SPORTS Honor Guards

This season, it’s now or never for the Mavericks’ heart and soul.

THE DALLAS MAVERICKS PLAY basketball, of course. But the learn has much in common with a golf ball, with that seemingly endless length of rubber band that surrounds the core. The better the ball, the tighter it’s wound.

The cover of the Mavs’ ball, made of smiles and 10-gallon hats, comes off in a flash. As you start unwinding, you find that it looks light, but the bands come off easily. A 2-foot length of Mark Aguirre. Bits and pieces of Jim Farmer and Bill Garnett disintegrate in your hands. Kiki Vandeweghe isn’t even attached. Dale Ellis. Detlef Schrempf. Uwe Blab and Bill Wennington don’t make up a full turn. Randy White is missing. There’s enough Roy Tarpley for him to hang himself. Near the center is Sam Perkins, but he too unwinds. Finally you get to the core, the durable, springy rubber part that makes the ball bounce back when you throw it down. In that core are the starting guards. Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper. At 32 and 30, respectively, they’re the franchise.

“They are the cornerstone,” says head coach Richie Adubato. “They lead in every aspect. In practice, inclose games, in blowouts.”

Harper and Blackman make up one of the NBA’s elite back courts. Yet in 1990-91 they were asked to shoulder an impossible burden. Joined in the off-season by former NBA all-star Lafayette “Fat” Lever, the Mavericks expected to wedge themselves deep into the playoffs. Then Lever came out of camp with a knee problem and was lost after just four games. The never-quite-a-star center, Tarpley, blew a knee and his season in the fifth game, then shitted into his familiar pattern of trouble with the NBA and the law.

Maverick players missed a combined total of 199 games due 10 injuries. New hire Rodney McCray proved to be no clone of the departed Sam Perkins, and veteran forward Alex English suddenly went from venerable to just plain old. What was left was Derek and Rolando versus the NBA. The Mavericks’ 28-54 record tied for the second worst in learn history. Harper and Blackman, men of great pride, were profoundly embarrassed.

“I think the thing that will stick out in my mind is how people don’t feel sorry for you,” Harper said after the season’s sad end. “When you’re down, you’re on your own. You just have to work your way out of it. I have a real bitter feeling about last year. Since I’ve been here we’ve won or at least made the playoffs. It has made me hungry for this year coming up.”

Blackman’s off-season reflections arc even more caustic.

“The thing I remember most of all is having to work so hard and not having the good feeling as to whether we were going to win or not.” he said in August. “Part of the frustration is because the team and the organization thought we were going to win a great many basketball games. The fans came at you without the understanding that we weren’t playing with a full deck, and expected us to beat teams that contend every year. They don’t understand how hard it is to win a basketball game. You’ve got to have all the pieces of the puz-zle there.”

Don’t feel sorry for Blackman; he’s not asking for sympathy. What moral victories did he draw from a play-it-out, endless sea-son? None. “It’s really easy 10 think ’yeah, yeah. yeah, we can learn from this because now we’re tougher mentally and all that.’ Personally I’m really sick and tired of it, the last few years anyway. It’s lime to win now.”

The response from both players is to work even harder. Blackman stalled his off-season workout program earlier than ever, and Harper says that he has “definitely worked more this off-season because of the frustra tion of things not turning out well last year The quicker this year gets going the sooner last year is forgotten.” Also forgotten Harper hopes, is his farcical brush with backwoods Louisiana police who claimed that Harper and his brother were transport-ing a smidgen of marijuana. After weeks of embarrassment for Harper, who has long been involved with the NBAs anti-drug pro-gram, the charges were dropped.

From 1980 through 1985 the Mavericks owned 11 first-round draft picks. When Blackman (1981) and Harper (1983) were drafted, they were going to be two of many cylinders in a high-powered Mavericks engine, By 1991-92 the Mavs figured to have a few division flags hanging from the Re-union Arena rafters (they have one) and to have made a few trips to the NBA finals (none so far). Of those 11 picks only Harper and Blackman remain, and rather than strutting into the coming season as sure-fire con-lenders. Dallas can muster up only cautious optimism.

“We’re a team of ’ifs,’ ” Harper says. “If Roy comes back. If Fat is healthy. If James’s [Donaldson] legs holds up.”

But what is never put in (he “if category is the play of Harper and Blackman. Even as last season wore down and all hope for the playoffs was long gone, Harper and Blackman were giving it their all. Harper averaged 19.7 points and 37.4 minutes per game while Blackman (19.9, 37.1) passed the 15,000-point milestone. With fans and media begging the Mavs to lie down and die-thus increasing their chances of a higher lottery pick-the honor guards kept up the intensity to the end, leading the team to two final home wins. Tanking the season was never an option.

“They’re winners,” said vice president of basketball operations Rick Sund after the final home game. “When we still had a playoff shot it was because our guard court kept us in the ball game for the younger players. Their example has been great.”

Sund isolated the qualities that brought Harper and Blackman to the top of their game. “The big thing about Derek is that he has never lacked for confidence. He came into the league with the physical skills, but we have been able to see his game mature. Ro is one of the few players in the league who works on his game in a very fundamental way every single day. He takes everything seriously. This is why he’s going to play a long time in the league. He probably works on his fundamentals belter than any player we’ve had in the Mavericks organization.”

On the court, their personalities contrast. Harper bounces. Energy flies off him like radiation off a chunk of uranium. A buzz saw of activity who specializes in swiping the ball off the dribble-the ultimate insult for a point guard-Harper finds himself in the occasional shoving match with embarrassed opponents. Playing the point he must constantly be on the cutting edge of control, harnessing the energy, but just barely. His game has come farther than any other Maverick’s, and last year he was arguably the team’s best player. Harper set an NBA record last season by increasing his scoring average for the eighth consecutive year.

Blackman’s career has been the model of consistency. Since 1983-84 his average has never dipped below 18.7 points per game and has soared as high as 22.4, He is the Mavericks’ career leader in points, field goals, and free throws. On the court he is fluid and under control, using his long arms to finish off a drive in the lane, and his laserlike precision to pop out behind screens and can the open juniper. Former Lakers coach Pat Riley once put together a video of Blackman’s moves to show his off guard, all-star Byron Scott, how to get open in pressure situations.

Harper and Blackman are close friends with great mutual respect. That shows on the court and in how they talk about each other’s games.

“Rolando likes to get the ball in shooting position,’” Harper says. “He’s extremely sensitive to where he gets the ball, and when he gets it. I break my neck to get it to him at the right time. He has a very efficient game.”

“We’re as good as anybody,” he continues. “The fact that we both can shoot and drive makes it difficult to contain us.”

Blackman likens Harper and himself to warriors, athletes who have to be physically and mentally ready to play every night. “We have a will and a fire to win,” he says. Such determination is often the only thing separating the journeyman from the star, so when Blackmail says of Harper that “he stands on his own, he understands how to play the game,” it is praise of the highest order.

As successful as they have been as Mavericks, both players know that they are entering a pivotal season. The disaster that was 1990-91, if repeated, will undoubtedly mean the end of the Mavericks as we know them. The cold financial logic of professional sports will kick in. dictating that veterans be traded before time erodes more of their market value.

’If we don’t win a lot or go somewhere in the playoffs this year, a lot of us will be gone regardless,” Blackman says. “We better win or it’s over for a lot of us in Dallas.”

Harper agrees. “If things don’t work this year. I’m sure I’ll be somewhere else. If it happens, all I can do is go and make the best of the situation.”

For now. though, they are ready to gel the season started, aware of what it will take to be contenders again. They’ve been around too long to confuse personal glory with learn success.

“The only way I’m going to be able to improve is not to have pressure on me to score.” Harper explains. “In order for me to be the best point guard, we have to have other people scoring points. When a point guard has pressure to score he can’t involve everybody else. If I can concentrate on steals, assists, and rebounding we’ll be belter. If we run more we’ll be better.” It’s one of the small ironies of sports: If Harper extends his NBA record and improves his scoring average for the ninth straight season, the Mavs will actually suffer. And like all the Mavericks, he is blunt about the team’s ongoing X-factor. “Give me Roy Tarpley [on the fast break], and it will be great.”

“My main focus right now is. “I don’t know what happened last year,”” Blackman says. “All 1 know is that I’m prepared to do a job of helping my team win to the best of my abilities. And hopefully we’ll have the greatest intangible of all. Luck.”

If that happens-and the team’s solid core stays intact-perhaps the Mavericks will bounce back, higher and farther than ever.

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