- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

It's ironic, to some degree, that a coach of whom it was once said the game had passed him by and it almost had is now guiding the team that NBA commissioner David Stern sees as the model for the league in the new century.

It wasn't long ago that frumpy Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson was pondering getting out of basketball. Nelson, who had a run-in with Chris Webber when he was coach in Golden State and Webber was a rookie in 1993-94, had gone from leading the Milwaukee Bucks to seven consecutive division titles, being one of just three coaches ever voted coach of the year in three different seasons, and being chosen by a panel of coaches as one of the top 10 coaches of all time to disillusionment with the game.

"I think there were some times when I felt like this was getting the best of me," Nelson said. "It had always been fun. But it got to the point where it was starting to be more than that. I always felt that when that time comes it's time to move on."

Then, he paused.

"I'm glad I was wrong about that," he said.

So are the Mavericks and, quite frankly, so is Stern.

Although they trail the Sacramento Kings 2-1 in their best-of-seven Western Conference second-round series heading into today's game, the Mavericks this season's best road team as well as the league's highest scoring still believe they can advance to the conference finals.

"We've just got to play better than we did, play better defense," swingman Michael Finley said.

Whether they will remains to be seen, but what is not a mystery is the role the Mavericks have played this season in driving the NBA in the direction of Stern's dream that the league become more global.

At the All-Star Game in Philadelphia in February, Stern made it priority No. 1, ahead of talk concerning the Hornets' recently approved move to New Orleans and the continuing trend of high school players jumping directly to the NBA.

However, the Mavericks have gone one step further.

The Mavericks have an NBA-record five international players on their roster: Germany's Dirk Nowitzki, Canada's Steve Nash, Mexico's Eduardo Najera, China's Wang Zhizhi and France's Tariq Abdul-Wahad (on the inactive list).

"It certainly is remarkable that they have been able to put together such an international team," Stern said. "They carved out a little piece of the world in Texas."

Much of the credit for assembling the Mavericks has to go to Nelson's son, assistant coach Donnie Nelson. He is regarded perhaps as the best evaluator of international talent in the league and is directly responsible for obtaining the team's two All Stars, Nowitzki and Nash.

The younger Nelson said this season's new rules which allow teams to play zone defense, in particular actually are more suitable to European players because they grow up playing against zones.

"There are a lot of players over in Europe that are used to playing against a zone, and know what to do when they don't have the ball," said the younger Nelson. "All those guys from Europe can shoot, all those guys can pass. So, for a short time you'll see the overseas emphasis shift. Eight years ago it was de-emphasized to bring in a guy from Europe, now it'll be overemphasized."

What is perhaps most odd about the Dallas story is Nelson and team owner Mark Cuban about as different and Felix and Oscar are on the same page in terms of moving the team forward.

Cuban, a 44-year-old billionaire, bought the team in 2000 for about $280 million. Not long after he bought it, Cuban openly pursued misfit Dennis Rodman, going so far as to let Rodman stay in his house for the one season he was a member of the Mavs while searching for an apartment.

It is Cuban who has drawn the ire of Stern to the tune of more than $1 million in fines for his criticism of the league's officials.

The 61-year-old Nelson, on the other hand, is an old-school guy. And even though he has made his reputation by sometimes playing basketball unconventionally, Red Auerbach, who coached Nelson in Boston, says Nelson is "the type of guy who has his a way about things and is not gong to change too many things about him."

Cuban, who often wears a t-shirt and jeans to games, is not the meddlesome type who believes he knows more about personnel than the man he hired to do the job.

"My philosophy is that I stay out of their way and let them take care of the basketball on the court," Cuban says. "My job is to make sure that they have the assets they need to make it work."

So far, that formula is succeeding.

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