Mark Aguirre Flourishes Under New Regime, 1988

[We’ve all had jobs that are, well, a little challenging. Whether it’s coping with a difficult boss, unfair office politics, unrealistic expectations, professional dysfunction, or boredom performing the menial tasks.

For Mark Aguirre, his most-challenging NBA workplace was his first one in Dallas with the expansion Mavericks. As highlighted in an earlier post,  the young Aguirre and the old-school coach Dick Motta, the veteran disciplinarian waiting to groom him as the team’s top draft choice in 1981. They were a profoundly Odd Couple that weathered six contentious and mostly losing seasons. Through the ups and many downs, Aguirre vowed to do better. But better inevitably boiled over into more bickering and demands to be traded.

In May 1987, Motta retired. No Motta meant Aguirre finally could do it his way in Dallas. Or, at least do it more harmoniously with his new coach, John MacLeod, previously the respected head man in Phoenix. This article from the Dallas Morning News’ Mitch Lawrence, which ran in April 1988 issue of Basketball Digest, lays out the hope and the skepticism that Aguirre would ever buck up and flourish in Dallas, even with a new coach.]

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Mark Aguirre’s hand clips T.R. Dunn in the face, causing the Nuggets’ guard to slump to the basketball floor in pain. The sight of the Mavericks forward rushing over to help Dunn to his feet instead of returning immediately to the defensive end provides a flashback. The date is December 19, 1985.

As the Mavericks prepare for their game in Atlanta, Dick Motta is feeling unusually good about his team. The Mavericks recently have acquired James Donaldson, the center they have been looking for since the franchise’s inception. The Mavericks’ coach is so moved by the rosy outlook, he makes a speech before the game. He says that this team reminds him of his championship club in Washington. It is something special and could go a long way. He has this “feeling.”

But the good vibrations turn to bad vibes. In the second quarter, Aguirre continues to engage in his friendly game of H-O-R-S-E with Dominique Wilkins. The two stars match jumpers for jumpers, drives for drives, bank shots for bank shots. Motta burns.

The explosion comes when Wilkins falls down. Instead of going off on the fastbreak with this team, Aguirre stops and helps his foe to his feet. Motta has seen enough. He pulls his star out of the game, accuses him of not hustling, and at halftime asks Aguirre if he wants to continue. Upset by his coach’s tactics, Aguirre refuses. He Is hit with a two-game suspension.

Motta is asked about his pregame feeling. “Must have been gas,” he says.

Fast forward to November 1, 1987. Once Aguirre saw that Dunn was not hurt, he ran back on defense to cover Calvin Natt. Unlike December 1985, there were no evil glares or hateful words exchanged between Aguirre and the bench. John MacLeod, the new Mavericks coach, smiled but said nothing. For the first time in Mark Aguirre’s turbulent playing days, peace is at hand.

Maybe.

Aguirre says this is a new year, but he has been involved in more of those than Guy Lombardo. New Mark Aguirres are a cliché. As great a scorer as Aguirre has been, it has been his stormy relationships with his coaches that have been the focal point of his college and pro careers. Despite his poor track record for keeping promises, he predicted before this season began that he will go the entire year without subjecting his teammates, the Mavericks’ front office, or the fans to one of his infamous temper tantrums.

“I’m not even concerned about those blowups happening anymore—because they won’t,” he said. “Not with John MacLeod. Now, I’ve got a coach who’s behind me, instead of one who is looking for something to hang over my head every day.

“In the past, Coach Motta would get his point across by putting it in the newspaper. He tarnished my career from day one, and frankly, I’ll probably never get over it. But I don’t have to weather this situation anymore.

“There aren’t going to be any differences between me and Coach MacLeod. That’s the truth. If something does happen, you won’t know about it anyway. That’s the way John is going to handle it. Without the hype. That’s the way a family should be. You don’t tell people everything that happens in your family, right?”

Aguirre has seemed happier on the court this year and has certainly been happier off it. At midseason, Aguirre was averaging 27 points and six rebounds per game, and the Mavericks were in first place.

“I had a rough time here for seven years with Coach Motta,” Aguirre said. “Other players might not have had as tough a time as I did. There were several times I asked to be traded, and I was serious. I think they must have gotten sick of me coming in the office and asking to be traded.

“Dick was a good coach, but he treated us like basketball players. Coach MacLeod treats us like men.

“You can write all you want about how I played. You can say I played good or I played bad. But you can’t write any of that other stuff. That’s over. The thing I like about Coach MacLeod is I don’t have to read about certain things in the paper.”

Aguirre would have had problems with Motta after taking less than 10 shots in a game. But after he did just that in an early season game against Seattle, MacLeod didn’t blow up. “He told me I had to look to score,” Aguirre said. “He just pulled me aside in practice and said, ‘Get your shot.’ At least I didn’t have to read about it in the paper like I would have in the past.”

For the Mavericks to be one big happy family, the onus clearly is on Aguirre. He had differences with Ray Meyer, the grandfatherly DePaul coach, during his college days. Meyer, now retired from coaching, still hasn’t figured out why he and Aguirre never had the best of relationships.

“I don’t know if it was the environment he came from or how he was brought up,” said Meyer. “But Mark just had trouble getting along with grownups.”

When he heard how Aguirre had predicted trouble-free relations with a new coach, Meyer invoked a cliché older than the new Mark Aguirre. “Well, actions speak louder than words,” he said. “He’s on the spot now. He’s got to live up to it. Or otherwise, people will be tired of hearing him say it.”

Maverick fans heard it enough during the Motta years. The relationship between Aguirre and Motta, a coach from the old school who would not compromise his principles one iota for any player, started out as verbal feuding. The test of wills was well-chronicled in Dallas headlines over the course of their Six Year War: 

“Aguirre’s December Mood Concerns Mavericks”;

 “Calm Day for Motta, Aguirre”;

Aguirre Shows Improvement Since Spat”; 

“Motta: Aguirre’s Behavior Puzzling, could be Serious”; 

“Aguirre Repentance; Motta Skeptical”; 

“Aguirre Fed up with Motta”; 

“Peace Again, Aguirre and Motta Resolve Problems.”

Motta tried to resolve the problem a new way last year: Ignore Aguirre. With Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper acting as traffic cops, keeping Aguirre and Motta traveling on opposite lanes to prevent a head-on collision, the strategy worked through the first 66 games.

But the inevitable happened during a March game against Detroit at Reunion Arena. On a night when officials seemingly left their whistles at home, Motta warned his team that they better settle in for a 48-minute battle. Disregarding Motta’s advice, Aguirre started complaining to the officials. Soon, he was hit with two technical and was ejected.

As he passed the Mavericks’ bench, Motta no longer could make believe Aguirre did not exist. “What about the game?” Motta said.

“I don’t give a @%#54! about the game,” Aguirre answered.

In the locker room at halftime, the two began shouting. Motta called Aguirre a “coward” and “quitter.” James Donaldson positioned himself in front of Aguirre’s stall, so the words would not erupt into anything physical.

“I think Mark has grown more from that incident than any other in the past,” said Donaldson. “He was a really different guy after that game. He saw that we can still go on and win without him. That’s why I was not expecting any trouble between Mark and Dick this year.”

No one will ever know that. The Aguirre-Motta feud came to a sudden halt when Motta surprisingly retired after last season. With a new coach, the pressure was placed squarely on Aguirre to show his age and maturity. He can no longer point his finger at Motta, claiming that he was the culprit. Though Aguirre was cast almost always as the villain of the feud, there was always that shadow of doubt.

“No matter who was right or wrong in the past, Mark has a lot to prove now,” general manager Norm Sonju said as the season began. “The ball is in his court because Mark Aguirre is the fixture, and John MacLeod is the variable.

“We understand that. But we also know that everything is going for him. He has the organization, the coach, and the assistants all on his side. No one will be pushing him in the wrong direction. He has to respond well.”

Said Dr. Charles Tucker, Aguirre’s adviser for the last six years: ”If he doesn’t change, he’ll be run out of town. He’s going to be vulnerable if there’s a new problem. The question is there. You can’t avoid it.”

MacLeod said he will do everything in his power to make the relationship work. Unlike the rigid Motta, who considered it against his code of ethics to treat one player differently from the rest, MacLeod will bend over backward to help maintain what has been a smooth relationship so far.

“The encouraging thing is that there are no confrontational attitudes,” said Blackman. “Coach MacLeod does not have Dick’s attitude, where it was, ‘Do it my way or get out of here.’ Coach MacLeod is tough as nails, but he’ll sit and listen. It’s more of a situation of ‘let’s work it out.’”

MacLeod says he will accentuate the good things when dealing with Aguirre or talking about him. He also is hoping that Aguirre can provide leadership and be a “positive force” this season. But he admits that he expects the peace to be broken someday.

“I’m sure there will be a tantrum along the way because guys get upset,” MacLeod said. “But that’s no problem. There just is no room for prolonged tantrums. We have too much work to do.”

There are indications, beyond Motta’s departure, that lead one to think that Aguirre might stay in line. Isiah Thomas, who goes back with Aguirre to their childhood days on the West Side of Chicago, says he’s noticed a sense of purpose in his friend for the first time.

“He’s a man now; he has direction,” said Thomas. “Other guys in this league are just playing. If they win, it’s fine. If they lose, it’s fine. They look at the playoffs the same way. That’s not Mark’s purpose. He knows he has something to prove.”

Aguirre, who turned 28 this season, will be getting married in the summer to his college sweetheart, Angela Bowman, a member of a Dallas investment firm. Meyer subscribes to the theory that Aguirre’s marriage is an indication of his new maturity.

“I think he’s sown all his wild oats,” he said. “Marriage is going to be a stabilizing influence on Mark. The clowning around is over. He knows he’s getting older.”

The issue of age was driven home to Aguirre after a personally humiliating experience in the playoffs last season. He blamed himself for the team’s playoff failure, which might have been a bit harsh because Donaldson’s injury was probably as much of a factor for the team’s demise as was Aguirre’s uninspiring play.

Once the playoffs were over, Aguirre embarked on the most extensive conditioning offseason workout of his life. He dropped 25 pounds and weighed 221 at training camp, prompting Thomas to say, “He’s never been in better shape in all his life. He weighed more when he was in high school.”

Aguirre attributed his weight loss to admitting that he needed to improve, that his time in the NBA was limited, and that his chances of playing on a championship team are lessening. “You have to ask yourself, how many more years will this unit be together?” he said. “A lot of guys just fade away. They’re just the same player you see all the time. They never get better. I want to feel good when my career is all over.”

Aguirre has made his feelings known in his hometown. During the summer, he went back to Chicago and ran into Meyer’s son, Joey, now the DePaul head coach and an assistant when Aguirre helped transform DePaul from a dormant program into a national power. Aguirre’s attitude and conditioning regimen impressed Meyer.

“I could tell from the enthusiasm in his voice that he wanted to have a fresh start,” said the younger Meyer. “He was approaching it with a great attitude, which is step one. But will it work? That’s step two.”

It’s the biggest step for Aguirre.

[Aguirre finished the 1987-88 season as one of the NBA’s top scorers, helping to propel the Mavericks on a dizzying run to the Western Conference finals, where they lost to the Lakers in seven games. Not bad, and certainly an argument in favor of a more-mature Aguirre.

Well, not exactly. Aguirre still hadn’t silenced his critics in the Dallas workplace, and that now reportedly included a whispered and unexpected naysayer. As the Dallas Morning News’ Mitch Lawrence wrote after the playoff loss, “Sources say Mavericks coach John MacLeod has told several club executives privately that for the sake of team harmony and a good mental attitude, the team must deal Aguirre during the offseason if it expects to advance to the NBA finals.” Team owner Donald Carter dismissed the trade talk. He stood by Aguirre, saying “happiness didn’t have anything to do” with the Mavericks losing to the Lakers.

Carter, however, now stood as an all-powerful factor of exactly one. But a groundswell of popular opinion argued that the Mavericks should unload Aguirre for the good of the team, and Dallas fans finally began to boo their star midway through the following season. “Not much of my lifetime have I been booed,” Aguirre commented on a night that he scored 36 points in a win over Phoenix. He paused and then added, “This has been the most-difficult situation I’ve been in. I don’t know if I’m going to leave here, but I’m going to play either way.”

With Aguirre now such a full-blown divisive figure in Dallas, Carter finally caved—and Aguirre got his wish. In February 1989, Detroit forward Adrian Dantley for Aguirre. “Mad Mark,” as Dallas fans were calling him, was reunited with his childhood friend Isiah Thomas and welcomed to an NBA champion in the making.]

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