fans could have too. (They came close: Attendance was the lowest it had been in a decade.) But then the Mavericks drafted a hot shot from Cal, and the Three J's were born: rookie Jason Kidd joining Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson. The fans started coming back. I proudly wore my flat-billed, green-and-blue Mavericks cap with the Stetson logo that I had gotten signed by Harper. (It didn't bother me that he had been traded to New York in early '94.) Alas, the Mavs wouldn't make the playoffs before I left for college, ending the millennium with a 10th straight losing season.

Then came Mark Cuban. Many outside of Dallas perceived (and still perceive) the dotcom billionaire as just an attention-seeker with no business meddling in the operation of a team, but neither the city nor the franchise has been the same since he bought the Mavs in January 2000. He infused money and energy into the team, sparing no expense when it came to the coaching staff and players.

The team had a winning record and reached the postseason for the first time in 11 years in Cuban's first full season as owner, in 2000--01, and hasn't missed the playoffs since. By his second full season Dallas had a league-high payroll for its league-high 12 assistants, and in '04--05 the club paid a league-high $96 million for its players. By then the Mavs had moved into American Airlines Center, with its plush luxury boxes, gourmet food and seats with comfy cushions.

Reunion Arena, state of the art when it opened in 1980, didn't have the trappings of the new arenas being built around the country. In the late '90s Ross Perot Jr., who owned the Mavericks, and Tom Hicks, who owned the NHL's Stars, began lobbying the Dallas City Council to build a new arena downtown. The venue would be built if Dallas voters approved tax increases on rental cars and hotel rooms to foot $125 million of the $230 million tab.

Months of heated campaigning ensued. The Rangers were in Arlington. The Cowboys were in Irving. The city of Dallas was in danger of losing the Mavericks (as it later failed to lure back the Cowboys, who moved to Arlington in '09) if Perot and Hicks got a better offer from a suburb.

Mayor Ron Kirk backed the Yes! Let's Build It! campaign, which pointed to the events that Dallas would be able to host and the ways the arena could revitalize downtown. So did my grandmother Annette Strauss, who had been mayor from 1987 to '91. She went on TV to debate members of the opposition, the It's a Bad Deal! folks, and I beamed.

"This is an opportunity we mustn't miss," she said. "It is good for Dallas, and it will make us a better city." She was right. The bond package passed, and American Airlines Center—which has since hosted everything from the NCAA basketball tournament to the circus, and everyone from the Rolling Stones to Pavarotti—was built.

Going to games at the new arena was an entirely different experience. Sure, Mavs Man had been at Reunion, but the energy at AAC was so much higher. There was a new P.A. announcer whose hyperexcited baritone rallied the crowd coming out of timeouts, during which a live band played. Thundersticks (gotta love 'em) replaced those flimsy Acme bricks we were supposed to wave at opponents shooting free throws. And—so long, Stetsons—the Mavs got new uniforms. Arena officials pumped up the volume, and fans did too, especially as Dallas approached 100 points, since Cuban offered coupons for free chalupas at Taco Bell if the Mavericks passed the century mark. Since December 2001 every Mavs home game has been a sellout.

Stars like Steve Nash have come and gone, and yes, Dallas has seen some overpriced busts: Remember Juwan Howard, Nick Van Exel and Antawn Jamison? But Cuban and G.M. Donnie Nelson kept looking for the right fit, and they found it with coach Rick Carlisle and the determined cast surrounding Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP of the franchise.

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