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Before Cuban, the Mavs had Carter

WP: Original owner helped team succeed when no one thought it would
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Before Jason Terry took over a game and made the masses stand and scream, there was Derek Harper. Before Josh Howard scored in bunches, there was Rolando Blackman. Before Dirk Nowitzki spotted up from 24 feet, there was Brad Davis. And before Mark Cuban, there was a rich man who loved the game and sometimes made sane folks think he, too, was a few fries short of a Happy Meal.

"Twelve million is nothin' to an owner today, but back then spending $12 million on a basketball team was about the biggest mistake you could be making in football country," said Donald Carter, who brought the NBA to Dallas more than two decades ago.

The original Maverick turns 73 next week. On the night Terry and the Mavs throttled the Heat in Game 1 of the NBA Finals and all of middle Texas whooped and hollered, Carter stood courtside at American Airlines Center beside his wife, Linda, the team's first fan. He spoke beneath a silver Stetson. He wore custom-leather Lucchese boots the shade of butter.

And western jeans. And buttons on his white pressed shirt in the shape of silver stars.

Yep, Donald Carter knows it's still the Cowboys' town.

He accepted that fact when he signed the check in 1979. But before the pageantry, the pomp and grandest night in Big D pro basketball history, Carter and everyone associated with the franchise grinned as if they always knew it would work.

"I would liken it to a parent with a 26-year-old son," Carter said. "Yeah, he had his problems growing up. He didn't have a lot of money and he wasn't the most popular kid in class. In fact, in today's terms, we poor-boyed it back then. But look at him now. He's all grown up."

How much a championship run makes a city feel better about itself cannot be measured with any great accuracy. For every spike in consumerism, there's another story about a car torched on the other side of town, about cash-strapped metropolises spending money budgeted for school computers on ballparks.

But in Dallas, the sacrifice made in the name of the Mavericks and basketball was twofold. From Carter to Cuban, the goal was not filling the building as much as it was making people care. Dick Motta was never going to be Tom Landry, no matter how many games he won. Sam Perkins had a great nickname — Big Smooth — but it wasn't as good as Michael Irvin's The Playmaker.

The old building — Reunion Arena, where Harper, Blackman, Perkins, Mark Aguirre and James Donaldson made those first fans believe — was originally built for hockey. The town's richest consortium of businessmen genuinely believed hockey would work before another basketball team in Dallas.

"After the old ABA Chapparals went belly-up, nobody thought it would work," Carter said. "When we got to Reunion, there were only single digits on the scoreboard. We had to change that. Heck, we had to change a lot of things."

Harper, who now does pregame and postgame Mavericks shows for a local affiliate, almost put the Mavericks on the Finals stage in 1988.

Dallas took Pat Riley's last Lakers championship team to Game 7 at the old Forum that season.

"We were leading at halftime," Harper said ruefully in the media dining room Thursday night before he was about to go on the air. "I think we lost by seven or eight. Not that it matters now. Hell, we could have lost by a half-point, we still lost."

Harp, Ro and the rest have earned some bitterness. They were the equivalent of Earnie Shavers or Ken Norton in the 1970s, great heavyweights who could have been champion in any other era not featuring Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier.

If it wasn't Magic and Kareem undoing their dreams, it was Hakeem Olajuwon or someone else. Harper got even closer in 1994 while playing for Riley. If the Knicks did not lose Game 7 to Houston, he — not Patrick Ewing or John Starks — would have been voted the Finals MVP. As it was, Harper never even made it to an all-star game. Hands down, he is the best player to never play in an all-star game.

But maybe that's the price paid for pioneering, which is what Donald Carter and his players were back in the 1980s. They beat George Gervin and San Antonio their first game in 1980, a victory Carter still chides the Iceman about.

Carter sold the Mavericks to a group that included a diminutive investor named Ross Perot in 1997. Reunion Arena was dead by then, fans just tired of all the losing and disconnection between the town and the team.

They longed for the nights when the Mavs mattered, nights like last at American Airlines Center, where the noise in the building reached a fever pitch and Terry, Nowitzki and their stop-and-pop teammates put on a show for their fans as much as their founder.

"Ross Perot got the arena built," Carter began, "but he didn't love the game. Mark loves the game. That's what we needed."