When I was a boy growing up in Texas in the '50's, we really only had two sports—football and spring football. A few of us were die-hard baseball fans, but that was it. No one paid any attention to basketball.
That was particularly true of the NBA. All we knew about professional basketball was that it was a game played by Bob Cousey and Bill Russell on a parquet floor up East.
How times have changed. Texas teams have now won five NBA championships (San Antonio Spurs three times and Houston Rockets two times). And now the Dallas Mavericks have gone deep in the playoffs in search of a sixth championship for the Lone Star State.
My hometown Mavericks are a very special story. It all starts with Mark Cuban, the owner of the team. While originally from the Midwest (he is a graduate of the University of Indiana), Cuban stands for everything that the rest of the country loves and hates about Texans. He’s brash, gutsy and a real risk-taker. It’s his vision that has made this team.
The Mavericks fielded some competitive teams before Cuban bought them, but they really have come of age under his leadership. And remember, this is the guy who put up the money to produce one of last year’s best motion pictures – “Good Night and Good Luck,” the story of Edward R. Murrow’s fight against McCarthyism.
Cuban made his money from internet ventures (he founded Broadcast.com in part so he could listen to Indiana basketball games in Texas). Cuban bought the Mavericks six years ago and has taken two dramatic steps in recent years that have made all the difference for the team.
First, he hired Avery Johnson, a former NBA player, as coach. Johnson, who had never before been a head coach in the NBA, was named “Coach of the Year” this year in his first full season. The NBA is a league still largely populated by middle-aged white guys as coaches. Johnson was an inspired selection. He is hard working and very bright. And, he instilled a sense of discipline and defensive intensity in a team that had basically been a one-dimensional run and shoot offense.
Secondly, Cuban broke up a three-player star system by not re-signing two of the three (Michael Finley and Steve Nash) and rebuilding the team around a single superstar, Dirk Nowitzki. Cuban and other team officials were willing to part with Nash because of his tendency to wear down late in the season and let Finley go to the Spurs because he had become somewhat erratic in recent years.
Nowitzki clearly has risen to the occasion. A seven-footer with a great outside shot, he has stepped up his rebounding and defensive play under Johnson’s coaching. And he is the undisputed offensive leader of the team. Nowitzki saved the Mavericks’ season when he made a dramatic game-tying three-point play against the Spurs in the final 30 seconds of regulation in game seven of their tense playoff series. The Mavericks went on to win game seven in overtime.
While it took a long time for basketball to come of age in Texas, it shouldn’t be a total surprise. After all, basketball is played indoors and Texans are not crazy about sitting outside in sleet and freezing weather to watch a sporting event (the Cowboys notwithstanding). Also, one of the reasons the Texas Rangers have never won a championship is that it’s often too hot in Texas summers to either play or watch a baseball game outside with any enthusiasm.
And this brings us back to Mark Cuban. He sits courtside in a tee shirt cheering his team on. This is not bland, corporate ownership. This is a real human being who shows emotion and cares deeply about the success of his team. The rest of the country may have some difficulty relating to a guy like Cuban but he’s ready made for the Texas spirit.
The Mavericks have had a great run this season. It’s nice to see that someone in this country is still willing to take some risks.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.