On the night Shaquille O'Neal cemented his legacy as a four-time champion, on the night Dwyane Wade took his place among the game's greatest shooting guards at just 24 years of age, all of Dallas was agog over the "mistreatment" of its pro basketball team. On the night the NBA Finals ended on the Western Conference champion's home court, a martyred organization sacrificed a championship for what it believed was a worthier cause: The Cuban Whistle Crisis.
This is what got lost in the self-immolation of the Mavericks on Tuesday night, the virtual collapse from nearly three games up to four losses and out. Dallas's loss of composure and victimhood the past eight days took away from the real plotlines in Miami's clinching Game 6 victory.
While Mark Cuban, Avery Johnson and their players complained a series away, the Heat won a historic title, and now Pat Riley gets the parade down Biscayne Boulevard he spoke of 11 years ago on a cruise ship called "The Imagination." He reenters the pantheon of Red Auerbach, Larry Brown and Phil Jackson, becoming the fourth coach to win five titles.
O'Neal delivers the championship promise he made in July 2004, and deferred to Wade in the same way Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gracefully became a role player behind Magic Johnson late in his career.
And Alonzo Mourning, dunking and blocking shots with malice at 36, becomes the first of the Georgetown big-man brethren to earn a championship ring.
That they had to share their night of championship bliss with those endless ABC cutaways of Cuban seething in his Mavs jersey was almost insulting.
Cuban started a game of chicken with David Stern long before he was fined $250,000 on Tuesday for his raffish behavior after Game 5. The owner's campaign to improve NBA officiating dates back more than five years. No owner has been more proactive in scrutinizing referees, making the league accountable for its on-court gaffes and awful decision-making.
Calling out some of the people he believes are the worst offenders has cost Cuban in the neighborhood of $1.5 million. If you don't think some of those referees haven't taken some of that criticism to heart and looked long and hard at their weaknesses, you're wrong. As niggling and annoying as Cuban may seem, his rants and spreadsheets have had a profound effect on the game's integrity. Whether he's right or misguided, someone with resources and time is watching every single play of every single game.
But at what point does that mentality and inherent distrust in the process filter down to your coach, your players and your fans to the point where they are willing to risk personal accountability for a cause that has no place in the NBA Finals? At what point do you take away from what may be the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history? At what point does your deep-seated belief in a personal vendetta of the NBA commissioner get in the way of the ultimate mission?
Avery Johnson comported himself poorly during the three losses in Miami, turning his news conferences into these sorry, blame-the-messenger mentality diatribes that just looked so, well, unAvery. The Mavericks coach bought into Cuban's thesis: Dallas Is the Little Team That Could, but Won't Because Stern Won't Let Them.
Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard are the key players who have been responsible for failing to close the door on Miami, and they, too, got caught up in essentially declaring, "We wuz robbed." Nowitzki is the player who was fined $5,000 for punting a ball into the stands, where it caught a 63-year-old man in the side of the head. Taking a cue from their owner and coach, Dallas's best players lost their composure. That's not top-down management. That's a meltdown from above.
With each conspiratorial reference, the game lost. The talk before Game 6 was more about the controversy than the competition. It's why everyone walking into the American Airlines Center last night was joking about O'Neal picking up two fouls — in the pregame layup line.
It's why more than 50 percent of the country, in an internet survey, felt the Mavericks would even up the series in Game 6. Of course, Johnson's team would get some calls. The Mavericks wouldn't play themselves into a Game 7; Stern would, of course, issue a make-up decree with the three referees working the game, in order to ensure a Steel-Cage Death Match Game 7 on Thursday night.
It never happened, and that's a good thing. Because now Mourning, Gary Payton, Jason Williams, Antoine Walker and Shandon Anderson — Miami's second-chance club — can enjoy their championship.
Mourning thought his career was over when he was found to have a kidney disorder. His best years behind him, he signed on for one more run. "Pat and Dikembe came so close, so if I got there this would definitely be for them, too," 'Zo said of Ewing and Mutombo, former NBA Finalists who never got their rings.
Payton was supposed to be done, too, a shadow of one of the NBA's stingiest defenders. But he managed to make two huge shots in this series at 37 years old, showing all of the Mavericks youngsters he still has some of Oakland's Mosswood Park in his game.
Anderson came so close with Utah in 1997 and 1998, but ran into the legend of Michael. Williams and Walker? As much as this series has been about Wade and the stars, it's also been the Reprobate Resurrection Series. No one wanted those players at different points in their careers; they were believed to be cancers in the locker room and on the court. Now, those former knuckleheads have changed the way people perceive their careers.
Riley banished his Texas demons from 12 years ago when his Knicks couldn't close the deal with a 3-2 lead in Houston. Those were the best stories on the eve of Game 6, not whether you believe the Dallas Mavericks were a victim of Stern's wrath, whether the Cuban Whistle Crisis had any merit or not.
That theory never belonged in the same class as Miami winning it all.