VERMONT MAVERICK IN KING JERRY'S COURT It’s confession time. I’m going to the Grizzlies game Tuesday night, when our local NBA outfit will host the Dallas Mavericks. And I’ll be rooting for the wrong team . . . the “bad guys.” Until the Grizzlies came to town almost three years ago, of course, there were no “bad guys” when it came to one’s loyalties in the NBA, or any other major professional sport, for that matter. Funny what “Memphis” across the jersey can do to your rooting interest, isn’t it? Well, for a few reasons, my rooting interest -- NBA variety -- hasn’t changed. Conflicted at times, yes. But I hear what my heart tells me. Allow for some background. Growing up in central Vermont (by way of Knoxville, Atlanta, and southern California), I was an NBA orphan. Aside from Larry Bird, my dad could give a flip about pro basketball, so there was no inherited loyalty. Furthermore, Vermont is a hockey-first region, so there were no Celtics pennants or Knicks jerseys to persuade my affection one way or the other. Then, in the summer of 1983, the Dallas Mavericks drafted Dale Ellis. I may not have had an NBA team of choice as a 14-year-old, hoops-playing soon-to-be high school freshman, but I knew my roots on the University of Tennessee campus, and I absolutely adored Dale Ellis (a first-team All-America his senior season at UT). When he became a Maverick as the ninth pick in the Ô83 draft, I became one with him. The Mavericks were a bit of a phenomenon in the early Eighties, albeit one dramatically overshadowed by the transcontinental rivalry of Bird and Magic Johnson. They had progressed from an expansion season with only 15 wins (1980-81) to 38 wins in 1982-83. With Ellis on board, this team led by Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman won 43 games and reached the second round of the 1984 playoffs. They even managed to beat the mighty Lakers in Game 3 of their second-round series. And they had a new fan . . . somewhat displaced, but attached like a soggy wristband. Despite trading Ellis to Seattle in 1986, the Mavs were a fun team to follow throughout the decade, and came within a single game of reaching the 1988 Finals (again, their foil was the Lakers). But with Aguirre and Blackman aging, and the now-infamous drafting of Roy Tarpley as the franchise’s centerpiece, Dallas went into a free fall that lasted longer than the Grizzlies (Memphis and Vancouver combined) have existed. Nary a playoff appearance from 1991 through 2000. Like that soggy wristband you just can’t throw in the laundry, though, I stuck by. Which brings us to 2004, and an NBA very different from the 23-team league of 1983, one with my own home team a short drive from my front door. When the news of the Grizzlies’ arrival hit this city like, er, straightline winds in 2001, I found myself wondering how to morph my passion for Maverick basketball -- they enjoyed their finest season in more than a decade that spring and made the playoffs -- into doing the “right thing” behind this city’s first big-league operation. Almost three years later, I know where my heart is, and it’s not beating with the pace of a Jason Williams dribble-drive. Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and (my man) Michael Finley . . . this is my NBA family. Harboring loyalty to a “second” team is akin to romancing a second love . . . can’t be done with any integrity. So I’ll continue to dream of a Mavericks championship, and the hope that I’m the only smiling patron to leave The Pyramid when Dallas is in town. That said, my home is Memphis. And I continue to wish (more with my brain than my heart, I suppose) every success for our own NBA franchise. The rise of FedExForum is inspiring, powerful stuff for Mid-South sports fans. Shane Battier, James Posey, Lorenzen Wright, and Mike Miller are classy players, easy to root for. And Jerry West? Keep pinching yourself, Memphis. The playoffs, All-Star games, and brand new heights are drawing closer and closer on the horizon. There’s no limit to what the future may bring. But please, oh please . . . no playoff series with Dallas. Agreed?


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