There’s two extremes to the last game of the NBA Season. On one end there’s the Minnesota Timberwolves facing the Denver Nuggets for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs, effectively a Wild Card Playoff game that was resolved in overtime. Two teams with young budding superstar talent, coaches on the proverbial hotseat and fanbases yearning for success. On the other end there’s two teams interlocked in a dive to the bottom like two skydivers who’ve purposely tangled their parachutes to see who can reach the bottom first, that is to say the Phoenix Suns vs the Dallas Mavericks. At first read this may seem like hyperbole but the lengths to which the Suns have gone through to lose are exceptional. The Mavs’ tank strategy hasn’t been as blatant but their tanking has been more notorious due in large part to their owner, Mark Cuban, openly saying the best option for the team was to lose and getting a six hundred thousand dollar fine in the process. It can be said that for fans of these two teams, and other teams involved in tanking the last game of the season is filled with more hope than those of teams that are in the lower bracket of the playoffs, but the last game itself is like trying to squeeze juice out of a completely dry lime. It’s genuinely taxing to try and be excited for it. I am a Mavs fan and I attended the game in person, this is a record of what it felt like to be there, at the culmination of the tank.
The tickets for the game were 9 dollars each they were situated in the third highest row of the American Airlines Center. Getting there was a hassle in and of itself as the nearest escalator was broken and the line to use the closest elevator was longer than the line to get into the arena itself. The stairs were of no use as was discovered after multiple flights of the stairs when the door to actually access the concourse was locked. Down the flights again, to the opposite end of the arena up an escalator, around the corner to section 320. By this time the game had already started, the pregame festivities had been missed and of the 10 players on the floor only 4 Mavs and 1 Sun were familiar to me. For non fans of this team the game featured a veritable “Who’s Who of who’s that?”. The jokes have all been made but of the Mavs original starters only one was in heavy rotation, Dwight Powell was the closest to a starter and though he has improved tremendously in the year he’s not enough of a figure to turn a game around. The product on the floor was expectedly, not good. Last games of the season are this way and strange figures arise in meaningless games. Whether it be the heartwarming story of a 32 year old rookie who spent 10 years in the G League, or in the case of this game the star was 22 year old two way contract player Alec Peters who lit up the scoreboard with 36 pts going 8/13 on 3 pointers.
It can be said that for fans of these two teams, and other teams involved in tanking the last game of the season is filled with more hope than those of teams that are in the lower bracket of the playoffs, but the last game itself is like trying to squeeze juice out of a completely dry lime
Basketball was almost secondary in this night however. From atop my seemingly mile high perch on row K of section 320, I could see vast numbers of seats empty. The blue giveaway T-Shirts that said “Dallas for Dik” and had a lenghty and sappy( but kinda beautiful) thank you poem to Dirk Nowitzki minimized the effect of the emptiness but there was no denying the arena was mostly lifeless. Despite repeated efforts from the arena announcer to pump up the crowd barely anyone moved. There were a handful of dunks that brought the arena to life, which is a testament to the enduring effect of a vicious dunk regardless of the setting. The loudest moment of the night in the entire arena was when Danuel House Jr of the Suns rose above the rim and slammed it down with almost Russ Westbrook like fury. The crowd came alive with a resounding “OOOOO” that filled the arena and for a fleeting moment it felt like there was an honest to goodness basketball game happening. This was interrupted by an immediate timeout right after. The only other time the crowd was anywhere near that lively was during the 4th quarter break when the kiss cam featured a marriage proposal for a less than enthused girl, who despite what her face indicated actually accepted the proposal.
The highlight of the day was when near the middle of the second quarter one of the drunk dudes sitting two seats away was coming back from the concession stand, popcorn bucket in one hand plastic cup of beer in the other. As he tried to do the cool guy move of stepping over the entire row below to reach his seat. He managed to raise one leg but lost his balance, his shin bone hung in the air listless for a split second before he started falling back. The seats at the upper deck of all arenas are arranged in such a way that the seat backs of the row below end slightly higher than where the floor of the current level is, so it’s a very steep angle. This young man tumbled back one row, popcorn flew all over the place, he landed in an empty seat and kept rolling, beer now splattered the row below where he was at and he tumbled onto that one, and finally rested a row below that one on the backs of two gentleman who up onto that point had no idea they were in the Indiana Jones boulder scene. He travelled a total of four rows, but at one point it seemed like he wouldn’t stop and it was a little bit alarming. As he slowly got up and blankly stared at the people he had showered in popcorn and beer before making his way up to his friends (none of which helped him), I laughed.
The crowd came alive with a resounding “OOOOO” that filled the arena and for a fleeting moment it felt like there was an honest to goodness basketball game happening
Last year Mark Cuban said that if the Dallas Mavericks were in the Eastern Conference they would be in playoff contention. The team had drafted a very promising rookie point guard, Harrison Barnes would continue developing, Dirk was still around and maybe Nerlens Noel who had opted out of a 70 million dollar contract because he thought he could play himself into a bigger deal would go all out. As the season started Vegas odds predicted the Mavs would get 35 wins,CBS predicted 37 wins and a 22% percent chance of making the playoffs. Once everything was said and done the Mavericks ended the season wit only 24 wins which was the third worst record in the league, and the 22% percent chance of making the playoffs had quickly evaporated. The last game was a formality it was dead. The Mavericks had stumbled and tumbled down way more rows than what was comfortable for a fan to see. Following a tanking team is similar to watching a drunk dude fall down four rows in the upper level, it wasn’t necessarily good to look at and it was precarious at times but ultimately as the season ends we all just stand there and blankly stare for a few seconds before laughing. We made it, we survived, we didn’t get destroyed and there’s hope for the future.
The game was bad. The atmosphere was boring. The Dirk shirt was cool. I left the American Airlines Center relieved that the season was over, grateful that basketball even in its most insignificant and “distasteful” state can still have fantastic awe inspiring moments. Grateful that a tanking season is never quite as bad as completely falling off the edge, but mostly hopeful that the fruits of this will bear out sometime soon and finally relieved it’s over. Next season will be better. Hopefully.