You know the drill. The Difference is, under most normal circumstances, a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin. These are not normal circumstances.
Jason Terry is holding court in the Mavericks’ locker room, just as he always does, but the swath of reporters that typically surrounds him is not a swath. It’s a sea. It feeds endlessly into waves of cameras and recorders. Ian Mahinmi can be seen across the room, clad in only a towel, holding his arms up above it all as he attempts to pass through — literally wading through the gulf that now stands between him and his own locker.
It’s not surprising that such a contingent has flooded around Terry. He’s become a mouthpiece of sorts for the organization, a quotable commodity that has become even more valuable to soundbite-seekers with Mark Cuban uncharacteristically silent. JET’s statements come pre-packaged for journalistic use, with just the right amount of bravado, insight, and cliché. He’s a talker. This is just what he does. The regulars that follow the team know it, and apparently so do all of the other reporters and cameramen who have seemingly come up through the woodwork. Terry sits, fielding question after question after question, and responding with the punch of a veteran politician. Or maybe just a veteran ballplayer, but with all of the noncommittal responses, who can tell the difference?
Terry, J.J. Barea, and Brendan Haywood comprise the first wave of available Mavs. Barea draws his own sizable crowd of English and Spanish-speaking media, but one media member can be heard telling her cameraman partner to get in position for “Barrera.” Picking apart defenses en route to the NBA Finals may have earned Barea nation-wide respect (or detest, depending on your point of view, I suppose), but it does not, apparently, ensure the correct pronunciation of his name. This might be the first time he’s been called “Barrera,” since being crowned a Western Conference champion, but it’s only a precursor for the frequent pronuncial butcherings to come.
Oddly, Brendan Haywood doesn’t have all that much going on around his locker, despite the fact that he’s perhaps every bit as quotable as Terry. The distinction may lie in the fact that Haywood is more truth-teller than politician; his words draw interest when they’re seen as having the potential to incite conflict, but otherwise, he’s just a back-up center doing what he can to dissect and explain the world around him.
Haywood has been characterized by perceived sulking or brooding over his last season and a half in Dallas, but he’s understandably easy in moments like this one. He talks about wanting to be the back-up center on a team headed to the Finals rather than relishing in a role with more playing time or more touches. He jokes candidly about his words being taken out of their original context prior to Game 5, words which he notes as being more light-hearted than they appeared in text. He’s not just a flagrant fouling machine, but an interesting — if occasionally abrasive, for better and worse — voice within the team. He’s just buried beneath Terry’s charisma, Dirk Nowitzki’s quiet charm, and Jason Kidd’s veneration. Haywood may not always give some writers exactly what they want to hear for their pre-penned stories, but if you ask the right questions and listen closely, Haywood has a lot to offer.
But his smaller scrum naturally drifts into a group waiting for Tyson Chandler — the bigger star, the bigger name, the bigger personality. Haywood waits in his chair to answer the questions of the stragglers, but what may have once belonged to him now belongs to Chandler. Dozens of media members wait around Chandler’s empty locker, chattering amongst themselves in lieu of chatting with Haywood, or DeShawn Stevenson — who stands shirtless at his locker speaking with media members, wearing a scowl of sorts until the word “Finals” lets escape a slight smile — or Brian Cardinal — who dresses in front of his locker undisturbed save one man with no recorder — or Peja Stojakovic — who has a smirk plastered to his face, perhaps making him as one-dimensional in the locker room as he is on the court. The boxing out around the locker of a prominent player isn’t so different from what goes on in the regular season, but it’s all a bit more deliberate; rather than float aimlessly in the vicinity of a particular locker, now the camps are set. Ladders are deployed and cameras are at the ready, all positioned around an empty locker.
Shawn Marion field questions while wearing shades with orange lenses, and talks of the Mavs’ stomachs being “three-fourths full.” Whether he knows it or not, LeBron James is already in and on his mind, even as he goes on to mention that he doesn’t care who Dallas will face in the series to come. Regardless, Marion sees a world in warm tones and unintentionally borrowed analogies.
He politely answers the same question, posed repeatedly with only slightly altered structure. One would think that there are only so many ways to ask Marion about the significance of the Mavs’ experience, but a few tweaked words apparently qualifies as an entirely new question to some. Marion tries his best to make each answer unique, but all of his words begin to bleed together. Even a character like Marion is made a bit repetitive by way of an absurd, redundant media presence.
Marion lifts his glasses as he talks about the Mavs’ belief in themselves, a trust in a system and team that he says has never wavered. He doesn’t stare into space as he dispenses canned confidence, but looks at virtually each media member directly. He wants you to know this. He wants you to know that the Mavs believed, through the regular season and Caron Butler’s injury, through the sprints and slogs, through the first and second rounds that they weren’t supposed to win. The shades will eventually come back down, but Marion’s insistence on that belief does not.
Nothing has changed…in a sense. Dallas believes in their championship hopes as much now as they did on Media Day. Yet to ignore the fundamental difference in the atmosphere both on the floor and within the belly of the American Airlines Center is foolish. There is a discernible difference, even if it exists most obviously in the cosmetics of media prevalence. The players don’t just talk of big games, but have lived them. We all dispense of hypotheticals, because in a most improbable scenario, the Dallas Mavericks are the first team in the NBA Finals. Things aren’t the same. They can’t be, and never will be again. There is a fundamental difference between today and yesterday, between the playoffs and the regular season, between this Mavericks team and the one we saw over 82 games. It may not be drastic, but this is more than just a step in a process for those same Mavs that started the season so full of hope.
Jason Terry still fields questions roughly a half-hour later, and the ocean across the locker room remains. But Dirk dresses quietly — the space around his locker is perhaps the only few feet without a recording device or probing reporter. He prepares for his press conference facing his locker, and more poetically, facing the picture of the Larry O’Brien trophy that hangs within it. Terry, Nowitzki’s locker room neighbor, has the same picture hanging in his, undoubtedly as a reminder of what was nearly theirs, and now what nearly is again.
Haywood remarks about Dirk’s black shirt — “Johnny Cash!” — and then Nowitzki departs to a walk of waves and nods on his way to the interview room, which is naturally full to the brim with even more cameras and recorders and media members. What came from the sea has returned to the sea.
At the stand, Nowitzki rambles a bit, launching into the exhaustive answers that have practically become his trademark. Nowitzki is many things to many people, but after games he is hardly pithy. The hyper-efficient Dirk and the one sitting, leaned back and clutching the mic as he stares through the table and rattles off answers, are somehow one in the same.
With his press conference duties fulfilled, Nowitzki finally escapes…to one more set of media members, though this group speaking his native tongue. Nowitzki and his counterpart walk the halls of the AAC, as Dirk pushes the hair behind his ears. He probably tugged at the upper left side of his imaginary jersey, too, completing the routine for this one last free throw. I imagine it’s hard to keep gait with toes pointed inward and knees bent ever so slightly, but there’s no question that Dirk’s eyes are focused on completing this one final task before he can breathe easy.
Dirk finally makes his way toward the garage, where only he and his police escort will go. His walk is slow, but not heavy; there’s no lightness, but only deliberation. He marches, but somehow does so without the slightest rigidity. As they trail off down the hall, talking and laughing along the way, Nowitzki finally finds respite. In that moment, he offers himself the slightest concession. To this point, nothing in Nowitzki’s actions or words has suggested celebration. He answered questions with the same standard tone, acknowledged fans with the same humility, and even escaped before the presentation of the Western Conference Championship trophy had fully concluded. Yet as he and the officer round the corner into the garage, Nowitzki indulges in a single and final celebratory act: a subtle high five, a prize worthy of a conference champion looking to accomplish so much more.