After boarding the last Orange Line train at Victory Station, my voice still hoarse and heart still heavy from a lopsided loss to the Indiana Pacers, reality slowly sank in in. With the season quickly winding to a close, this particular loss represented a critical lost opportunity for Dallas to gain ground in the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
The pain of the moment was visible in the long faces of several of the passengers in the packed train car. After a few moments, a couple’s conversation broke the silence. The husband, a white-haired man in a blue-haired wig, turned to his wife while searching for the right words to describe the game we had all just witnessed.
“Well, that was … heartbreaking, huh? Hard to think of a worse way to lose a more important game…”
The wife simply shook her head in disbelief as her husband’s sentence trailed off. Before she could speak, another passenger softly interjected by muttering a single word: “Pitiful.”
The wife again nodded, breaking her stunned silence by noting that “This just isn’t Dallas Mavericks basketball.”
While I certainly shared their disappointment in the outcome, I found it difficult to share their sense of disappointment in this Mavericks team. Dallas fans have rightly developed high expectations, the product of owning the NBA’s longest active playoff streak, and those expectations make it easy to view the possibility of a season without a playoff finish as a failure. If success is defined solely in terms of wins and losses then 2012-2013 was indeed just that.
Focusing solely on wins and losses, however, is a flawed way of measuring what makes a season successful. John Wooden, the legendary coach of ten NCAA champions at UCLA over a twelve-year period, defined success in different terms. In his book Wooden on Leadership, Wooden defined success as “Peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.” Wooden loved to win as much as anyone else, but cautioned those who treat winning alone as success that “there is a standard higher than winning the race; effort is the ultimate measure of your success.” By Wooden’s standards, the Mavericks’ 2012-2013 season has been highly successful.
The Mavericks have had no shortage of problems but the group’s effort has been exemplary. Rick Carlisle and veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion, the lone holdovers left in Dallas to battle this season’s shifting roster and nagging injuries, have put in the same tireless effort that guided them to a championship. Vince Carter has been a consummate leader, submitting night after night of inspired play during troubled times. O.J. Mayo is playing through a sprained AC joint and doing everything he can to keep the Mavericks alive in the playoff hunt. Journeymen like Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Darren Collison have all accepted inconsistent minutes like professionals and put the team first.
This inspiring collective effort seemed lost on those DART passengers, who coined the loss a heartbreaking, pitiful display unbecoming of Dallas’ traditional standards. The results haven’t always been pretty but the season’s result is far from “heartbreaking.” This should be especially clear to Dallas Mavericks fans, who know a thing or two about heartbreak. It was heartbreaking when the Mavericks took a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA finals, only to watch it slip away as they ceded four straight contests to the Miami Heat. It was heartbreaking to watch Dirk accept his lone Most Valuable Player award in tears after his top-seeded, 67-win Mavericks collapsed in the first round of the NBA playoffs to the eight-seeded Golden State Warriors. It was heartbreaking to bid farewell to key members of the championship squad, including Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Several of this season’s losses have been discouraging , and missing the playoffs would indeed hurt, but these struggles hardly qualify as heartbreaking.
The unusually high number of losses has revealed that Dallas still needs many things — a starting-caliber point guard and center would be nice — but it certainly doesn’t need pity. The Mavericks players don’t pity themselves, so why should their fans pity them? It would have been easy for players to lower their heads and feel sorry for themselves, accepting defeat underneath the weight of injuries, age and inconsistency. This team never did so. Instead, to a man, they stuck by one another and refused to point fingers, demanding more of themselves after each setback. They never found a way to cohesively function as a unit on the floor, but they never faltered in maintaining cohesion as a unit in the locker room.
The on-court product hasn’t been typical “Dallas Mavericks basketball,” but the organization’s commitment to excellence hasn’t dampened. Mark Cuban’s enthusiasm certainly hasn’t waned, nor has Carlisle’s trademark intensity or belief in his team. Unlike some organizations, whose sparsely-populated arenas half-heartedly cheer as their stars line the bench with phantom injuries, Dallas’ stars have fought through injuries to keep their dim playoff hopes alive, risking life and limb for one another in pursuit of a shared goal.
Many Dallas fans have narrowly focused on one “P” word — playoffs — to judge the team’s success. A better set of variables are embodied in Wooden’s legendary “four Ps”. Wooden argued that “how you run the race — your planning, preparation, practice and performance — counts for everything. Winning or losing is only a by-product of that effort.” This Mavericks team has run the race with determination and spirit, never yielding in the face of adversity. Dallas fans should feel pride in judging this Mavericks season as something of a success, regardless of whether it ends with a trip to the postseason.