MIAMI — If the unofficial start of the NBA season came when LeBron James uttered the most infamous nine-word phrase of the past 11 months — “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” — then it came full circle on Sunday night, when the Dallas Mavericks won their first championship at American Airlines Arena and promptly took the Larry O’Brien trophy to South Beach for a lavish party, an excess in opulence.
Shortly after the Mavericks vanquished the free agent champion Miami Heat, owner Mark Cuban rented out the night club Liv, where his players marched on their opponents’ party turf like conquering heroes. They proudly sang “We Are the Champions,” Jason Terry spread his arms and pretended to fly around the trophy whose image he already has tattooed on his right biceps, and NBA Finals most valuable player Dirk Nowitzki sipped from an insane, 31-liter, gold bottle of champagne.
The celebration may have been a little flashy and over the top, but unlike the free agent party that announced the union of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was somewhat justified for a veteran-laden team and a big-mouthed, big-spending owner who had to endure years of disappointment to reach the pinnacle.
“We’re the world champs. Nobody can ever take that away from me. So that’s really the best thing about this,” Nowitzki said after he finally captured the championship that he spent nearly half of his life chasing.
Nowitzki and the Mavericks underwent a remarkable transformation over the course of this postseason, going from a team many doubted would advance beyond the first round — something Dallas had been unable to do in three of the previous four seasons — to one that walloped the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers, schooled Oklahoma City and throttled the heavily favored Heat to avenge a loss in the 2006 Finals.
Nowitzki has been the centerpiece of the Mavericks for more than a decade, with Cuban and Donnie Nelson, Dallas’s president of basketball operations, making several bold moves to find the correct pieces to put around him. They let Steve Nash leave in 2004 and become a two-time MVP and replaced him with Terry, brought back Jason Kidd at the 2008 trade deadline, acquired Shawn Marion in a sign-and-trade the next summer, raided the rebuilding Washington Wizards for Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson, and finally make a deal with Charlotte to get the vocal defensive leader they needed in center Tyson Chandler.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no quick solutions. There’s not a single template for winning the championship. If there was, everybody would do it,” Cuban said after maintaining a self-imposed muzzle throughout the playoffs. “So you just have to hope you get a little bit lucky, hope things break your way and you go out there and do it.”
At times, Cuban found himself overpaying for mediocrity but it never stopped his ambition to make the Mavericks relevant at the box office and on the court. No trade or signing was more instrumental to the Mavericks than re-signing Nowitzki to a four-year extension last summer. And Nelson admitted that there was some angst as Nowitzki became an unrestricted free agent last summer.
“Believe me, there was a lot of temptation out there,” Nelson said. “Dirk had a lot of that stuff in front of him. He stuck with the original high school sweetheart.”
Nowitzki repaid the loyalty that was shown to him since the Mavericks made a draft-day deal to acquire him in 1998.
Cuban said he resisted overtures to deal Nowitzki for Kobe Bryant when Bryant had demanded a trade from the Lakers four years ago and stuck with the sharp-shooting German even as others doubted his ability to ever lead Dallas to a title. “I’ve never questioned Dirk. Never even a little bit,” said Cuban, who claims to have slept with the Larry O’Brien trophy early Monday morning.
Cuban convinced Nowitzki to come back by promising that he would continue to do whatever it took to win a championship. “It wouldn’t have felt right to win it somewhere else,” Nowitzki said. “Sticking to Dallas, that was the plan. We fell short so many times. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. . . . I give Mark a lot of credit. He stuck with me through thick and thin. He brought all the right players always in, always trying to spend money and make this organization better and this team better. So Mark is the best.”
James may never share the exhilaration that Nowitzki felt in staying and dealing with heartache with the same franchise for 13 years before winning a prize. His controversial “Decision” had many hoping to see him fail, but James said that negativity didn’t affect him.
“Absolutely not,” James said. “Because at the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
The real world for Nowitzki and the Mavericks is that they can all call themselves champions. “They were not going to be denied. Dirk and Jet have had to live for five years with what happened in 2006, and as of tonight, those demons are officially destroyed,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said. “Our team is not about individual ability; it’s about collective will, collective grit, collective guts. We’re skilled and talented, too, but our game is on the ground. And the guys we were playing, their game was in the air. Fortunately, as the series went on, we stayed on the ground enough to be able to win it.
“Look, Miami’s time is going to come. Their talent is undeniable. At some point it’s going to carry the day. There’s no doubt about that. But their time is not now. Our time is now. It needed to be now.”