Coach's Corner

Mark Cuban may get heat for his unconventional style, but there's no doubt he's done wonders for the recently-moribund Dallas Mavericks.

And so I come to ground at the last major sports venue in the state where I've never sponged free hot dogs and old popcorn: the soon-defunct home of the Dallas Mavericks, Reunion Arena. The reason for this lapse (a survivor's instinct to avoid gatherings with as much buzz as a Janus Fund stockholder meeting) is a 15-year stretch when the Mavericks flooded the Metroplex with a steady deluge of losses, most as lopsided as a contest between a hungry lion and Bob Hope.

But in time even the Pyramids will be ground to dust, and so it is that the Dallas Mavericks are winners again. I want to see them in their natural habitat, before they move to what I'm sure will be the very plush, very profitable, and very sterile American Airlines Center. As has been noted before, "old" Reunion Arena is the most modern sports facility ever to grow old so fast. From the outside -- with its sleek geometric lines and non-stadium look -- Reunion appears as contemporary as the Staples Center.

Inside, the arena retains a feeling of intimacy that, alas, will soon be as extinct as the woolly mammoth. As in all the older buildings (i.e., pre-luxury boxes), the 18,000 empty, dark green seats are close to the court, with the upper level steeply banked, giving the impression of a building much smaller. A dark, quasi cave-like feel contrasts sharply with the new, clean, squeaky-bright arenas of the new millennium -- places where the filthy rabble is seated far from the corporate titans who pay $80,000 for courtside seats.

The players enter and exit the floor of the modern palace untouched, almost invisible. One of the interesting eccentricities of Reunion Arena is that players must enter the floor through a gauntlet of fans. You can be certain that all these egalitarian, American features will disappear in the name of dubious progress.

Despite the classic affectations of a traditional arena, I anticipate a loud, high tech show from boy-owner/Internet baron Mark Cuban. But the pre-game activities and introductions are remarkably restrained. Instead of the obnoxious and tired music and the even more obnoxious and tired, "Aaaaand heeeere come yourrrrrr …" the Mavs are led to the floor by Mars Man, a guy on stilts with what appears to be a light bulb attached to his head.

The boy wonder Cuban is anywhere and everywhere: Here's Cuban the politician, ruffling the hair of small boys. There's Cuban the jock, lurching through complex hand-slapping, fist-knocking, chest-bumping rituals with his black players. There's Cuban the media celeb, doing television interviews at every break. Here's Cuban the mogul, hobnobbing with the Dallas rich and famous.

Cuban is criticized for most of this stuff, but these are jealous and petty folk: either too old and cynical to remember what it might be like for a dream to come true, or just too petty to allow a kid to have fun with his toy. And what is a sports franchise anyway, no matter what your age, but a toy? I wish I could buy a team, too.

The effect of Cuban's short reign on this moribund franchise has been galvanic. A dead team playing to "crowds" of 5,000 a year ago is an almost-contender in the Wicked West. Suddenly Don Nelson's eccentric trades and draft picks -- so eccentric he was on the thinnest edge of unemployment -- burst to life. Most notably, first-round pick Dirk Nowitzki, who looked as lost in his first year and a half in the league as a cat would look taking the SAT test at Palmer Auditorium. Nowitzki (already a superstar, though most of the country doesn't know it yet) now has the icy glare of Larry Bird. Steve Nash -- who looks all of 15 -- was badly overmatched last year. A turnover-prone guard who can't shoot or defend is a bad thing. Today, Nash (acquired from Phoenix for a pile of shit and a Diet Pepsi) looks like a young John Stockton: a legit NBA point guard capable of sensational assists (10 tonight against the Spurs), a big scorer (29 points), and the second-best free-throw shooter in the league.

This year Dallas acquired Howard Eisley from Utah, giving them two dangerous point guards and the ability to go small with any team in the league. Shawn Bradley, coming off the bench, is the NBA's best shot blocker. Michael Finley is a two time All-Star. Then, a few days ago, the stunner: Cuban bails out M. Jordan and takes on power forward Juwan (The Untradeable Contract) Howard. No other owner in the league would have the guts to pull the trigger on a huge deal like this, but Cuban's just a kid, and what's money for if not to spend?

Tonight the Mavericks will lose, in front of a sellout crowd, to the Spurs. No shame there, and it's an entertaining game. Each team had several wild, spiraling, up and down, bipolar runs: San Antonio doubling the Mavericks' point total in the second period, and Dallas returning the favor in the third. As was once normal (when pro basketball was a fun game) the team with the last run wins the game. Fast breaks, flying dunks, 15 made threes, a devout Mormon missionary getting tossed, both teams scoring over 100 points, and tons of -- as they say in Cuban's old business -- upside potential for the home team.No

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