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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Buckner's Losing It With Mavericks

December 12, 1993|MARK HEISLER

Management Secrets of Attila the Hun's Son: Unlike his revered Indiana mentor, Bob Knight, Quinn Buckner, the rookie coach of the Dallas Mavericks, has never kicked his son.

Of course, this isn't a fair comparison since Buckner doesn't have a son playing for him.

In other ways, however, Buckner has managed to come off as an NBA version of the IU-Tollah, railroading players, ignoring administrators, turning up his nose at the press.

This adds up to the biggest miscalculation since Knight offered a referee on the other side of the court a chair. Buckner's players aren't teen-agers on scholarship but young men with multimillion-dollar contracts. His front office delights in his struggles with his players. The press is covering it without asking him for guidance or volunteering to ghost his autobiography. I don't think we're in Bloomington any more, Toto.

Everyone thought the Mavericks had hit bottom last season when they threatened to break the 76ers' 9-73 record and almost punted away Jim Jackson, who refused to sign, then knocked down a trade to the Lakers in a three-way deal with Milwaukee for Todd Day.

Buckner's hiring seemed to signal an end to years of chaos. He had a well-rounded background, 10 years in the NBA plus two in the cradle of coaches, NBC. He was pleasant and hard-working.

Jackson signed immediately and led a rally that carried the Mavericks to 11-71. They got another wonder-rookie, Jamal Mashburn. With no expectations this season, they had only to learn the NBA together, go back into the lottery and build a beautiful tomorrow.

What could go wrong?

First Buckner met the front office, decisively.

Hired at the sole recommendation of personnel director Rick Sund, Buckner turned around and brought in Stu Inman, giving him duties parallel to Sund's. Buckner might have been appropriately leery of Maverick execs who had blown so many decisions, but this naked power grab let the old-timers know what they could expect in a Mighty Quinn administration.

Next, Buckner met the press, reluctantly.

Routine questions were met by stolid replies that whatever was being asked was "an internal matter."

For example, he said he couldn't discuss qualifications for assistants because candidates might read his comments and shape their answers accordingly.

Next, Buckner met his players, noisily.

First, he drew down on Derek Harper, the closest thing to Mr. Maverick left in town. Harper was a hard worker, a stand-up guy and very popular among his teammates, especially rookies like Mashburn, whom he had always extended himself to.

Buckner thought Harper was a misplaced shooting guard and made his disdain known, hooking him at any pretext.

Once, he pulled him 3 minutes 47 seconds into a game, telling him, according to Harper: "I'm just giving you a blow."

Hardly convinced, Harper swore as he walked past Buckner, kicked the press table and later gave his version in detail to the press. Buckner said it was an internal matter.

Losses began to mount as players struggled with the triangle offense Buckner had imported from Chicago. The Mavericks arrived at the Forum Dec. 1 averaging 90 points per game, a pace that would make them the lowest-scoring team in 39 years.

That night they lost the opening tip. The Lakers scored. With 24 seconds gone, Buckner called a 20-second timeout.

Moments later, Mashburn took a 20-footer early in the shot clock and Buckner hooked him. He kept him sitting all of the second half and Mashburn went off afterward.

"I think everybody questions it," he said. "Everyone wants to know what's going on. All of us are confused. We don't know what to do. . . .

"People are just running out there, running to spots, afraid to make a mistake or you'll come out and get an earful."

Buckner said this was an internal matter, too.

"The game is 100 years old," he said. "This is the way it's been done 100 years. I'm not creating the wheel. This is the way the wheel turns."

Not in pro basketball, it doesn't. The next day Buckner was obliged to convene a meeting and listen to his players tell him what they didn't like about him.

"It was a learning experience and anytime you learn, I think you're humbled in some form or fashion," he said afterward.

"Yeah, I think sometimes they misconstrue the toughness that I want to come across, the traits that are to be carried onto the court, probably as a non-openness. But I think this is two months into what will be, as far as I'm concerned, a very long relationship."

Of course, the Mavericks have lost all the games since, but things are looking up. Buckner has only won once, but he has already learned which end of the barrel the bullet comes out of.

LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE HAWKS

No surprise in the NBA compares to Lenny Wilkens' start in Atlanta, where the aging, hopelessly mediocre, written off and nowhere-with-more-disdain-than-this column Hawks have shot to the top of the Central Division.

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